By Dr. Ryan Zroka, Director of Critical Reading
A few years ago, a student stopped by my office. She announced that she’d finished her big term paper.
“But—” she added, with the apologetic air of someone taking a needless precaution, “I’d like you to
read it over one last time before I turn it in, just in case there’s anything I need to tweak.”
Nothing in this exchange seemed to signal the beginning of a productive conversation. But I agreed to
read it over and give her my thoughts.
For the next twenty minutes or so, we sat in silence. The student must have supposed that I
coating to apply to the advice I was about to give her. (Judging by her straight-A demeanor and
“Viewed from a world-historical concept, Montaigne’s bifurcated interpretation is indicative of various
pathways of understanding, initially accounting for the subjectivity of people, places and things, yet also
encompassing national and cultural solipsism, rooted in the intellectual notion of a transhistorical
position…” (Here I start to feel my attention wandering again.)
Even after the fourth or fifth re-read, I had not the slightest clue what these words were actually
a mass of superfluous adjectives, schizophrenic circumlocutions, and dorm-room philosophizing.
If that sounds harsh, let me assure you that the point of this story is not to pick on one naively
For most of our school lives, we’re trained to write down other people’s ideas. We describe the plots of
novels, and summarize laboratory procedures. And so long as we’re reasonably brushed up on our
alphabet, this is usually not too hard a task.
But at some point in our education, usually towards the end of our high school careers, we’re asked to
write down our own ideas. This is an altogether different task, and infinitely more difficult. First we’ve
got to think through a million pieces of conflicting evidence, so that you can figure out what you actually
want to say. And then we’ve got to somehow set those thoughts down on paper in a way that another
human being can follow.
When we first find ourselves up against this challenge – feeling inadequate and overmatched – we do
what humans almost always do in this situation: we fake it. We take our own half-formed thoughts and
we try to dress them up as something profound. Keep in mind, too, that when a sixteen-year-old sets
out to make something sound “profound,” they’ve got a pretty limited number of models to draw from.
So we borrow a bit of Fitzgerald or Thoreau (or whatever we’re reading in AP Lang). Add in a few dashes
of politi-speak and the King James Bible. Make liberal use of Shift+F7. And we end up with something
that looks like, well, the essay of that poor girl in my office.
Very occasionally, this style of writing might be enough to get a B- from an overworked teacher. But any
serious reader – say, a college professor, or a college admissions reader – will immediately understand
the scam you are running. They will see that you’re trying to make something that simply sounds smart,
rather than something that actually is smart – that has something thoughtful, nuanced and original to
It gets worse. By trying to write like James Joyce, you will probably end up obscuring or neglecting the
interesting ideas that you really do have. Down deep somewhere, almost every student has something
to say – an interesting take, a new perspective. And when I sit and talk with my students, face to face,
they usually end up being able to state these ideas reasonably well. But when they try to set these ideas
down on paper, they get lost, buried in a landslide of misapplied jargon and unnecessary verbiage.
Rather than do the hard work of explaining and clarifying our ideas, they spend their time just making
them sound fancy.
If your reader cannot understand what you are saying, or can’t bear to make the attempt, then your
piece of writing has failed, and no amount of big words will save it. And this is why, dear reader, clarity
comes ahead of everything else. Forget big words. Forget Faulknerian turns of phrase. Smash the F7 key
on your laptop. Express yourself in plain language.
When I say “plain” here, I don’t mean bland or basic or bureaucratic. I’m not telling you to make your
essays sound like a DMV handbook. Nor am I telling you to thoughtlessly pepper your writing with slang
or informalities. When I say “plain language,” I mean a style of writing that corresponds to the ways that
you normally speak. Even in the age of smartphones, we first learn to communicate verbally – through
face-to-face conversations. And this continues to be the mode of communication where we express
ourselves most easily and naturally. So, you can use this as guide or model when you write. When you
are composing a sentence, ask yourself “would I ever actually speak these words? Can I imagine myself
ever actually saying this in a conversation?” If the answer is a definitive “no,” then I can pretty much
guarantee that you that you reader will find it strange or confusing.
By the same token, it is usually ok to do the same things in your writing that you would do in a
conversation – a joke, an aside, the occasional use of the first person. Different teachers, of course, will
pick nits about different things. But I never knew a teacher who was outraged by having to read
something that had a little wit and energy.
I know, dear reader, that you probably still don’t believe anything I’m saying. Some bad habits run too
deep to be fixed with a simple talking-to. Fine. But to all you skeptics I say: go and see for yourself. Read
an opinion piece on the New York Times, or an article in Scientific American. Or you can even go for
something really high-brow, The New Yorker or the London Review of Books. And you will see — nobody
writes in the kind of grand, philosophical style that you are trying to emulate.
Got it? Good. So maybe just think twice the next time you’re tempted to say “pedestrianize” instead of