Trying to Sound Smart

I work part time as an English tutor at a local community college. I give all kinds of writing advice to all kinds of students. One of the most common bits of advice I give students is, “Don’t try to sound smart.” What I mean by that is the students should sound like themselves in their writing. Trying to sound smart is putting on a persona. It sounds stilted and fake when it’s better to sound natural. One of the ways I tell them to be yourself is not to use a thesaurus. If a word isn’t in your normal vocabulary, don’t use it.

Something struck me recently. I started to wonder if I’m following my own advice. And I guess it depends on how my advice is interpreted. For example, in a recent post, I used the word anathema. I’m pretty sure I’ve never spoken that word aloud before. It’s just not part of my active vocabulary. Although I didn’t need a thesaurus to find it or even a dictionary to give me the definition. It is a part of my passive vocabulary. While not as bad as needing a thesaurus, it feels like it goes against the spirit of my advice.

The thing is, I can’t tell if my writing sounds stilted and fake or not. Reading my own writing is a little like hearing a recording of my own voice. It always sounds better in my head. So, I’ll ask you, the reader, do I come off as trying to sound smart? Do I sound stilted or natural? I’m always trying to get better, so I’d really like to know.

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