We all want to sound smart, but how do you sound smart in writing?
In fact, what makes those who ‘sound smart’ sound, well, smart?
Is it about what they say, or is it in how they say it?
Does substance or style count for more when we’re trying to impress?
Among the various factors which affect the way we judge whether or not we find someone ‘intelligent’, I’ve noticed over the years that one behavioural trait always seems to appeal, and that’s the habit of using ‘big words’.
What’s the deal with using ‘big words’?
To start, it’s probably a good idea to clarify what I mean by ‘big words’.
The way I see it, ‘big words’ are not necessarily polysyllabic (although they can often be of Latinate origin). They are, however, definitely not mainstream, and they don’t often pertain to basic, pedestrian concepts.
But I must point out that what may seem like a ‘big word’ to me could be a perfectly normal word to another person.
A rhetorician’s ‘antimetabole’ is a biologist’s ‘oxidoreductases’, so what constitutes ‘big’ (in the sense of difficult) can be relative.
On the other hand, a very short word like “mien” or “fey” could qualify as a ‘big word’ by virtue of being niche, while lengthier words such as “extraordinary” or “artificiality” have long gained popular usage and as such, probably wouldn’t fall within most people’s ‘big word’ basket.
At this point, I must confess that I used to be a compulsive ‘big word user’, but being now older and a tad bit wiser, I don’t think using ‘big words’ is necessarily a sign of intelligence, or even of good writing.
That said, I maintain a frivolous interest in keeping a personal lexicon of ‘big words’, which is perhaps similar to the way a car aficionado collects vintage automobiles, but never has any practical use for them.
My reasoning for why ‘big words’ don’t always reflect intelligent writing is simple, and it has to do with a defining quality that smart people and good writing share:
Both are easily understood by others.
If people understand what you’re saying, it means you’ve conveyed your message effectively, and effective communication is the cornerstone of success in an interaction-driven society.
For what is the use of a genius brain, if its owner can’t express her thoughts and convince the world of her genius?
I should also caveat that ‘academic people’ aren’t exactly the same as ‘smart people’. Many academics are incredibly erudite (but often only in their very narrow fields of interest), and while some are definitely very smart, this is not always the case. And God forbid if anyone thinks the opaque prose in PhD dissertations qualifies as ‘good writing’ – it doesn’t.
So… are ‘big words’ a big no-no in writing, then?
Why, then, are some of us still convinced that someone’s preference for using a phrase like “meretricious persiflage” over “trashy conversation”, or the casual-not-so-casual Latinate allusion to “apropos of” rather than the considerably more demotic “regarding”, is a sure marker of intellectual capital?
And why does the American Graduate Record Examination (GRE), an entrance test for applicants of US postgraduate programs, specifically test its candidates on difficult, and at times archaic, vocabulary? Surely, it’s ironic to consider the knowledge of niche words a life skill when the majority of people don’t understand and won’t use these words.
But here’s the catch, and it’s an important one which very much justifies the existence of ‘big words’:
Difficult vocabulary isn’t a matter of practical use; it’s a socio-economic asset, an intangible bearing of cultural refinement, the verbal equivalent to an investment in gold and precious metals.
Bluntly put, it is a manner of speech that shows ‘I’m educated, therefore I am’ in way more syllables than is necessary – and as such, commands bewildered respect.
‘Big words’ are also surprisingly useful for covering up muddled thought, or for when there is really nothing to say, but you still have to say something (and sound impressive while at it!)
In this light, there’s definitely value to throwing in a lexical caterpillar or two in our writing, lest others aren’t aware that we’re the ‘well-educated sort’, even when what we’re doing is to compensate for the absence of content with the abundance of what Hamlet calls ‘words, words, words’.
So, while using ‘big words’ can indeed make our writing sound smart (provided that they’re used correctly, of course!), this tactic alone won’t create truly intelligent prose, which is instead the product of clear thought, genuine emotion, and sharp observation.
Basically, if you have a point to make, feel strongly about it, and know how to describe it in a way that’s faithful to your vision, then you’re on track to writing some damn good stuff, ‘big words’ or otherwise.
1) How to write with clear thought
I often get asked by others on how they can improve their writing, and I always start by saying this:
Writing isn’t just about putting words on the page.
Writing is about thinking, feeling, processing, observing, reflecting, and doing these things for enough times until you get to a mental place where you’re finally ready to put pen to paper.
The act of writing itself is simply the execution; the process that precedes the execution is key.
This is why great writers are also always great thinkers.
In general, there are two camps of writers: those who see writing as a medium to convey ideas, and those who see writing as an art form – an aesthetic end in and of itself.
Literary scholars call this distinction ‘Didacticism’ vs ‘Aestheticism’ (‘big word’ alert!), with people like Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot falling in the first group, and those like Oscar Wilde and John Keats in the second. Most authors fall somewhere in between the spectrum.
But thinking about this distinction is where we should all start: do you write because you have a point to make or prove?
Or do you write for the sake of showcasing the beauty of language and style?
If the latter, then perhaps you’d be justified to use more rhetorical flourish than is ‘necessary’. Either way, we’re good – we just need to make our minds up before proceeding.
That said, even with the ‘Aestheticists’, there’s always some sort of agenda and ‘hidden message’ in any piece of writing. In fact, the act of showing that ‘I’m not writing to communicate anything in particular’ is, well, communicating a message.
To ensure that you know what, why and how you’re writing, then, it’s important that we ask ourselves the following questions:
- What sort of audience are you targeting?
- What message do you want to communicate?
- Why does your message matter to your audience?
- How will your audience change for having read your writing? (This could be for better or worse – it just depends on your agenda)
To use this very article as my example, these are my answers:
- What sort of audience am I targeting?
English learners (students and adults) with a solid understanding of the language, but wish to improve their reading and writing skills
- What message do I want to communicate?
Writing well isn’t just about using ‘big’, impressive vocabulary. There are other more important factors, such as clarity in thought, depth of emotion and sharpness of observation, which go into ‘good writing’
- Why does my message matter to my audience?
It matters because anyone who wants to do well in English must understand what it takes to express oneself effectively on paper.
- How will my audience change for having read my writing?
My audience will (hopefully) understand what it is they should focus on in order to write well.
If you can’t answer these four questions in succinct responses, then that probably means you need to go back to the drawing (or writing) board and think about why you’re writing in the first place.
Determine your purpose first; the writing will come afterwards.
2) How to write with genuine emotion
This may seem slightly confusing to some, especially for those who don’t write fiction or narrative essays. But my point here is precisely that emotion must fuel any act of writing, regardless of whether the piece is argumentative, descriptive or expository in nature.
This is because emotion bespeaks conviction; emotion is what gives credibility to your purpose, which in turn allows you to affect those you’re addressing with the same kind of purpose you hold.
This idea is broadly relevant to Aristotle’s concept of pathos, which refers to the power of speech to evoke an audience’s feeling of pity or sympathy towards a topic or person. Of course, when it comes to the range of emotions writers seek to evoke in readers, it’d be a lot more diverse than just pity or sympathy – pleasure, melancholy, anxiety, anger – these are all common emotions we encounter in novels, articles, poems etc.
What’s important, though, is that you, the writer, must feel these emotions yourself in the process of writing.
So, if you’re writing an op-ed article about the gross double-standards of your government’s lockdown directives, then you need to be genuinely riled up about the issue before you can write a convincing piece on it.
Likewise, if you’re trying to describe the beauty of pastoral landscape, then you’d have to be genuinely in awe of nature in order for your descriptions to strike a chord with your readers.
While we don’t necessarily have to have experienced whatever we’re writing about, we should at least feel something about the bigger idea behind what we’re relaying.
But what if you don’t really care about the topic you’re writing on? Like an essay on the importance of recycling when you just don’t give two hoots about environmental conservation? If that’s the case, then I’d advise that you either pick another topic, or failing that, apply empathy and consider how it could at all relate to your own life.
For instance, how would you feel if one day, landfills overpopulate to the point they make themselves neighbours of your home?
If you’re more of a visual person, perhaps you could look up images related to whatever topic you’re writing about, which is also a good way to stimulate both emotion and thought.
In any case, writing sans feelings will always fall flat and fail to engage. So, next time you write something, ask yourself these questions before you start:
- What are your feelings towards what you’re writing about?
- How do you expect your readers to feel after reading what you’ve written?
3) How to write with sharp observation
What does it mean to ‘observe’?
Most of us may think of seeing when we hear this word, but ‘observation’ actually goes way beyond the faculty of sight. It also requires attentive listening and active reflection.
After all, the entirety of a person isn’t just limited to her appearance, mannerisms and actions – speech also plays a huge part in telling us about someone’s values, personality, socio-economic and cultural background.
It’s also not enough to just ‘see’ and ‘hear’, for our observations wouldn’t be meaningful if we didn’t then process and reflect on whatever it is we saw and heard from others.
For example, what does it mean when we see a woman decked out in Hermes and Gucci cap-a-pie shopping at the bargain aisle of the supermarket?
What do we know from noticing that someone speaks unidiomatically, but has an affected, posh accent?
And what do we know from seeing a wife flinch from the touch of her husband, despite being all smiles and looking like the perfectly contented half of a poster married couple?
To be a good writer, then, you must also be a good observer of people, which would require you to be interested in people in the first place.
This is why journalists tend to be good writers; their entire livelihood depends on paying attention to people.
The curious ones work at broadsheets and the nosy ones work at tabloids, but either way, newspapers are basically human observatories.
So, if you want to develop sharper observation skills, start behaving like a journalist: notice the way people walk, talk, react, interact, and ask yourself –
- Why does he/she do what they do, or say what they say? What’s the agenda behind it? What’s the emotion?
- If I could interview the person I’m observing, what would I ask him/her?
- Where have I seen this kind of behaviour or situation before? What was the context back then? Is it similar or different from the one I’m looking at now?
- Why is the person and/or situation I’m observing relevant to my audience?
You will see, then, that much of great writing happens beyond the page, if not before the stage when the pen touches the paper. It requires strong purpose, emotional investment, human interest – and a lot of self-reflection.
It is also only after we’ve established the presence of these elements in our writing that we should think about what words to use, and if there is a need to use any ‘big words’.
To clarify, I am not anti-big words. Far from it, in fact. As a self-professed logophile, I consider my occasional tendency to use niche vocabulary a weakness, but it’s a weakness I’m very much willing to indulge.
I enjoy the freedom of being able to use the word “nomenclature” rather than “terms” when I want to, and it excites me to come across lexical strangeness in the form of words like “nudiustertian” and “terpsichorean” (not to mention the quasi-eponymous “jentacular”).
But does the inclusion of ‘big words’ in an essay make for great writing? No. Absolutely not.
Strong purpose, emotional investment, and human interest through self-reflection – that’s what it’s all about.
I know I’ve already said that, but it’s important enough to warrant repeating.
How do you make your writing ‘sound smart’?
Which of the elements do you find most important?
Comment below and let me know your thoughts! I’d love to hear from you.