Stop Being Superfluous: Why Fancy Words Are Killing Your Copy And Your Bottom Line

Build Your Audience
8 min read

Put. down. the. thesaurus.

Yeah, I’m talking to you. All you’re doing with that thing is making yourself sound silly. You’re not impressing anyone with your million-dollar, college words. It’s just not the way into your reader’s heart.

I get what you’re doing it. I used to love using my thesaurus. Using long sentences with big beautiful sounding words made me feel intellectual. But really, all it was doing was making me sound like I was trying too hard. And obviously, I was. If I had to look up a word, it wasn’t part of my vocabulary. Oh, the indiscretions of youth.

Here’s the trick to actually sounding smart- stop trying to sound smart!

Powerful writing is lean and clean. It’s easy to read and easy to understand. So let’s talk about how to clearly communicate.

Sounding smart doesn’t make you sound smart

Who doesn’t love perfectly placed alliteration or feeling witty and intellectual? Isn’t that the point of writing?

Not when it comes to writing for your business.

The point of writing for your business isn’t to make you feel warm and fuzzy. The point of writing for your business is to help you sell.

You’re not creating a masterpiece that will live forever in the hearts of your subscribers. They’re going to read it and then continue on with their day. Mostly likely, no matter how much time you spend on those 500-1,000 words, no one’s going to remember it 10 minutes later.

I get that you want to sound smart, but what you’re doing is the exact opposite. Don’t believe me? Princeton actually did an experiment on this in 2005.

In “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” (hilarious name, right?), Daniel Oppenheimer proves that simple writing makes you sound smarter.

For his experiment, Oppenheimer took real college admission essays and replaced some of the simpler words in them with more complicated ones. Then they gave these altered essays to study participants to read and rate the competency and confidence level of the authors. Come to find out, the authors of the essays with complicated language were rated lower than the ones with simpler language.

And to make sure his first test wasn’t a fluke, Oppenheimer then took essays that used complicated language and changed some wording around to simpler ones. Study participants still rated the simpler language authors more competent.

So, if you choose to live by the principles of this experiment, your writing should always lean toward the easy-reader side of the spectrum. Not only will you sound like you know what you’re talking about, it will also help your readers understand what you’re talking about.

“If your employees struggle to understand what you’re saying, your policies and your communications to them are less effective.” – Oppenheimer

Using language that your reader has to stop and try to understand will only make them A) frustrated and B) confused. And when they’re confused that leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding and nothing gets done at that point.

5 steps to keep your writing real

If the purpose of writing is to communicate and your reader can’t understand what you’re trying to say, what’s the point of writing at all?

Being smart about how you communicate is all about keeping it real. Your writing should be understandable, approachable, and simple. If you’re not sure how to make that happen, here are five steps to help you get there:

Use laymen’s terms.

“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no words left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” –C.S. Lewis

Sometimes that can sound a little offensive, but you don’t do this because your readers are dumb. You do it because you’re up against a lot of other distractions.

Think about how many different directions a reader’s mind is taking with every second. They don’t want to think about what a newsletter means. They want to see an offer- plain and simply stated- and make a quick decision on whether or not to click to buy.

In college when I took media writing courses, I was told to write at a fifth grade reading level. At the time I thought that was completely underserving the audience. But really it’s more to help them ingest information quicker.

So why endeavor when you can try? Why commence when you can start? And why inquire when you can ask?

A tool I love to use to make sure I’m meeting that goal is Hemingway App. Val mentioned it in her 6 Free Powerful Writing Tools post and it’s a real game-changer. Check it out. I copied this very article into Hemingway and in an instant I knew what reading level I was writing for, what words were too complicated, and what I might want to consider changing!

stop using big words and clearly communicate


“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.”- Coco Chanel

Even fashion icon Coco Chanel knew the importance of editing. It’s all about taking one more glance at your work and removing at least one thing – because there’s always something you can remove.

Sometimes writing a really long version of a piece is the best way to get your ideas out of your mind. Just don’t let it stay that long. Here’s a couple tips for editing:

  • Rewrite it over and over again to make it tighter.
  • Take out multiple quotes that say the same thing.
  • Find the bigger paragraphs and cut out a sentences or two.
  • Change passive verbs to action verbs.

As long as you go through your writing more than once, you can be sure you’re left with only essential information.

Kill the fluff.

Word count is not how you measure good copy- especially if your words don’t add value. What I mean is – don’t use filler words to add length.

Fluff words are the ones that can be removed from sentences without altering the intention. They aren’t necessary and therefore can be shown out the door. Why be fluffy if you can simply state a fact?

Fluff words to get rid of:

  • Very
  • Little
  • Rather
  • That
  • In order to
  • Really
  • So
  • Much
  • Basically
  • More
  • All
  • Just

Let it feel effortless.

“What one takes most pains to do, should look as if it had been thrown off quickly, almost without effort. Take infinite pains to make something that looks effortless.”- Michelangelo

When you’re going out of your way to use big words and long sentence structures, your writing is going to feel overworked. And when it feels heavy and forced like that, it usually means it’s not going to be fun to read.

Writing in shorter sentences and using common words makes your work seem effortless. No matter how much time and effort you put into your writing, you still don’t want to it feel that way. It shouldn’t feel like you broke your back after hours hunched over your keyboard. Reading your work should feel like the thoughts came free-flowing from that brilliant mind of yours.

Put your reader first.

And as always, the value your audience gets from your writing should be placed at the top of your priorities. Meaning- don’t write to please yourself.

As Brian Clark of Rainmaker Digital said on the Reach Podcast: “It’s all about providing value to others, solving their problems. Your needs are secondary but you do end up getting what you want if you live by that code.”

Think about what your reader needs when you’re writing. Be direct and tell them exactly what they’re looking for so they don’t have to search around for the meaning behind your email or blog. They’ve got a lot going on, so give them a break. They’re the reason you’re here in the first place, so you’re writing should serve them and them alone.

Your main objective: Clear communication

If your reader has to pull out a thesaurus to finish your email, you’re doing something wrong. If they get caught up in paragraph-long sentences and can’t catch a breath, you’re making it too difficult.

It’s time to abridge the superfluously byzantine and bombastic locution. It’s time to keep it simple.

That doesn’t mean your writing has to be a snooze fest. There’s room for creativity. There’s room to be playful. Just don’t make it ALL about the “art” of writing. Email marketing isn’t the place for that.

Your main objective is to help your readers reach their potential –  the best way to do that is to communicate as cleanly and simply as possible.


Now, go forth and write!

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Dani Stewart

As a daughter of an entrepreneur, the wife of an entrepreneur, and an entrepreneur herself, Dani has lived and learned all sides of creating and growing businesses. She is excited to bring all that life experience as well as a decade of crafting content to the ConvertKit community. She is a part-time baker, dinner-party planner, and lover of good bourbon living the simple life in Nashville with her husband, Sean.

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