The curse of the wordsmith

Kevin Sawyer
3 min readMar 12, 2022

Originally published October 24, 2016

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

It’s a common occurrence.

In fact, it’s happened at every professional job I’ve ever had.

Someone — often, but not always, from outside the Creative or Marketing departments — will come to my desk with panic in her eyes.

“I need to write something for our quarterly report,” she’ll say. Or maybe it’s a pitch meeting for a lighthouse client. Or a new marketing slogan, born from a slapdash brainstorming session.

Or sometimes it’s got nothing to do with business at all. An important email to a friend. An application for a grad program.

Whatever the format, this person will inevitably come to you and plead, “I’m not a writer…. can you take what I’ve got and wordsmith it?”

Wordsmithing (verb): Adding fancy words, making simple concepts more obtuse, and generally overstuffing the bejesus out of what’s usually a totally acceptable sentence.

This happens thousands of times a day to copywriters, editors, content marketers, bloggers, and anyone else with a pen and a pulse. The desperate request to make someone else’s writing better/prettier/more adverb-ier.

The myth of the wordsmith-as-savior seduces us into thinking we’re an indispensable resource with a tight-fisted monopoly on Good Writing. But the myth does more harm than good.

Here’s why:

#1: It undercuts everyone’s natural ability to communicate clearly.

Most people can hack together a coherent thought. And most of the time, the plainest expression of that thought is the most effective way to communicate.

We’ve been bludgeoned with Shakespeare for so long that we assume our own writing must follow suit. And so non-copywriters are conditioned to be insecure about their writing. They cling to copywriters to draw them from away from the abyss of the mediocre, when most of the time their natural skills are just fine.

When this happens, and a large portion of the workforce doubts their writing ability, people lose interest in writing. They don’t practice to become better. They don’t take an interest in expanding their vocabulary. They don’t pick up a pen and write their story. What a loss.

#2: It devalues the earning power of copywriters.

A good copywriter draws from a variety of disciplines: psychology, advertising, journalism, neuroscience. We’re equal parts scientists and storytellers.

And it’s true that we’re generally expected to have a bigger bucket of words to draw from than the average person. What we don’t do — or at least what we’re not trained to do — is primp up words for the sheer hell of it.

A company putting a dollar amount on a brand-spankin’ new copywriter job has to make a decision about what that work is worth. If they believe copywriters are mere wordsmiths, simply dressing up other people’s work with multisyllabic synonyms and gobs of prepositional phrases — well, let’s just say a used thesaurus does that job for about two bucks.

However, if that hiring manager recognizes the multi-disciplinary expertise that good copywriters possess, that person will raise the compensation bar (and the expectations for the job) accordingly. That’s a win for everyone.

#3: It opens a slippery slope of time-sucking favors that can be hard to reverse.

When you get a reputation for being the resident wordsmith, it won’t be long before you’re proofreading a coworker’s Yard Sale ad, writing invites for your nieces’s fourth birthday party, and generally caught in a whirlpool of small writing favors that zap your time and creative energies.

If your intention is to be the most popular person in the office, then you might be OK with this strategy. Good luck to you.

But if you’re interested in maintaining your professional reputation and protecting your precious time — for goodness sake, at least send them an invoice afterward.