Friday, February 6, 2009
Writing With Authority
Writing With Authority
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman
Recently, a colleague told me that I write “with authority,” a statement I found to be a high compliment. But what does “writing with authority” mean and why should it be important to you, the writer?
When a writer creates a work intended for publication, there is an unspoken contract formed between the reader and the writer. The reader has certain expectations about the written work, and if the writer fails to meet those expectations, then the reader feels betrayed. In other words, the writer has not met the terms of the contract.
The Basics. The writer assumes a voice of authority on several levels. The first level begins with a mastery of the writer’s tools. If the writer is sloppy or careless with spelling, syntax, or grammar, he immediately loses the reader’s confidence. In fact, the reader may be so disappointed that he never finishes reading the work. Learn the basic rules, and do not break them until you fully understand the logic behind them.
Authority is more than understanding rules, of course. Both nonfiction and fiction have subtle requirements that instill reader confidence and trust. Let’s begin by looking first at what those expectations are for nonfiction.
Nonfiction is grounded in the effective communication of ideas and information. This is true for all forms of nonfiction, including essays, interviews, how-to pieces, reporting, and general information articles. If the ideas and information are not presented in a manner that is easily understood, then the writer has violated the writer/reader contract. The following are the most important factors the nonfiction writer needs to consider:
Research/Facts. In nonfiction, the first level of authority begins with being accurate. When the reader finds even small mistakes in the prose, he immediately loses confidence in the truth of the story as a whole. Nonfiction writers must do their homework. They should confirm every statement of fact, check the spelling of names, and verify times and dates.
Organization. In any work of nonfiction, there is a natural hierarchy that guides the reader through the information in the story. If the prose is rambling or disjointed, if the writing lacks focus, then the reader begins to question the validity of the writer’s opinions and information. Nonfiction tends to move from the general to the specific or from the specific to the general. When the piece is organized and flows smoothly from one point to the next, the reader trusts the writer’s voice.
Presentation. Writing is primarily a visual medium. Depending on editorial guidelines, the clever use of paragraphing, italics, bullet points, boldface, pull-out quotes, and/or sidebars serves to highlight the most important information in the piece. By directing the reader to the main points of the story, the writer establishes his authority.
Language. The writer’s diction and language should always be appropriate for the intended audience. A nonfiction article written for a PTA magazine will use different vocabulary than a piece for Scientific American. When a writer tries to sound superior to his reader or patronizes his reader, he loses his credibility.
In his book, The Art of Fiction, the late John Gardner refers to the “waking dream,” the idea that the fiction writer takes the reader into an alternate reality. If the writer breaks the rules of that other universe, the illusion (dream) is destroyed, and she has violated her contract with the reader. Just as it is true in nonfiction, there are certain components of fiction that serve to preserve the “waking dream” and uphold the writer/reader contract:
Facts/Setting. All fiction takes place somewhere, and every setting—whether it is realistic or a part of a fantasy world---has a set of natural laws. Stories that occur in real places must maintain the accuracy of those locations. Readers who find glaring mistakes about places they know will feel cheated. Whenever the writer breaks the rules of the fictional universe, the reader no longer believes in that fictional world or in the writer.
Character Development. Characters need to grow and should respond to change in believable, if not predictable, ways. And every action the characters take must be properly motivated. Sudden coincidences, acts of God, or unexplained magical solutions undermine the believability of the fictional characters and violate the reader’s trust.
Dialogue. The effective use of dialogue is one of the most powerful tools a writer can use. However, poorly written dialogue will destroy a writer’s voice of authority more quickly than anything else in the fictional work. Expository dialogue, unnecessary chit-chat, head-hopping, and abrupt POV shifts all breach the “waking dream,” thus undermining the truth of the story.
Language. As in nonfiction, the word choices should be appropriate to the genre. When the writer loads her prose with ten-dollar words, archaic diction, or too many manufactured meanings, the reader is reminded that he’s reading fiction, the illusion is shattered, and the fictional contract is broken.
The contract between the writer and reader is a sacred agreement; if you, the writer, uphold the terms, your readers will thank you and ask for more. And isn’t that what every writer wants?
Newsletter contributing columnist Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning author whose fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry has been published in magazines, newspapers (including The Arizona Republic and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), and anthologies. In 2002, Ms. Gassman was the recipient of an Encouragement Award in Creative Writing from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and in the 2005 Preditors & Editors Reader’s poll her story, '”Healing Arts,'” was ranked among the Top 10 in the nonfiction category. She also teaches writing classes and conducts workshops in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Please visit her Web site at: