For many years at the Detroit Free Press I was privileged to edit the work of Susan Ager, an award-winning magazine writer and columnist. She is also a first-class writing coach, assisting other writers in drawing out their best work and recognizing the elements that make their writing great. Ager had a simple piece of advice: become an authority and then write like one.
Becoming an authority
This wisdom applies whether you are writing about politics, the tech industry, Austin’s live-music scene, the environment, arts criticism or even restaurant reviews. It means you invest the time to learn and understand your topic and then use that knowledge to write with the confidence and clarity of an expert. Becoming an authority doesn’t happen overnight, but neither does it require years to achieve. You get there by reading everything you can get your hands on, seeking out and talking to people in the know and using every story you write as an opportunity to learn even more.
In newsrooms, those writers are often the ones with yard-high stacks of books, magazines and reports at their desks. They really do read that stuff. They also go to conferences, take advantage of webinars and keep up with what the best in the business are doing.
Writing with authority
Writing with authority isn’t license to insert your own viewpoint or opinion. It does mean providing context and insight: “Here’s what this means,” — based on facts and reporting.
Authoritative writing is not pretentious, academic or self-consciously clever. It aims to clarify, explain and even illuminate. It’s your job to explain in plain language what’s really going on. Readers should walk away feeling, “Who knew?” or “Now I get it.”
Authority is earned. You can’t fake it.
The web, unfortunately, has caused a wave of authority imitators. Think about how many articles you’ve read where the author seems to be showing off with flip observations, obviously borrowed references and a lot of jargon. That is just amateurish. Among other things, jargon is a shortcut for the lazy, not a sign of authority. And if you put jargon in quotes, you are simply advertising the fact that you have no idea what it means.
Jargon happens to be especially prevalent in sports and business writing. I once cracked up an editors’ meeting by reading the lead on a sports story that included the phrase, “Ping-pong chop to the Metrodome rug.” I’ll put that one up against any indecipherable wire-service corporate earnings story any day.
Learn from the best
For good newspaper examples of writing with authority, The Wall Street Journal continues to set a high bar. The Journal writes for a very sophisticated audience, but manages to — mostly — avoid business jargon, and distills complex financial concepts with accessible language. For television and multimedia writing, Paul Solman of the PBS NewsHour demonstrates awesome insight and clarity in his reporting on economic inequality in America. He comes across as a very smart but approachable guy who knows a lot about how the economy works and can explain it to you over coffee.
The Economist magazine does a superb job of writing with authority. Consider this story on James Cameron’s recent dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and what it provided that you didn’t read anywhere else.
Some final thoughts:
* You have to know what you don’t know. You also need to know where to get answers, or who to ask about where to go, or even who to ask about who to ask.
* You are discerning; you know when information is incomplete, off-base or misleading.
* You can explain what you’re writing about, in an engaging and interesting way, to a group of friends.
* You write with confidence, and the voice of someone who has command of the subject.
* You write for readers, not for yourself.
What nuggets of wisdom have your professional role models shared with you over the years that made you a better writer, reporter or editor?
PWA’s May 2012 guest blog guest editor is Sandra Kleinsasser.