Authority in writing

There is a sense of authority that I often get from good writing. It’s a feeling of the writer’s confidence in their own work. But it’s not as if readers are psychic; all they see are the words on the page. The words on the page don’t know what you felt like when you were writing them. So even if you don’t feel that authority, that confidence, you can fake it. You can write as if you had confidence in your own work.

A couple of first lines:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

That’s a sentence with some authority – it’s declaiming (albeit with some irony) a universal truth!

“I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” – James McBride, The Good Lord Bird.

Here’s a narrator with authority – he’s giving commands to his readership!

“They said later that he rode into the village on a horse the color of buttermilk, but I saw him walk out of the wood.” – Patricia McKillip, Alphabet of Thorn.

This is a story with a quieter, subtler level of authority, but it’s still there. Two things: the narrator has inside information, she thinks differently from “them,” so it’s an assertion of authority on the narrator’s part: I know something they don’t. It’s also leaving a lot unsaid (we don’t know who “they” is, we don’t know who “he” is) so this is an author who trusts herself to be interesting, and trusts her audience to come with her even if they don’t have the whole story yet.

In your own writing, watch out for weasel words (sort of, kind of, maybe, seemed) and watch out for phrasing that undercuts yourself by making a statement and then backing off from it with qualifiers.

Go back to your favorite books, especially the first few pages. See how they manage authority – see how they convince you on those first couple pages, “there’s a story here that’s worth listening to.”

It’s not a matter of how you feel on the inside – it’s a matter of craft, and you can learn it even if you rarely have confidence in yourself. In your own work, are you undercutting yourself? Gather up your Tony Stark energy, your Galadriel energy, and declaim that first paragraph like you expect your audience to pay attention.