How to (Not) Write like an Idiot.

Do you want to know the quickest way to make your reader roll their eyes in disgust? I’ll bet you do.

Here’s (one) secret to writing like an idiot:

Use really big words that you have a weak understanding of to make yourself sound smarter.

If you don’t want to write like an arrogant windbag, then for the love of Hemingway, don’t insert unwieldy words into perfectly acceptable sentences for the sake of being esoteric. A savvy reader will see right through your attempts at sounding highbrow. Write like you’ve got something to say, not like you’ve got something to prove about yourself.

(Speaking of Hemingway…I think I broke rule #20 on this useful list by writing under the influence of Nyquil.)

Writing for academia has trained us to write like drones. We use as many words as possible to meet an arbitrary word count, losing sight of our core argument in the process, or never having one at all. School’s out. It’s time to write like a writer. (And if it’s not out, then your professors will appreciate your heeding my advice anyway). Pack your sentences with power. Don’t let them dwindle into
interminable, convoluted, loquacious and generally extraneous tangents that are
in existence for the singular resolution to occupy as much space as possible while using the most grandiose verbature that you can find in order to facilitate a façade of coruscation because you honestly are lacking an abundance of mimmitation to eloquate in the first place.

Get to the damn point. By the way: you should have a point.

Don’t get me wrong- I love big words, and I love verbose writers, too. Mention Melville and I might make noises at a pitch equal to the squeal of
a Justin Bieber fan. However, Melville was a good writer. His verbosity
had a point to it, and he knew what all those big words meant. He used them
because they fit well, not because they had an impressive amount of syllables.
A wide vocabulary is impressive, when used well. It’s even fun. After all: who
doesn’t enjoy words like recalcitrant and superfluous? It’s when it’s used
incorrectly that it’s irritating.

Language should be musical, not mechanical.

I once watched a film in which someone asked a question similar to “What’s your opinion of grammar?” The shrugged response: “Rhythm.” Prose can be poetic. Sentences can flow as fluidly as songs, but not when an overeager egomaniac is showboating with an impossibly long solo. (I’m talking to you, Peter Frampton.)

How does one achieve graceful writing sans-showboating, you ask? Here are my suggestions:

  1.  Read a lot. Good writers sweep you into their prose with an intangible
    rip-tide of rhythm. Learn to look for it.
  2. Write a lot. Develop your own rhythm. Subtle alliteration helps. A basic understanding of grammar doesn’t hurt, either.
  3.  Inject your voice into your writing. Sometimes you’ll have to adjust the volume or tweak the bass, but don’t go silent altogether.
  4. Make each sentence as dense with meaning as possible. Big words and fumbling, meandering run-on sentences are all the rage in academia. However, they’re painful to read. If you can’t read your sentence out loud without pausing for a light snack and a bathroom break, it’s a bad sentence.
  5. Use a thesaurus (or a dictionary), for crying out loud- either one is freely available online at thesaurus.com or m-w.com. Use your vocabulary to punctuate your argument – don’t depend on it to avoid making one.
  6. Proofread, dammit! Nothing says “I barely care about this subject” like a handful of mistakes.

Don’t talk down to or otherwise coddle your audience. Don’t try to place yourself on a pedestal above them, either. Don’t try to forcibly insert multi-syllable words into your prose just for the sake of having them there. The most effective writing is both pragmatic and lyrical – it serves a purpose and flows naturally. Thoreau said it best: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, Simplify.”*

Yes. I’m learning, too.

 *(Notice he chose ‘frittered’ over ‘improperly allocated’

Disclaimer: Do as I say, not as I do! However, feel free to pick out samples of my own writing to fling in my face and call me a hypocrite. Also, feel free to defend Peter Frampton’s honor in the comment section below.

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6 responses to “How to (Not) Write like an Idiot.

  1. Hey Beth,

    Great points here. It’s the same in business. Silly technical talk doesn’t impress anyone but the person saying it. Blogging is all about understanding your audience. I think it’s good to blog how you talk, after all, a blog is all about being human.

    Robert

  2. Thanks, Robert! I like that you point out understanding the human-ness behind both the writer and the reader.

  3. I like this. It’s a cracking good read and so very true: there is nothing more annoying than a pretentious blowhard being multi-syllabic because he thInks it’s cool.

    You said to throw stones, however, so here are a couple of lovingly-tossed pebbles for consideration:

    1) I believe you should be referring to the number of syllables, not the amount of them, and

    2) It seems to me that ‘frittered away’ is being used in the sense of ‘wasted’, not ‘improperly allocated’, so your final lick of humour may be slightly off the mark.

    Other than that, no critique required.

    James

  4. Great advice, Beth. You’ve done an excellent job of practicing what — and while — you preach. (I know you weren’t really preaching, but that’s the expression.) I’m afraid your point number 6 will fall on mostly deaf ears, but maybe someone will listen. And thank you for adding this: “You should have a point.” I frequently find myself typing away, thinking some of it seems pretty good, but I have no idea what the point is. Sometimes, though, the very act of writing helps us find the point. And isn’t that an amazing thing?

  5. Touche! That’s probably how I do most of my writing. Writing, processing, then reshaping -after- I figure out what the heck I am talking about.

    Thank you!

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