So often in school and in life, we try to sound smarter, more sincere, more informed than we may actually be. We feign knowledge of the statistics about the gallons of oil in the Gulf when the discussion comes up because we want to appear “in the know.” We say we are “deeply committed to” – pick your cause – when we’re interesting in getting to know someone better, and then we rush home to look up the cause so that we can say more the next time. We use words in papers that sound good, even when we’re not sure what they mean.

I see this often in first papers from students. Suddenly, there are all these big words and fancy phrases – particularly phrases that say nothing in more words (“due to the fact that” is my favorite). A student will discuss how something was ostentatious, when what she really wanted to say was “ostensibly.” Or someone will lift a quote out of a text and incorporate it in the middle of their paper; their goal isn’t to plagiarize – it’s to sound smarter.

Yet, in papers and in life, when we try to sound like someone we’re not, when we pretend to know words or ideas or facts that we don’t know, we look foolish, not smarter. We only call attention to our ignorance by faking knowledge. As the old adage goes, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and let them think you a fool than to open your mouth and prove it.

The advice I always give my students is to write like you; don’t try to write like me or your fifth grade teacher who ate potato chips with a fork (yes, mine actually did that) or like you think a college student should write like. Just write like yourself. You can clean it up and be more formal than you would in a text message – “u” is not a word, people – but you don’t have to impress me by using big words. The truth is that you’ll probably only make yourself sound worse. Just write what you mean and mean what you write. It’s that simple.

Big Words Cartoon“Big Words” by Arthur Vandelay