How To Write With Authority

How To Write With Authority


What does it mean to write with authority? In this post, our guest blogger tells you how to do it, with examples.

Guest Post

How To Write With Authority

At its core, to write with authority is to bring the reader along with you, and make them open and accepting of what you say.

But this doesn’t give us any clues on how to do it. Have a look at these sentences. Which of the two is more convincing and engaging?

  1. I think I might go to the shops, and then I could meet Melvin and maybe do some things with him.
  2. I am going to go to the shops. I will meet Melvin there, and then we can hang out for the rest of the afternoon.

2 is much stronger. It flows well and has authority. 2 makes better word choices (high modality) and establishes the narrator as definite and convincing. This is just one example of the many tools and ways you can inject greater authority and strength into our writing.

However, before you put pen to paper, we must consider how to think and mentally construct language:

‘George Orwell prefaces his guidelines [for Six Rules for Writing Clear and Tight Prose] with some very sound advice: ‘Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterwards, one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning.’ Not only does this practice get us closer to using clear, specific, concrete language, but it results in writing that grounds our readers in the sensory world we all share to some degree, rather than the airy world of abstract thought and belief that we don’t.’ (source)

Taking that advice on board, and ensuring you have total clarity in our ideas, we will now consider some specific language techniques, as used in example 2. These will help inform your writing, and get you making better choices.

1. Do Not Overcomplicate Your Language

Use plain language! It is important to keep your word choice simple and clear. If you use complicated terms or excessive jargon, you may lose the reader. I am sure many of you have been reading an article for school or university, and you finish a sentence and have no clue what was said. Technical readings filled with obscure terms and complex language can be tough to get through. When you are writing, you do not want your readers, teachers, and peers to feel this pain. It’s unpleasant for them and you, and they may miss out on your great ideas.

A good rule for using plain language is this: never use a long word, when you could use a shorter one to the same effect.

However, make sure that the clarity and flow of your argument are preserved! There is no point in simplifying your language if your ability to communicate diminishes. Sometimes you will have to use complicated words or terms, and that is ok, particularly in technical subjects.

In making these good language choices, the readability of your writing will drastically rise, and it will provide you with a great platform for communication and connection.

2. Be Sure Of Yourself

It is very important to be sure of yourself when writing. If you are not convinced of your own arguments or dialogue, then why would your readers?

A very good technique to achieve this is by using high modal language. Modality is essentially the level of certainty in words and sentences. If the words are uncertain (e.g. maybe, could, should) then so too will be the author/character. Thus, if we want to convince your readers of something, you have to choose definite, high modal words (e.g. must, shall, is).

Again, take the example from the start of this article:

  1. I think I might go to the shops, and then I could meet Melvin and maybe do some things with him.
  2. I am going to go to the shops. I will meet Melvin there, and then we can hang out for the rest of the afternoon.

The narrator in 1 seems very uncertain of what they will do, and what will happen. In particular, the words ‘I think…might…could…maybe’ create this sense of uncertainty. These words are all low in modality.

In contrast, the narrator in 2 is very sure, as indicated by ‘I am…I will…’. These words are high in modality.

However, it is important to note that choosing low or high modal words doesn’t directly predicate the sentence as certain or uncertain. Take the following example:

  1. ‘I would do anything for love’ 
  2. ‘I might do something for love’

Sentence 1 is more definite, even though the first two words of both sentences are low in modality (‘would’ and ‘might’). It is the use of ‘anything’ instead of ‘something’ that makes sentence 1 more assertive than 2.

This indicates that when judging assertiveness, you must view your sentences in total. This is an important lesson for editing and proofreading generally. Do not just read word by word, you must also consider the flow of the sentence, the compatibility of the sentence with the paragraph, and the paragraph with the whole piece.

3. Use Quotations

Quotations are text taken from another source – always reference your sources! – and are excellent at providing context to your work, showing an expert opinion and demonstrating knowledge of a subject (source). However, not all quotes are useful, and they should be chosen carefully.

It is important to use a quote if 1) they add value beyond something you could say yourself and 2) they help support your argument or point. You do not want your quote to explain or dominate your own point. Applied effectively, and in moderation, quotes (and statistics) will add emphasis, clarity and authority to your writing.

Now, onto the final point.

4. Edit, Edit, Edit!

Proofreading and editing are all part of the writing process. It is unreasonable to expect perfection on the first go. It is something you work up to incrementally.

Most obviously, avoid spelling mistakes. Then, read you work out loud and follow the flow of ideas. Does it make sense? Does it line up with what you want to say? Make a note of where you pause for breaths. Does your punctuation line up? These are all important steps in the process and cannot be neglected.

Spend time with your work before you publish it.

by Victor Vale. Melbourne based private tutor, writer and proud owner of Tutor Storm, Vic has a passion for teaching and helping students succeed in their academic endeavours and careers.

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This article has 1 comment

  1. Andie Patrick

    An interesting article, but one which needs an warning to the reader: do not try to apply the writer’s advice indiscriminately. It is written with authority – well, given the topic – it had to be, hadn’t it; but that does not mean these precepts may never be broken.

    Without question it is important for a writer to chose his words to match the vocabulary of his intended audience if he is neither to switch them off by using over-complex language, or bore them to tears with over-simplification.

    But, in doing so, there is a risk of losing that musical flow of words which raises prose to the level of poetry, and which enables the skilled wordsmith to bring a vista, an emotion or a piece of dialogue into vibrant life.

    Writers of fiction; let us not throw the innocent infant out with the water in which it was washed.

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