Badge & Handcuffs:
Writing with authority
Have you every come across the phrase, writing with “authority?” I heard a couple of editors use it when I first started writing, and I had no clue what they meant by it. Authority? But if the editor wanted it, well, badge and handcuffs coming right up!
Finally, someone explained to me that authority in writing isn’t a matter of correct grammar, it’s prose that displays enough skill, professionalism and polish that it convinces the reader that the author knows what he’s doing. The reader (subconsciously) takes in the easy grace of the sentences and says, “This person can tell me a story! I’ll trust him enough to suspend my disbelief and give him a chance.”
It’s actually easier to spot writing that lacks authority than writing that has it. When you find yourself thinking, “Who is this turkey? I could do better than this!” that’s lack of authority.
OK, so how do you add authority to your writing? I think it’s mostly a matter of training your writing “ear.” Written English is a different dialect than spoken English—it has different rhythms, and turns of phrase. You can write a sentence that is perfectly correct, but it still reads awkwardly. For instance, try rewriting a couple of pages where you consistently put the adverb in front of the verb it modifies. There’s no grammatical rule against it—it’s the unwritten rule of the “ear” that’s being violated. It just “sounds” wrong. But how much does that matter?
It was a brick wall that made me realize that when it comes to art, the difference between the talented amateur and the professional lies in the way they handle details. I was at a Worldcon art show, comparing two paintings that hung on adjoining panels. The first painting was clearly the work of a professional, and the second, though very good, was equally clearly an amateur work. An artist could probably have given me technical reasons why the first painting was superior but I’m not an artist. I knew which was better, but I couldn’t tell why. The figures were almost equally well drawn. Both scenes were active and colorful. Then I noticed that each painting had a brick wall in the background. In the amateur painting, the artist had created a red backdrop, painted a grid across it, and added a few stipples for texture. In the professional painting, every single brick had received individual attention no two in the entire wall were alike. Once I started looking closely, the professional piece had a wealth of finely crafted detail and it was this attention to the smallest detail that gave that painting its authority.
I sometimes hear beginning writers say things like, “I’m a big picture person, I just write for the story” or “I’m an artist I don’t want to constrain my creativity with a bunch of rules” or worst of all, “I don’t worry about the details—that’s the copy editor’s job.” I’ve never heard a published author say any of those things.
I recently reviewed the copy edit on the first book of my new trilogy. It was both the best, and the worst job of copy editing I’ve ever seen. The worst because it entailed the most work for me. Largely because the copy editor made the (grammatically correct) decision to italicize all the Persian-based words and in my Persian-based Farsala, there are a lot of them. Imagine a medieval fantasy where the words king, lord, lady, knight, and kingdom are all in italics and you pretty much have the picture. Needless to say, changing all this back took a lot of work. And there were places where I felt she was too heavy-handed in explaining things, and places where I wanted to say ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’ and…and…and…
But there were also places where she clarified attribution I had left too vague, places where the explanation she requested was necessary, and places where her grammatical corrections added authority to my prose. By the time both of us were finished, she had raised my work to a level of clarity and polish that I hadn’t been able to achieve on my own. And (especially since we’ll get that little italicizing issue cleared up) I was absolutely sincere when I asked my editor if I could get the same person to work on my next two books.
Yes, story is what we all write, and read, for. Yes, you don’t want to let the rules constrain your creativity. But writing is not only an art, it’s a craft—and the essence of good craftsmanship is meticulous attention to detail. In writing, it’s good craftsmanship that’s the difference between the professional and the amateur. And possibly the difference between published and not.