Saying more with less: A simple way to boost essay marks

keep-it-simpleHave you ever found yourself looking up a thesaurus in an attempt to find a more complex or sophisticated word to use in an essay so you looked more intelligent?

I’ll admit, I’ve done it. But it turns out, I’m not alone.

110 Stanford students were asked if they had ever looked up a thesaurus to find a complex word. Two thirds admitted they had.

When asked if they had used a complicated word to look smarter, most said they had done this too.

But research findings show that using complex or big words in an essay may backfire.

In the research paper “Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly” researcher Daniel Oppenheimer argues –

“write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent”.

You see, Oppenheimer conducted four experiments in which he found that the use of complicated words or hard to read fonts led people to think the writer wasn’t very bright. In experiment 1, he concluded –

“Complexity [of writing] neither disguised the shortcomings of poor essays, nor enhanced the appeal of high-quality essays….the reason that simple texts are viewed more positively than complex texts was due to fluency. Complex texts are difficult to read, which in turn leads to lower ratings.”

Mastering the art of writing simply takes time and practice. It may also involve unlearning some bad habits you picked up in high school English literature class (this was the case for me).

The good news is there are plenty of resources out there to help you tweak and refine your writing skills. A good place to start may be with Grammar girl’s article ‘Simplify your writing’.

As a general rule of thumb, when it comes to writing keep everything simple. Keep the language you use simple. Keep the font you use simple as research shows a serif type font can dramatically improve comprehension rates. If you want to add emphasis to a phrase, use lower case bold (AVOID WRITING LIKE THIS!)

At the end of the day, the reader (who probably has to mark dozens of essays) will thank you for your simple and clearly written essay as it will be easier to follow and a pleasure to read. So before you look up the online thesaurus to find a complicated word or spend time fussing over which font to use, ask yourself if you really need to do this.

4 thoughts on “Saying more with less: A simple way to boost essay marks

  1. Thank you for the insightful post. I also think that online tools such as the hemingway app and grammarly can aid in spotting some of the complex or sophisticated words. The hemingway app for instance gives the readability of your writing a score. I’m not saying that such tools can replace humans, but one can give them a try.

    1. Good point! At the time when I wrote this article (back in 2013) those online tools didn’t exist. This year several teachers have recommend these tools, so I will check them out! Thanks for the suggestion. Much appreciated 🙂

      Dr Jane Genovese

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