How to Write (Better): How to Make Your Words Carry More Authority

8 years ago
Judge Striking Gavel

Writing about writing with authority is really hard. Because that insinuates that I know what I'm talking about, and you might all be sitting back, slurping your coffee and thinking you know, that Rita is pretty full of herself.

And therein lies the rub.

When I was a wee tot, children were taught to be humble, to not contradict our elders, to qualify what we had to say with statements like "I think" and "in my opinion" and "I feel." Writers have to unlearn these lessons -- if in this day and age they are actually still taught -- in order to write a tight paragraph.

In 1999, I decided to go back to school and get the writing degree I didn't get in college but always wanted. During the next five years, I unlearned many old habits, but the one that stuck with me the most was removing little qualifiers. It's one of the easiest edits to make without changing the direction or point of your writing, and it's purely mechanical.

My professor taught using three of the bibles of writing: On Writing Well, by William Zinsser; The Elements of Editing, A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists, by Arthur Plotnik; and The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. These teachers changed my writing forever, and I am indebted to their no-nonsense approach to editing yourself and others. One of their greatest lessons? Own your opinions, and omit little qualifiers.

What's a little qualifier? "Sort of." "A little bit." "I think." They add nothing but words, and writing is not a word-count contest, ever.

How do you do that? Start chopping.

This is your blog, your post, your writing. We know it’s what you think and what you feel –- don’t tell us that. It removes the power of your words via overclarification. What works in spoken language doesn’t always translate well to writing, as you don’t get nonverbal feedback and must establish yourself without being able to see your readers’ response.

If you were mad, you were mad. You might have been furious. Say it. Get over your fear of saying what you really mean.

If you don’t like a topic, don’t care about a topic, and aren’t getting paid to write about that topic as a freelancer, scrap it. We’ll be able to tell if you’re only half there, and why in the world would you blog about something you’re not interested in? Don’t do it for SEO, don’t do it for traffic. Just don’t do it. It’ll diminish your credibility in the long run.

Even if you’re telling a story, you can still make a point. You don’t necessarily have to come out at the end with “the moral of the story is ... ,” but leave your reader with a conclusion regarding where you stand on an issue or what happened in the story.

When you're working on a blog post, read it back over before you hit "Publish" and take out all the little qualifiers and small words that don't add anything to the sentence. There's a world of difference between "I think the reason my daughter doesn't listen to me is because I yell too much" and "My daughter doesn't listen to me when I yell." If you're having trouble making the sentence work without those little qualifiers, flip the clauses like I just did. Lose "is because" and "I think" -- they're not adding anything, and they're clunking up the meter. That first sentence is a mouthful, and it takes too long to say. If it takes too long to say out loud, it needs to be cut down. Period.

Lest I sound preachy (and that is an occupational hazard when you're trying to write with authority), rest assured I'm not immune to sprinkling little qualifiers into my speech, into my texts, into my emoticons. I'm not saying you should never temper your opinions, not at all. If you're writing, though, for an audience, on your blog, in your fiction and poetry and freelance journalism and magazine articles -- that's when you can't afford these extra words, not when you're owning an opinion. They clutter up your writing, but they may not clutter up your life. As bloggers, we tend to write like we talk, and that's when the extra words sneak in.

As assignment and syndication editor at BlogHer, I spend a lot of time ALOTOFTIMEALOTOFTIMEALOTOFTIME looking for blog posts that contain three things:

  • Compelling subject matter
  • Strong voice -- meaning not generic, meaning it sounds different coming from you than it would from me
  • Strong mechanics

Authority is part mechanics and part voice. While voice takes time and practice to develop, the mechanics are easy. Once you start spotting these words in your writing, you'll be able to break the habit and never write them again. Remember how you used to insert the word "like" every three words when you were a teenager? You don't do that any more, do you? At some point you realized you needed to stop. It's the same thing here.

Examples of Authoritative Writing

From syndicated blogger Courtney Clark's post Manifesto Female: What I Have Learned About Being a Woman:

Our bodies are built to be strong in principal and natural femininity. Femininity looks different on every woman -- it is the essence that sets us apart from each other, and from man. Femininity isn't about dresses, make-up or shoes, it is about fulfilling our specific female identity. Only we know what that is, but it is encoded in our bodies. It looks good on us. And sadly, the sacredness of our bodies are the most exploited entity on this planet.

Not one wasted word.

Another example, from syndicated blogger Maggie Dammit:

Control, the loss of it, is probably the most familiar one these days, the parent to all of these other unfamiliar sensations. I am clumsy with feelings. I can’t hold them, whether bullets or bombs, it’s all live ammunition; I fumble, they drop and smash and scatter, hitting everyone around me. I myself am a walking wound, open and stunned.

And when I read Maggie's absolute ownership of her emotions worded so beautifully, as a syndication editor I was stunned. And I thought, "I must have it."

Have you tried editing yourself in this way? Any thoughts or tips for the rest of us?

For more writing advice, visit our How to Write (Better) series archive.



Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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