8 Things in Your Writing That Make You Look Dumb (Even Though You’re Not) - Craft Your Content

8 Things in Your Writing That Make You Look Dumb (Even Though You’re Not)

Not everyone is an obsessive grammarian; that would be an absurd expectation. But we all have to write to communicate, and no one wants to look dumb, especially if you’re writing for work or self-promotion.

Some common habits in writing for social media, email, corporate communications, blog posts, and marketing materials can make you look like an amateur—even if they’re not technically incorrect.

Few readers are combing through your work for typos, misspelling, or forgotten commas. But most will notice traits that just make your voice feel off.

As an editor, I recognize these habits as non-writers’ efforts to write professionally—and I empathize. Readers, however, won’t think that far into it. They’ll take weak writing at its face and assume the ideas behind it—your ideas—are weak as well.

Here are some common issues I see in everyday content that make writers seem out of touch—and what to do instead to elevate your written communication.

Quotation Marks Around Unfamiliar Words

If you’re uncomfortable using a word, rethink it.

When you write about something unfamiliar, especially something trendy, the jargon feels weird.

A lot of writers—including me—feel an urge to put those unfamiliar words in quotation marks, like we need to signal to the reader that we’re not quite cool enough to use the word naturally.

  • They all went to a “gastro” pub for dinner.
  • They strutted around to show off their new “kicks.”
  • I’ll pick up the check; you can “Venmo” me your half.

To a reader, the habit makes you look like your middle-school friend’s fun dad: at once not hip and trying vehemently to be hip.

To an editor, it’s inexplicable punctuation. Who is speaking?

Instead, avoid using a word that doesn’t fit comfortably into your writing. 

It’ll come off as inauthentic. Say what feels natural to you. If no other word exists—as is the case for gastro pub—use the word, and skip the quotation marks.

Reserve quotation marks for actual quotes. When it makes sense, mitigate your discomfort with a word by citing a source: 

They all went to what culinary experts have dubbed a “gastro” pub for dinner. 

But do it sparingly and with consideration for your audience’s familiarity with a term.

All Caps for Emphasis

All caps in social media and email copy is pretty much the calling card of your relatives and old high school buddies who are passionate about every political and social issue you disagree with.

  • Get out and VOTE.
  • DON’T even get me STARTED.
  • Can you BELIEVE this?!

You could maybe argue this styling was once effective, like in the early days of texting. Maybe. 

By now, though, it’s overused and obnoxious. Worse, it often doesn’t make sense. Have you ever tried to read a sentence as someone would say it out loud and realized putting emphasis on the capitalized words is awkward and meaningless?

Yeah. Readers don’t think you’re smart when you write in all caps.

Consider other styling or punctuation for emphasis. Italics are a common choice; bolding does the job OK. On social media and other platforms with limited formatting options, asterisks and underscores (*asterisks* and _underscores_) get the message across.

Your best option, though, is to choose better words.

Don’t rely on formatting to convey tone in your writing; assume a reader will encounter your writing with all the formatting stripped.

Stronger and more descriptive words convey the tone or emotion you’re trying to get across, and they’ll make your copy stronger overall. Make Thesaurus.com your friend to remind you of stronger words to replace those that don’t carry enough weight to make your point.

Unnecessary Capitalization

common writing mistakes
There are better ways to show emphasis.

Weirdly capitalized words show up often on social media and sometimes in professional writing for a slew of nonsensical reasons.

A major offender—and I realize I may not be able to win this battle—is the attempt to brand an everyday term. Entrepreneurs and academics throw in capitalizations for words they want to own. I’ve done it! In a previous life, I helped writers work on their “Big Idea,” capital B, capital I.

I’ve lost my taste for the style. It makes you look a little silly and self-important, like a 10-year-old giving yourself a nickname. Just do the work so well you become known for your keywords organically.

Another reason I see writers using odd capitalization is for emphasis. This one shows up on social media, mostly. Maybe it’s a compromise from all caps? Whatever the thinking, it’s not good. See above for better practices regarding emphasis.

Quotation Marks for Emphasis

Small businesses are the greatest offenders in misused quotation marks. You’ve seen the handmade signs in their windows:

  • Get your “free” consultation!
  • Big “sale” today!
  • “The best diner in town.”

It’s like a wink—what are they trying to tell us? Does free not mean free? There’s some kind of catch here.

This habit is a blatant punctuation error. But it is so common I’m terrified it’ll make its way into acceptable usage, a la nauseous as “nauseated” and literally as “figuratively but emphatic about it.”

Quotation marks don’t emphasize. They mean “so-called.” 

Your so-called free consultation. The so-called sale today. The so-called best diner in town. Taken literally, they make you look dishonest. Taken for what they are, a mistake, they make you look silly.

Overthinking Grammar

writing mistakes
If you’re overthinking, you might also be overcorrecting.

I am no grammar snob. I’m totally fine with people, especially people who don’t work with words for a living, making grammatical errors in everyday speech and writing. But three common mistakes get under my skin: whomever, I, and myself.

  • I’ll give this to whomever raises their hand first.
  • She gave this gift to Jane and I.
  • John and myself will be serving you tonight.

These grind my gears, because I know the person using them is trying to get the grammar right. They’ve overcorrected other common mistakes to the point of creating whole new mistakes.

In case you didn’t spot the errors, here they are:

  • Whomever is an object (receiver), and whoever is a subject (doer). In the example sentence, whoever should be the subject of the phrase whoever raises their hand first, all of which is the object of the preposition to.
  • I is a subject, and me is an object. The example should read Jane and me, both objects of the preposition to (receivers of the gift). 
  • Myself is a reflexive pronoun. Only use it if you are the subject of a sentence and also the receiver of the action, like I will be serving myself tonight. In the example, John and I should be the subject of the sentence, performing the action will be serving. (Similarly, myself should never be the object if the action isn’t reflexive, like He’ll serve John and myself.)

My biggest beef is with myself. I can empathize with the first two errors. Persnickety teachers and snooty grammar-obsessed friends have embarrassed us for who versus whom and I versus me mistakes long enough that we shake in our boots at the sight of a preposition.

But, myself? How did that pronoun earn so much airtime? Maybe it’s an over-overcorrection: Unable to choose whether to say John and me or John and I, some quivering wordsmith went totally off-script and threw myself in the mix to carry the weight for both.

It makes my head spin, and it does not make you sound formal or smart, just incorrect.

Saying “These Days”

Tacking a these days, nowadays, in this day and age, or today to a statement has the same unhip effect as unnecessary quotation marks.

  • Smartphones are everywhere these days.
  • You can work from home in this day and age.
  • Today, students communicate with professors on Twitter.

You don’t need to mark the era unless you’re comparing the now to some other time. Otherwise, saying something in the present tense implies it’s a fact of the present, so any words further implying that are redundant.

Plus, it makes you seem out of touch in a very “kids these days” kind of way.

Hedge and Filler Words

common writing mistakes
Hedge words damage your authority.

Hedge words qualify what you say, like You may want to, I think, or It seems. They make your statement less direct and make you appear less confident.

Hedging is useful where liability is concerned, like in financial and legal writing, or where correctness is elusive, like in academic and scientific writing. In most cases, though, you don’t need it.

Own your recommendations, and be confident in your opinions and observations.

  • You may want to save for retirement. → Save for retirement.
  • I think they should vote yes. → They should vote yes.
  • It seems to be blue. → It is blue.

Filler words, like that, really, and in order to are equally unnecessary and debilitating to your sentences, but without the lack of confidence you portray through hedge words.

Review a piece of writing, and eliminate any unnecessary words. If you’re not sure about a word, try cutting it. If the sentence means the same thing without it, you don’t need it. Be ruthless.

Words You’d Never Say out Loud

Why on earth does anyone still say things like furthermore and therefore in everyday writing? If those words fit comfortably into your vernacular, you are stodgy and I bet your friends don’t like talking to you.

OK, that’s mean. But watch out for overly formal words in casual writing. Even however and yet sound a bit stiff in a blog post.

Formal words in the wrong context don’t make you seem smarter; they make you seem obtuse.

Do Bad Writing Habits Obscure Your Good Ideas?

Strong writing is about more than proper grammar and spelling. Give your writing a closer look to find the habits that weaken your message.Attempts to sound unnaturally formal usually backfire, so avoid them. Write the way you’d talk, then run through and clean it up. Be clear and confident about your ideas. They deserve your effort to find the best words to express them.

About the Author Dana Sitar

Dana Sitar has been writing and editing for digital media since 2011. She trains journalists, writers and editors on writing for the web, and has written about work and writing in digital media for publications including the New York Times, HuffPost, a column for Inc. Magazine, and dozens of writing and content marketing blogs.

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