There’s a delicate balancing act between authority and personality in writing. On the one hand, you don’t want seem like a Google-taught, self-appointed know-it-all with no real expertise, but on the other hand, you don’t want to come across like a fact-spouting robot, dryly hammering out data as if you’re writing a scientific paper. So how do you ensure your writing is alive with personality without coming across like a bumbling fool with no real idea what he’s talking about? How do you build trust among your readers without putting them to sleep?
How Authority Saps Personality
With the advent of the Internet, it’s easy for anybody to cobble together enough pieces of information to write a reasonably authoritative article or blog post, and that in itself creates a problem with authority. How do you know that you’re reading something from somebody who really understands the issue and not somebody who’s simply spent an hour on Google? For a writer, how do you come across as having true understanding rather than just having conducted some hasty research? The answer, for many, is to revert to the sort of dry, plodding tone you’d expect from a technical report or a peer-reviewed paper. Dropping the personality and humanity from your writing seems like a short-cut to authority.
From the other side, if you’re writing with oodles of personality—complete with irrelevant asides and esoteric references—there is a fear you’ll appear amateurish, like an idiot waffling on about a topic he doesn’t have a clue about.
The Balancing Act: Be Yourself, but With Confidence
And now for the most clichéd advice ever: just be yourself! The thing is, it’s true. No matter how we might perceive authorities on various topics, they’re all human too, with their own likes, dislikes and unique quirks. Don’t worry about hiding them: relax a bit while you’re writing, trying to be a little more conversational than your desire to be authoritative would want you to.
If you have a relevant aside that isn’t directly related to the topic you’re discussing, don’t be afraid to mention it! Drawing on your other interests and hobbies makes you more multi-dimensional as a writer: it emphasizes your personality without recourse to pointless jokes. Additionally, don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes or confess to any weaknesses you have; nobody is a perfect expert, and nobody really expects you to be one.
The only caveat to this advice is that constant use of hedging words like “might,” “may,” “could” and so on—the stuff you want to add in so you don’t technically risk being wrong, in other words—can genuinely take away from your authority. So you need to be (or at least appear) confident in yourself and in your views.
Stick to One Core Topic
One of the main ways you can let your writing become drab and dull is by trying to do too much; if you’re attempting to write a magnum opus, you don’t want to leave anything unsaid. However, this desire turns what could be a short, snappy and entertaining piece of writing into a rambling diatribe, like setting out to put together a fun short story but ending up with A Song of Ice and Fire. You might show that you know a lot about the topic, but you’ll lose your readers along the way.
The best advice to guard against this is to stick to one topic, or even one important point about the topic, rather than trying to do everything at once. It’s better to make a single point well than to put your readers to sleep by trying to make 50.
Use Metaphor, Analogy and Anecdote
If you’re tackling a complicated topic, its complexity might tempt you to both stick to the facts as much as possible and to couch your discussion in the stinted language of the field. This might enable you to convince a handful of people that you’re an expert and super-smart, but the truly excellent communicators—especially on complex topics—have a way of bringing the topic to life through creative use of metaphors, analogies and anecdotes.
You might be trying to explain Doppler shifts in light waves, but if you can do that by talking about ripples on the surface of a pond or the rising pitch of the siren on an approaching ambulance, you’ll keep readers engaged and still show that you have a detailed understanding of what’s going on. Analogies don’t take away from your authority; they just make your writing more colorful and relatable.
Metaphors are a particularly good way of injecting a bit of humor and character into a post. Use metaphors that reflect your interests and be creative with it, being sure to avoid any clichés. For example, don’t use “happy as Larry,” but say “happy as a gamer during the Steam summer sale” or “happy as a cat rolling in a pile of nip” instead.
Authority Comes Naturally, if You Know Your Stuff
The key point is that authority in writing comes from knowledge, not stinted language or complicated terminology. If you’re truly knowledgeable about your topic, getting the balance between authority and personality is simply about ensuring your character doesn’t get lost in the information. If you aren’t knowledgeable, you’ll have a tougher time, but with a bit of research and work—and a generous helping of confidence—you’ll still be able to come across like an entertaining expert, provided you don’t try too hard.