5 Smart-Sounding Traps that Make You Look like a Newbie in Your College Writing

Beware these college writing mistakes!When working on a piece of college writing, naturally everyone wants to sound smart. Everyone wants the professor to be bowled over by brilliance. Naturally, many student writers begin writing a paper by looking for strategies that will convey their inner genius, often using the following five techniques. The trouble is, it’s your ideas that make you sound smart, and, in fact, the harder you try to sound smart, the more likely it is that it will backfire. That’s not to say these tactics will make you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about but they are a dead giveaway that you’re new to writing or unsure of yourself.

1. Beginning a Piece with a Definition

What’s the smartest book in the library? The dictionary, of course! (Though, maybe the encyclopedia ties.) Pre-college schooling reveres the dictionary, with activities like vocabulary tests and spelling bees, and for good reason. It’s important to know and use words correctly. It’s no surprise, then, that when considering a topic, many student writers turn first to the definition.

But the message this sends (regardless of whether it’s true) is that you don’t know what to say in the introduction of your paper, so you default to defining a word. Not only that, but if you quote, you communicate that you aren’t confident enough to define it in your own words.

Instead, it’s better to hook your reader with an introductory thought that says more about the subject than a mere definition and craft your introduction around your thesis statement, that is, the statement that expresses the gist of your paper’s ideas. If you must define words, keep it to special terms or special uses of ordinary words.

2. Loads of Latin Crutch Phrases/Abbreviations

Per se, etcetera, i.e., e.g.: If you’ve got a few of these in your paper and you use them correctly, it’s no big deal. (Hint: i.e. means roughly that is, while e.g. is used to introduce examples.) But, when they’re sprinkled through every third sentence, it looks like you’re putting on an act. In fact, some style guides, like APA, even recommend avoiding non-English abbreviations if at all possible. It makes it easier for you to write and easier for others to understand you.

3. Convoluted Sentence Structure

Yes, many intelligent authors use long sentences, but just as many use short ones. Those who do like long sentences use clear, approachable structure. If they play with normal word order, they are careful to do so sparingly. The goal of writing is to be understood, not to have the most complicated sentence. Let’s compare the first sentence of this paragraph to the convoluted version below.

While, in fact, long sentences are favored by many intelligent authors, short sentences have merit to an equal number of intelligent writers.

Whoa! Not only does the second sentence have 57% more words (22 instead of 14), I’ll bet it would take you more than 57% more time to read if it had been used first. This sentence commits two terrible writing sins: First, it uses far more words than necessary. Second, it buries the true subject of the first part (the while clause) in passive voice. Passive voice is the structure in which “x is done by y” (or, worse, “x is done” and we don’t know who did it) instead of “y does x.” The second part (beginning “short sentences have merit”) isn’t technically passive voice, but it still buries the subject in a passive way. Think about it. If something has merit to someone, wouldn’t it be much clearer to say someone likes/values/prefers/uses something?

4. Thesaurus Button (Sometimes Found under Synonyms, Depending on Your Word Processor)

I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll talk about it again because it is so important. Do not use words you don’t know. Just because the thesaurus button says it is a synonym, doesn’t mean it is an exact match in the context of what you are writing.

For example, I ran the synonyms function in Word 2013 on “match” in the previous sentence. It gave me some useful substitutes, like “counterpart” and “equal,” but I also got words like “game” and “competition.” What if I’d altered the sentence to say “…it is an exact competition in the context of what you are writing”? Doesn’t make much sense.

Thesauri can be useful tools, but they are meant to remind you of words you already know, not lead you to use unfamiliar words.

5. In Conclusion

If you’re beginning the final wrap up of your paper, you don’t need to start with the words “In conclusion.” The reader will figure it out. These words are doubly unnecessary when they come under a heading titled “Conclusion,” “Final Thoughts,” or something similar. It’s an easy trap to fall into, because many speakers will use these exact words when giving a presentation. In that context, listeners will be glad for lots of heads-up phrases letting them know where they are in the speech, but those same phrases feel a bit Captain Obvious when actually written down. After all, you can the length of a written piece, and you can scan it to find your relative position.

Don’t Sound Smart; Be Smart.

Trying to get the words right can be stressful, but you can chill out a bit. Beautiful sentences are an admirable goal, but, ultimately, good academic writing is less about the words you use than it is about coming up with new and exciting ideas. Write your papers so that those ideas shine through clear. Use understandable language to show off just how smart you really are.

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