Are You Trying to Be Too Smart?

Old SchoolmasterAs a professional writer, your vocabulary is literally your stock in trade. Other businesses have huge stockrooms full of whatever they sell – frozen food, Gucci shoes, leather satchels… You, you have words.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve taken some pains to make sure your stock hasn’t been the same since 1997. You read good magazines and periodicals, and you take note of new words when they’re used. If a friend happens to use a word that is new to you in conversation, you may very well follow up on it just because it sounded especially delightful (thanks to my friend Tess for “perspicacious” and my exasperated eighth-grade English teacher for “puerile”).

In all that vocabulary gathering, though, have you overdone it? Does your website copy look like you’re trying to impress that professor who won’t give out an A unless you blind him with such stunning prose that he rocks back in his leather-upholstered chair, glassy-eyed, pipe askew, groping blindly with his grading pen?

It’s easy to do, especially if you’ve been writing for industries that use academic language or jargon all the time. After browsing their current website, their materials, and their mentions of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, you’re going to have a hard time writing them a page of copy or a press release that isn’t peppered with six-syllable words.

Even if you don’t pick up the academic style and aren’t at all influenced by what you read, you may find yourself writing at a higher level of language just to impress the client or because you think that’s what they want. After all, these are clearly very smart people. It’s only natural to want to show off the fact that you’re smart too, an expert in your field.

As evidenced, of course, by your perspicacious vocabulary.

However, the reason these clients hired you to write for them is because they wanted someone who didn’t talk like them. Who could speak plain language. Who could help them reach people. Who could make their website copy better (and simpler).

They’re looking for a copywriter who can make their ideas, their products, and their company sound appealing to someone outside their own special little group of smarty-pants.

And if you’re trying to be a smarty-pants instead of a copywriter, you’re going to wind up failing on the job they hired you to do. That’s no good for either of you.

The danger of academic writing is that it’s very hard to shake once it’s stuck in your brain. I have a few friends who recently graduated law school. For a few months afterward, they were incapable of sending me a link to a YouTube video on Facebook without getting long-winded.

Twitter was absolutely out of the question. 140 characters was maybe enough for three words. It was very bad.

If you catch yourself going academic, try doing yourself a favor and writing everything as simply as possible. Over-simplify, if you will. Pretend you’re writing for a seven-year-old, and explain everything in words that seven-year-old would understand.

Even better, find an actual seven-year-old. That kiddo will cure you of academic-speak in NO time.

Ever caught your writing shifting towards over-academic?

Post by Taylor

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a twenty-something copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO. She’s the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.

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  1. Kudos to reference the seven-year-old, an analogy I frequently allude when dealing with corporate mission statements, state laws, and the like. It recollects back to Peter Lynch’s books on stock picking from the early 1990s with the takeaway that if a seven-year-old can’t explain what the company does, it’s not a company stock you want to buy.
    .-= Ari Herzog´s last blog ..Boost Corporate Branding and Add That Blog Comment =-.

  2. BWoz Daily says:

    Luckily I never tried very hard to pick up a fancy vocabulary in college. In the real world, no one gives a crap what new word I learned today. If I can’t find it in my pocket dictionary I don’t use it. Now I just have to fight the urge to write long sentences and use complicated grammar.
    .-= BWoz Daily´s last blog ..Self-Flagellation: How NOT To Keep Up With The News =-.

  3. “Ever caught your writing shifting towards over-academic?” Yes I did!

    I used to take the way my clients talk as a reference for writing, but that changed more and more into the way I talk over the years. That’s not academic at all. My trade is to make difficult things look simple and easy.

    Once I wrote a speech for a bank person, who had difficulty with one particular three-syllable word, can’t remember what it was. He didn’t know the word. Was afraid of it.

    After rewriting that bit I heard him use the original words in his speech (draft one). He got to like the jargon, obviously.

    Love you blog, by the way!

  4. I generally have no problem with this because I have no access to a thesaurus… I have read a few things where it does really just look like somebody has come along after and changed every other word with one out of a thesaurus and it was frankly laughable.
    .-= Jeff Awesome@Generally Speaking´s last blog ..Haiti Earthquake – 13 Days On =-.

  5. Mary E. Ulrich says:


    Miles Horton was the great teacher and civil rights leader who started the Highlander Center. This is where Rosa Parks and Union leaders trained in the art of non-violent protest. In his book, he says that after he got his doctorate degree, he took off with the “hobos” who hopped trains–“to get it out of his system.”

    I think academics should be required to use Twitter everyday to learn to be concise (love your line that they would probably only have three words).

    Heard someone say, “A stitch in time, saves nine” yesterday and thought that Ben Franklin would have loved Twitter. John Adams–not so much.

  6. Academic writing is allright if it’s done on the right site.
    What’s repulsive are those academic snobs which abound
    on literary websites.
    .-= poch´s last blog ..The Torn Picasso and Other Catasrtophes =-.

  7. I don’t work with clients in this manner, so my experience isn’t as useful as others, but I will say that sometimes, it’s just nice to speak “smart” because it moves you into new ways of thinking.

    Sure, a fitness blog needs content on a 8th or 9th grade level, but it’s also interesting to think about how you can use language to define and choose your audience.
    .-= Nathan Hangen´s last blog ..Don’t Mistake Traffic for Trust =-.

  8. Guilty as charged. On numerous occasions I have done rewrites to bring the language down a notch or two. The funny part is that I don’t talk like that. However, many of the books that I read use “big words”, so I think that bleeds into my writing now and again.
    .-= Todd´s last blog ..Losing It and Keeping Fit!-Review =-.

  9. I was listening to a favorite song of mine one day, and at one point, the singer mutters this strange, foreign French word.


    “Perspicace,” I whispered, trying the word out. Felt good. Nice. I liked how it sounded. And had no idea what it meant.

    I called 7 different French people that day. Not one knew what it meant. Not one person could translate it. How useless was that great word?

    Pretty damned useless until I read Tei’s post and crowed, “Perspicacious! HA! I know what that means!”

    Two points for me.

  10. I love perspicacious! Just as a word, not to use on anything.

    I dislike jargon, so I don’t tend to go academic, but I’ve been accused (rightly) of being cryptic. Really need to fix that. It’s not as easy as you might think.
    .-= Stacey Cornelius´s last blog ..Who wants to be an artist? =-.

  11. Michael Martine says:

    Smart people never feel talked down to or patronized when we write simply, economically. There’s a point to using the exact right word, which may send folks scrambling for their dictionaries, but even that has a better home in fiction than blog marketing.

    Never use a large word when a small one will do. Never write long sentences when short ones will do. Never write long paragraphs on the web, period.
    .-= Michael Martine´s last blog ..Why Your Customers Might Be Your Biggest Untapped Resource =-.

  12. I have actually done the opposite. I helped co-author a couple journal articles back in undergrad with a professor and from time-to-time the feedback from the journal review board was in essence, not enough big words. It’s a shame that academia is so wrapped up in “looking smart” as opposed to writing meaningful things people can digest and understand without a Ph.D.
    .-= Jenny´s last blog ..Equilibrium is Killing My Coffee =-.

  13. Read Mark Twain and K.I.S.S.
    .-= Mike A´s last blog ..Massive Product Recall by J&J =-.

  14. I write like I talk. The problem is I talk with big words. I don’t mean do it on purpose. They’re just part of the vocabulary that I learned while reading a wide variety of books.

    I once had a coworker, an educated and well-spoken one, turn around and look at me and say that he’d never heard anyone actually use words that reminded him of the SAT before.

    So I often need to go back over my writing and make sure nothing slipped in there that shouldn’t have.
    .-= Beth Robinson´s last blog ..Manufacturing B2B Examples in Social Media =-.

  15. Many years ago I worked in Intelligence and part of the job was writing reports. One of the other guys and I would have competitions to see who could use the most obscure word. After a couple of weeks we were asked to use plain language because the people reading the reports were fed up with having to use a dictionary all day.

    I have a book somewhere on writing and it suggests using the ‘Check Readability’ option in Word to check the Flesch Reading Ease score and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. Reading ease should be 60% or better and the Grade Level should be grade 9 or less. Seems to be good advice. 🙂
    .-= Melinda | SuperWAHM´s last blog ..Book Giveaway – ‘Book Yourself Solid’ =-.

  16. The writers I love to read are the ones who make me feel smart, while using every day words in a way that makes regular readers step up a notch to read their pieces. I feel flattered when I read something that talks to me as if I know what he’s talking about, and yet I really do.
    .-= TravelinOma´s last blog ..Remotely Familiar =-.

  17. I’m a huge fan of Dickens, Trollope and really any Victoria fiction. I had no idea what that did to my vocabulary until I lived in a rooming house while at university. Two women in the kitchen area we shared–one turns to the other and says: ‘Is she speaking English?’ An interesting lesson in suiting your vocabulary to your audience.

  18. I’ve frequently complained of late that I’ve had to simplify my communications in my current corporate workplace. I acquired a respectable vocabulary through high school and college, and although it’s waned somewhat since then it’s still not too shabby. I’m in Enterprise Software Development in a massive corporation, and unfortunately the variety of people and their levels of education, fields of expertise and native languages have driven my writing to consist almost entirely of single-sentence paragraphs, bullet lists, and a 4th grade vocabulary.

    At least I still get numerous compliments on my writing.

  19. I believe in using the right word for the job, and if that happens to be an unusal one, so be it. I once heard it said that there are, in fact, no synonyms in the English language, and they were right!

    Having said that, the finest compliment ever paid to me was by the editor of a techie weekly computer magazine who said I’d written about something in a way that turned out to be ideal for the literacy level of the average 11 year old. He wasn’t being sarcastic either!
    .-= Terry Freedman´s last blog ..Web 2.0 For Rookies: Commenting =-.

  20. I guess I am under academic if anything. Simplicity is key for me to get my points across as clearly as possible.
    .-= Dave´s last blog ..Get Paid To Take Paid Surveys Online =-.

  21. When it comes to copywriters, sometimes the less you know, the more you can appeal to the common man. You have to sometimes make sure you don’t get too close to the business to be able to write about them in a way that people understand and not get caught up in the jargon.

  22. In the “jeunesse” of my occupation as and essayist, I promptly discerned that my vociferous use of the more brutal forms of our shared idiom made it far more probable that I possess a natural empathy with, dare I say even a benevolence for, the common man. My chosen language is the patois of the everyman. Through this confederacy of like minds, this perspicuous camaraderie, I know that I have never left that “vie quotidienne,” that magnificent humdrum, for the lofty plains of the imagined intellectual.
    .-= Steve St. Clair´s last blog ..By: Content writing – somethin’ on | IonLeap – SEO fails without Blog Writer Team =-.

  23. I understand what you’re saying, I think. Writing so the average high school graduate can comprehend without strain is probably a good thing to aim for on a blog, unless it is an academic blog where a higher level is expected.

    I don’t see this as a problem. In fact, I recently wrote an article about the awful, nearly unreadable English on numerous blogs these days.

    I believe there is a more serious problem with people who don’t know how to write well enough to effectively communicate. Many of the A-Listers encourage poor writing. The idea is, post often, don’t worry about the writing, just get your content out there every day.

    I don’t like the idea of dumbing down communication anymore than it already is. This is not to say that effectual writing has to be dull or pedantic, or make use of ten dollar words. Simply write for your audience, and use the best style of proper English you can.

    Thanks for bringing up this subject. And thanks for giving me the opportunity to give my opinion.

  24. Good advice.

    As copywriters we are not writing for ourselves or to show off our prowess. We write best when we know our audiences and write directly, clearly, and cleanly as one of them.

    I trained as a playwright and I find that my writing follows my ear. If I can listen to a subject matter expert in the field, I can find a successful voice to write in. It’s very different from reading what they write, which can be jargon filled and stiff. Hearing them talk about the subject, their experience, and the problems and issues they face makes it so much easier for me to write naturally for the intended audience.

    I feel the most intellectual, the most powerful as a writer, when I completely disappear.
    .-= Randy Murray´s last blog ..Writing Assignment: Capturing Dialog =-.

  25. Oh gosh, I admit, I’m not the best writer but I suppose for me I want to just get the message out there. There are no three dollar words used on my sites at all.

    They say that for the web you should write simply as you say above, the level of a third grader I think it was.

    As you say, it is to get your point across and not to sound like a smarty pants. One day, I hope to be one, but then no one will want to listen to what I have to say. He he..


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