I’ve noticed that it is a universal desire among writers to sound good. I mean, think about it: your reader can’t see your face, can’t hear your voice, and probably doesn’t know you. Your words are all you have to prove that you know something or have a great idea. And so it’s only natural to want your writing to sound as smart and eloquent as an article from a scholarly journal or as brilliant and witty as an award-winning novel. How are people gonna believe you otherwise?
The truth is, you don’t have to sound smart or eloquent or brilliant or witty in order to write well. You just need to write clearly. Even if your writing comes out a little plain, it’s better to sound plain and have your readers understand you than it is to try too hard to sound like all the great writers and not make any sense at all. Besides, plain writing isn’t bad writing. If you’re writing an argumentative essay, you’ll probably want to use plain, clear writing, because if your readers can’t understand you, they won’t agree with you. Even if you’re writing a novel or short story, where people usually experiment with different writing styles, your goal is still to tell a story. If your readers don’t know what’s going on, they’re probably not gonna like that story.
The problem when writers focus on sounding a certain way is that they tend to focus on individual words and phrases rather than on the points they’re trying to make. And if you’re more focused on sounding like a famous writer or scholar, you end up writing bloated or inverted sentences that your readers get lost in. This isn’t just a new writer thing—I’ve been writing for almost 15 years, and I still have to remind myself not to worry about sounding smart or witty until my writing is clear and easy to understand.
Let’s say I’m writing a short paper on Maine Coon cats (I have two of them. Best cats ever), and I want to talk about how they got their name, I could say
“Thought to have received their origins in the state of Maine, Maine Coon cats acquired their name that they are now recognized by years later, and the second part came from their supposedly being descended from the breeding of wild cats and raccoons, as people believed, but despite that it is now debunked, people still call them by this name.”
Or, I could just say
“Maine Coons got their name because they originated in Maine and because of the myth that they came from the interbreeding of wild cats and raccoons.”
At first glance, Sentence #1 might look more eloquent, when in reality, I’m just cushioning two simple statements with extra words and phrases. I may have worked in some “better” verbs like received, acquired, recognized, but I didn’t actually need them to get my point across. Instead of being informative, Sentence #1 is cluttered and wordy, and my readers might have to read it two or three times to even know what I’m talking about. Sentence #2 is plain, simple, and maybe a bit choppy, but it makes sense. I could go back and smooth it out, but I don’t need to add more words or make it sound big or profound for it to be “good.”