5 things in your writing that make you look dumb

(even though you’re not)

I get that not everyone is obsessed with language. And I’m OK with it. I’m not walking around in one of those t-shirts that announces I’m “silently judging your grammar.”

But if you’re going to put out writing professionally — whether you want to make a living writing or it’s part of communicating or promotion in another job — be aware of a few common habits that flag your writing as amateur.

Please know this: I don’t think you’re dumb. I don’t think you’re dumb in general, and I don’t think you’re dumb if you have these writiing habits. I want to raise your awareness to them so your writing can reflect your brilliance. 💗

5 things in your writing that make you look dumb

1. Unnecessary quotation marks

I used to have a bad habit of using quotation marks around any words I didn’t feel quite cool enough to use naturally. I’d write things like:

  • They’re always hanging out at “dive” bars.

  • She got “ratioed” on Twitter.

The habit makes you look like your middle school friend’s fun dad: not hip and trying desperately to seem hip. Just be what you are.

Avoid words that don’t fit naturally into your vocabulary and jargon that won’t be familiar to the reader. Save quotation marks for actual quotes.

2. Grammaring too hard

I’m not silently judging your grammar, but three common mistakes irritate me every time: misusing ​​whomever, I and myself.

People usually misuse these when they’re trying desperately to get the grammar right. You might leapfrog right over the correct words and land in a hole of formal-sounding nonsense.

  • I’ll give this to whomever raises their hand first.Whomever is an object. This sentence needs whoever, the subject of the phrase whoever raises their hand first. (Hack: You rarely need whomever.)

  • She gave this gift to Jane and I.I is a subject. This sentence needs me, an object of to, just like Jane. (However, your mom is correct in reminding you it’s Jane and I gave a gift.)

  • John and myself will be serving you tonight. Myself is a reflexive pronoun. It belongs in a sentence where you’re both the doer and receiver, like I laughed at myself. In this sentence, you need John and I, because I is a subject. 

3. All caps for emphasis

All caps is overused and obnoxious. Worse, it often doesn’t make sense. Worst: It makes you look like your angry uncle on Facebook.

You could opt for better formatting, like italics, for emphasis. But your best option is to choose better words. Assume readers will encounter your writing with all the formatting stripped, and choose words that convey meaning and emotion on their own.

4. Hedge words

Hedge words qualify what you say: I think, it seems, you may want to…

They don’t convey confidence; they make you look like you’re second-guessing. Pull them to strengthen your sentences and fortify your ideas.

  • 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.

5. Words you’d never say out loud

I bet you don’t use words like furthermore or therefore in everyday speech. Why do they creep up in your writing?

Super formal words like this make writing feel stodgy and inaccessible. Use words you would say out loud, like so and also.

In the wrong context, formal language doesn’t make you sound smarter — which, I assume, is what writers are going for here. Instead, it makes you look out of touch.

Further reading

🧡 8 Things in Your Writing That Make You Look Dumb (Even Though You're Not)  (Craft Your Content): I wrote a version of this article for Craft Your Content last year — check it out for more habits to cut from your writing.

💚 Hedge Words and Inflation Words: Prune Them From Your Writing (Jane Friedman): Editor Jessi Rita Hoffman tells you how to spot and cut words that don’t serve your writing — and offers a list of common words you can usually cut.

💜 OneLook: This is my go-to online dictionary and thesaurus. It’s a killer resource to add variety to your vocabulary and find those stronger words to convey your meaning and emotions. You’ll get more than synonyms — find related words to rhyme, alliterate and more.

💙 Top 10 Writing and Grammar Mistakes That Even Published Authors Make  (Grammar Girl): Using a survey of editors from Macmillan Publishers, Grammar Girl lists the most common missteps professional writers make. 

💛 How Capital Letters Became Internet Code for Yelling  (The New Republic): All caps might have once signified emphasis in a calm tone. But now it’s pretty much universal for I’M YELLING AT YOU RIGHT NOW. Alice Robb at TNR explains how we got here.

Next month

5 commonly conflated word pairs

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