Writing With Authority, Even if Your Mama Taught You Not To -->

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Writing With Authority, Even if Your Mama Taught You Not To


By Amber Cook, Senior Writing Specialist and Faculty Liaison

Where I grew up, in East Tennessee, most people I knew spoke indirectly. If they wanted something, they’d say “Do you mind to hand me that pen?” They apologized for everything (“I’m sorry; do you mind to repeat that?”). I learned to read between the lines, easily translating “Well, isn’t that different?” to “That dress is horrifying” or “Can I get you anything else?” to “Please leave now.”

After moving to a different region, I learned that this language of roundabout cordiality is not universal. I blushed with embarrassment when a friend ordered her (unsweet) tea by simply asking (no “when you have a minute” or “could I please have a?”). I wore myself out trying to read between lines that contained no subtexts and breaking the long-held habits of apologetic communication. I had to learn the dialect of straightforward.

This habit of speaking directly is something I also had to cultivate in my scholarly writing, and now that I assist other writers, I see that my struggle is not uncommon. Many of us—for reasons of culture, confidence, or personality—feel uncomfortable asserting ourselves in writing. Some writers do not feel qualified to speak authoritatively on a topic, so they hide behind direct quotations or soften their ideas with language like I feel, sort of, or probably. Some writers are uneasy offering critique on literature, so their annotations or literature reviews wind up reading like polite summaries rather than real investigations of ideas.

If this sounds like you, take heart. You can learn to write with authority and confidence. Here’s my advice:

1. Remember that you are an expert. Although you may not feel like it, as you read heavy theoretical literature that boggles your mind on first glance, you know more about your field than 99% of the population. Keep learning, and keep your mind open, but don’t worry that you’re not qualified to analyze what you’re reading.

2. Develop your skills and comfort with critical reading. If you tend to read passively, treating the information as fact rather than perspective, look at the resources on this link. The strategies offered there will give you more to work with as you move toward synthesizing and evaluating rather than reporting and summarizing.

3. Remember that indirect expression does not translate well. Readers from other cultures or those reading in a second language may not catch euphemisms or overly subtle assertions, and you want your work to be as universal as possible.

4. Notice the language of the texts you are reading in your courses. Think about the way the scholars present their ideas and their analyses of past literature. You’ll start to identify conventions in the writing in your field, and you can use those as models.

5. Be assertive but not aggressive. If you take your authority too far, you lose the proper deference to the breadth of ideas in the field. As you develop a confident voice, remember the guidelines for writing with analysis rather than pre-formed opinions. Your authority should be informed not just by confidence but by thorough study.

Most of all, keep in mind that your voice, even if you’re unsure of it, deserves to be heard. We can’t wait to hear your insights, so get writing!


  1. Great article! I totally agree with you, where you mention "its cultural".

    Nilda C. Santiago

  2. Fantastic and concise. I like it, thank you!

  3. I wanted to say that you should (probably, ha!) stop encouraging people on the internet to be even more assertive, but then I reached the "you are an expert" part and... I'll show myself out.

    1. You ARE the expert.... at showing yourself out 😊

      But seriously, there is a notable difference in the writing of those who think of themselves as neophytes versus those who think of themselves as experts. I always encourage writers, who have earned it through extensive reading and writing in their field, to embody the role of expert. More often than not, their writing becomes more scholarly.