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Study: Simple Writing Makes You Look Smart

Study: Simple Writing Makes You Look Smart

Many fledgling writers have been taught the mnemonic KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. A new study backs the wisdom of that advice.

Long words used needlessly along with complicated font styles -- two tactics employed routinely by students trying to pad their work -- are perceived as coming from less intelligent writers.

Or, to put it simply: Short words and classic fonts make you look smart.

Daniel Oppenheimer at Princeton University conducted five experiments manipulating the complexity of vocabulary or font style. Samples included graduate school applications, sociology dissertation abstracts, and translations of a work by Descartes.

Times New Roman, the default font for Internet text and writing programs like Microsoft Word, was contrasted by the italicized Juice font (the sort of font you might see in a homemade newsletter that's trying to be more than it is).

The simple writing done in the easy-to-read font tended to be rated as coming from a more intelligent author than the more complex drafts.

"Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers' evaluations of the text and its author," Oppenheimer said.

He added, though, that the study does not suggest long words are inherently bad, but only that using them needlessly is a problem. So why do so many people do it?

"The continuing popularity amongst students of using big words and attractive font styles may be due to the fact that they may not realize these techniques could backfire," Oppenheimer said. "One thing seems certain: write as simply and plainly as possible and it's more likely you'll be thought of as intelligent."

The results will be published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.