Write short to help write with authority


One of the hardest aspects of academic writing is working out how to take a suitably authoritative stance. To be read as an expert. To sound like an authority on your topic.

It’s all very well for people like me to say Well don’t be too assertive but don’t be too shrinking violet. What does this actually look like in and as a text? And it can be even more irritating when you ask the what-does-it-look-like question to have someone like me say Well it depends

I dont want to be unhelpful. But I can’t provide a definitive answer. So, rather than try to answer the what-does-it-look-like question, here’s a little strategy that can help you to find a suitably authoritative tone. A tone that works for you.

The strategy is straightforward. Write only a few sentences. Yes, you heard that right. Write less. Write hardly anything. The strategy is quite simply – write short.

I often ask people in writing workshops to do the following exercise:

  1. Write two sentences about the general problem you are researching
  2. Write two sentences about why it’s a problem and for whom and why this matters
  3. Write two sentences about what we most urgently need to know about the problem, right now, and why
  4. Write two sentences about your research, showing how it fits with the most urgent thing we need to know.

Now producing these eight sentences, writing short, isn’t necessarily going to be quick and easy. Writing small does require you to think hard about what really is the point you want the reader to know, what really matters and why.

You have to choose what is most important and you have to leave a load of detail out. You also don’t have time to do a lot of apologising or obfuscating. You just have to get on with it and write what’s necessary.

And you should be able to do that in about thirty to forty minutes or less. Four short pomodoros then.

Now there are two things going on in this strategy.

The first is that when you sort out what to include and exclude you are being selective and evaluative. You have to think about the overall context for your study and where your work slots in. So you also have to think about your work doing something, potentially having influence on events.

And the things you are doing – selecting, evaluating, thinking about what your work might do – are at the heart of writing with authority.

The second is that in writing these short sentences you’ve focused mostly on the content. You havent had a compelling reason to consider whether you have the authority to write. You’ve just gone ahead and written and said your piece.

Nor have you had a lot of space to think about how to make your sentences complex or sound smart. You haven’t had time to construct a verbal fence to hide behind. You’ve just given your version of the context and significance and focus of your study without dithering about or worrying whether you’re an imposter or not.

And these two things provide you with an experience of writing an authoritative text. An authoritative text is one where the researcher has clearly taken a position. They’ve named their problem and their project. They’ve said why it matters. They pointed to what knowing what their research is about is important.

Write short. You’ve got this.

The trick is of course to carry your writing short sentences experience into the bigger text and not get bogged down in unnecessary words, clauses, phrases, quotations and so on.

And taking some time to write small is a strategy you can continue to use.

For example:

Write two sentences about what the chapter you’re working on will contribute to your overall argument. Write two sentences about why these two things are important.

Write two sentences about the key message that you want to reader to know (from your paper or thesis.) Next – What are most important bits of evidence you are going to produce to support the message – write one sentence for each bit of evidence, no more than four sentences overall.

You get the picture I’m sure.

Writing small can orient you to the bare bones of your text. Writing small can also orient you to the way in which you need to construct the text to get make sure these bones are perceptible to the reader.

Writing small is a strategy for continued use. You need to keep practicing. Don’t write small just once. Keep going. You can write small to test out how to organise structure and prioritise. Try a few different versions. Read the lot and see which one works best and best represents your current thinking.

Redo the small sentences strategy periodically to help you sort out what you are learning and how your thinking is changing. At the same time this content-focused small writing will help you become more authoritative in your text, even if you don’t quite yet see yourself as an authority.