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How to Sound Smart

There's a funny rite of passage people seem to go through between high school, college, and the early part of their working years. They unlearn what it means to write well.

When you're young, you think "sounding smart" means using big, fancy words and impressing people with your voluminous lexicon. For nerdy kids, especially, each essay becomes a kind of show and tell to prove you're one of the smart ones.

But then as you get older, if you're honest with yourself, you realize the smartest people you know aren't using those big, fancy words. They're using simple words. But they're using them in a way that conveys something new and interesting.

What's up with that?

Spoiler alert: I was one of those nerdy kids. Now I'm a nerdy adult. So this is all very personal to me. Sounding smart, for most of my life, was a big deal. Maybe it was, or still is, for you. If that's the case, I hope what I'm about to tell you can, in some way, free you from this burden.

The thing that nobody tells you about writing well—the real secret to being impressive, if you will—is that word choice is a fool's errand. It's a shiny distraction. Sounding smart is about substance. It's about the plain arrangement of words to deliver an unexpected truth.

Here's a quick experiment to show you what I mean. Which one of these pieces makes the writer look better?

A) A long, wordy essay that forces you to stop and look up definitions

B) A crisp, plainly written essay that is easily understood on the first read

Option A is what a high-school junior picks, in bad-faith, because their ego wants to soothe itself. Option B is what everyone knows in their heart to be the smarter piece of writing.

This is because "smart" writing makes other people smarter. It uses everyday language to make sharing new knowledge easier. Good writing is generous, giving. Bad writing is selfish, withholding. Good writing serves the reader. Bad writing serves the writer.

The great paradox of sounding smart is that, to do it well, you must quiet every impulse telling you to sound smart in the first place. You have to ignore your reputation so that you can help your reader.

This, at its core, is the real reason writing is so hard. Most people simply aren't willing to leave their ego behind.

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