Synthesizing Ideas to Write with Authority

 

 

When Jennifer Kahn set to work on a story about “Learning to Love GMOs” for The New York Times Magazine, she faced a familiar challenge. The sprawling subject of genetically modified foods can congeal into a stew of scientific misinformation, environmental concerns, and anxieties about the power of agribusiness. Kahn, a contributing writer at the magazine, had the task of turning those same ingredients into something more intellectually nutritious and satisfying for readers.

To do that, she needed to create a lean, focused story from a complex topic, strategically choosing what to include and what to omit. And she had to meld the differing perspectives of her sources into a compelling narrative—one that left readers with a clear conclusion instead of a smorgasbord of opinions from which to choose. In this case, Kahn showed how exaggerated fears about the risks of GMOs threaten to throttle genuinely useful applications of the technology.

Writing with authority, as Kahn aimed to do in her article, takes a combination of expertise, confidence, and purpose. Part expert storytelling, part tenacious truth-seeking, authority is one of the more ineffable qualities of good writing. It comes through when a writer takes charge of a story to prioritize selectiveness over comprehensiveness, momentum over excessive citation, rigorous thinking over “balanced” circumspection. In other words, when a writer knows what they’re talking about—and what they want to say.

Writerly authority can elevate any science story but is particularly essential for longer features and reported essays where simply laying out information will not suffice. “You can’t expect the reader to come to their own conclusion when presented with a hundred different claims,” says Kahn, who teaches journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. “They need to leave a piece feeling informed not just about the arguments on each side, but on the legitimacy of those arguments and how they balance out.”

Cultivating authority requires developing a clear idea of a story’s content and arc before sitting down to write, maintaining narrative control of unruly subject matter, and resolving to arrive at a conclusion of sorts. This can be daunting for many writers, especially beginners, who may worry about violating journalistic norms such as objectivity and attribution. Writers who have not historically been granted authority by society, including women and people of color, may find it particularly challenging.

But when grounded in solid reporting, fair-minded deliberation, and humility, writerly authority can help any writer take their stories to the next level. Readers instinctively recognize it as the feeling of being in good hands and headed somewhere interesting.

 

Scouting a Trail

Writing with authority starts with figuring out exactly what a story is about—not just the subject, or even the angle, but precisely what ground the writer wants to cover between the lede and the kicker.

During reporting, writers must conduct a thorough survey of a subject’s landscape—mapping major features, venturing down rabbit holes, consulting the accounts of previous travelers. But eventually, they have to stop exploring and start establishing the narrative they want to tell. “Authority comes from the choices you make about the path you take across your material,” as well as “your honest appraisal of the landscape,” says Jo Chandler, a freelance journalist who teaches at the University of Melbourne in Australia. In other words, the writer’s task is not to create an atlas but to lay a sturdy trail that readers can follow through complex terrain.

Choosing a worthy path can be challenging, especially after wandering in the wilderness of reporting for weeks or even months. Before drafting an outline or putting words on the page, it may help writers to first return to their pitch as a beacon, reminding them of what they initially set out to do. Many then find they need a period of dedicated contemplation to incorporate the nuances uncovered in reporting—the peaks, gullies, and thickets of the landscape—and to excavate the story’s broader implications.

This thinking stage can take hours to weeks, depending on the story and the writer. It might involve poring over notes, walking, doodling, showering—whatever helps the writer to visualize possible routes through the story. Sometimes, writers set to work only to realize they still have more mulling to do. “It’s sort of a perpetual grapple with the material,” says Ferris Jabr, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine based in Portland, Oregon. When he gets stuck, he tries to articulate the main points of the piece, or even a particularly challenging paragraph, to himself as simply and clearly as possible. Sometimes, he says, “you literally just have to sit with your brain for a while.”

Ideally, the writer can anticipate and answer smaller questions as they arise in the reader’s mind, drawing the audience along with curiosity toward the writer’s ultimate destination.

For example, as he was working on a story about “The Social Life of Forests,” Jabr felt confident that he was capturing the science but wanted to say more about how it intersected with other disciplines, such as history and economics. Eventually, he asked himself what social forests revealed about evolution more broadly, and realized they went against the idea of natural selection as a fundamentally competitive process. So he took the chance to highlight the overlooked role of cooperation in the history of life on Earth.

Another helpful strategy for structuring an authoritative piece involves homing in on the story’s central question. “Once that is there, then things start falling into place,” says Aathira Perinchery, an environmental reporter for The Wire in India and a former freelancer. In her Kavli Award–winning story for FiftyTwo, Perinchery asked: Why are scientists discovering so many new species?

Once she had settled on that query, Perinchery began to map out her story, defining the sections so that each provided a piece of the answer. She began with the discovery of a new species of frog in India’s Western Ghats—a biodiversity hotspot—then explored how new technologies have changed the way scientists define species, before concluding with the implications for conservation.

Kahn describes this process as “turning the gem”—rotating a subject to shine light on key facets that address the story’s overarching question. Ideally, while exploring each facet, the writer can anticipate and answer smaller questions as they arise in the reader’s mind, drawing the audience along with curiosity toward the writer’s ultimate destination. “Any story could spread out into the entire world,” she says. But knowing where a story is going and the main stops along the way can keep writers from getting lost.

 

Clearing the Path

As writers lay the trail of their story, they have to make it passable for readers—kicking loose stones out of the way, winding gently up steep hills, building makeshift bridges across streams. In doing so, the writer exercises authority and maintains control of the narrative by being ruthlessly selective about what goes into each sentence and paragraph.

One simple way to accomplish this involves trimming unnecessary quotes and attributions. Too often, science stories fall into a pattern of fact-attribution-quote, which can feel formulaic and plodding when overused. This tendency often stems from the well-intentioned desire to demonstrate the depth of a writer’s reporting and to credit people for their ideas—both of which are important. But it can also reflect a fear of getting something wrong, particularly when a writer is less experienced or tackling complicated science. “You really have to just trust yourself,” says Shannon Stirone, a freelance journalist in New York City.

Stirone learned over time—and with her editors’ encouragement—to use her own voice as much as possible. Paraphrasing often results in clearer, more compelling prose that serves the story better and conveys a greater sense of authority. For example, in a reported essay for Longreads about scientists’ quest to map the cosmos, Stirone included just six direct quotes in more than 4,200 words. “You have to steal all the information from your sources and then you just take it and make it your own,” she says. (Stirone’s story was anthologized in the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021.)

To avoid overusing quotes, Jabr says he sometimes writes his first draft with hardly any expert quotes, except those from the main character in a narrative. Then he goes back to make room for only the best comments he collected in interviews—those that go beyond simply conveying information to provide color, reveal personality, or express a source’s strong opinion. As is often the case in science writing, authoritative stories usually do not quote every source the writer interviews. (A sincere note of thanks can go a long way toward maintaining good relationships with sources who go unmentioned.)

Writers can also introduce the sources they do name in ways that help build narrative, says Rod McCullom, a Chicago-based freelance science and technology writer and columnist at Undark. Attributions can be clunky and wordy, he says, but “you can tell a story as well.” For example, in a Nature story about using artificial intelligence to scour social media for warnings of imminent gun violence, McCullom introduced the main researcher not with a quote, but by describing the moment in which he learned about a murdered teenager whose Twitter posts inspired the approach. As the story unfurled, the quotes and facts attributed to that researcher seemed to come from a real person—not a disembodied expert.

Another way to write with more authority involves taking the reins in sections of backstory and exposition.

Another way to write with more authority involves taking the reins in sections of backstory and exposition. Here, the writer must swiftly and engagingly bring readers up to speed, often in the space of a few paragraphs. That means continuing to limit citations, especially for well-established facts, and leaving out much of what the writer learned in reporting. “That’s the part which is secretly challenging because you want to include everything!” says Rivka Galchen, a staff writer at The New Yorker who also writes fiction and teaches at Columbia University.

The trick is to thoughtfully curate these sections so that they appeal to most readers, not just those already interested in the subject, Galchen says. That means including only the most surprising or important details, and anything else that’s essential for an unfamiliar reader’s understanding. Backstory can be a great place to convey voice and perspective, too. For example, in a recent story on pig-to-human heart transplants, Galchen gives a short history of organ transplants, mainly in the form of brief anecdotes ranging from a tantalizing morsel to a few sentences in length. For instance, she writes, “a reasonably eminent twentieth-century scientist transplanted second heads onto dogs,” leaving out details like the researcher’s name, affiliation, and how the dogs fared.

Natural pauses, inflection points, or transitions between exposition and narrative are other areas where writerly authority can go a long way. Here, writers can guide readers to make sure they stay on the trail and don’t miss any turns. Stirone often uses what she thinks of as a “firm voice” to tell readers what to make of the information they just received and remind them why the story matters.

In the Longreads piece, for example, she spent a few paragraphs of narrative vividly describing her experience watching workers fix an oil leak on a state-of-the-art telescope in Arizona. Then, she immediately hammered home its significance to humankind: After millennia of making maps to “understand their place in the context of things,” this telescope would attempt to create “the last map humans can make.”

 

Reaching a Destination

Perhaps the most difficult element of writerly authority involves steering a story to a meaningful resolution. Many writers shy away from drawing conclusions, either because they’ve been taught to keep their own ideas out of their work, they don’t want to appear biased, or they feel unqualified to render a verdict. But if reporters have done their homework, then they have earned the right to give their honest assessment, Kahn says. In fact, “you actually really owe it to the reader to land somewhere.”

This approach fundamentally differs from something like an op-ed, in which the author tries to persuade readers of a particular view by marshalling evidence in favor of it. In a journalistic article, the writer does the hard work of rigorously reporting out the issue, taking the time to hear and understand different arguments, and attempting to understand how they stack up. Kahn says the key is to keep digging and thinking until the writer has answered the story’s central question satisfactorily in their own mind. Then, the writer can report what they’ve found in the story, allowing the reader to follow along and digest different arguments rather than feeling prodded into agreement.

In Kahn’s GMO piece, she examined the arguments against genetic engineering and concluded that they contain few valid safety concerns but instead stem from a fuzzy understanding of biology and the fact that GMOs have historically benefited large companies over consumers. Then, she highlighted the real benefits a new generation of GMOs could bring for human health and agricultural sustainability. “That’s not an uncomplicated place to land,” she says.

In some cases, finding an answer is impossible. But an authoritative story can still leave the reader with a sense of closure even if it’s just to marvel at the unknown.

Some stories can’t definitively answer their motivating question. After all, one magazine story—or even a book—is unlikely to settle a question that has flummoxed thinkers for centuries. But to repay their readers’ attention, writers have an obligation to contribute to the conversation by putting forward an original perspective. The key is not to think of it as “the capital-T truth,” Jabr says. “Your job is to offer something so the reader can consider it and see if they agree.”

In some cases, finding an answer is impossible. But an authoritative story can still leave the reader with a sense of closure even if it’s just to marvel at the unknown. In a recent feature for Hakai, Jabr asked whether humans can really be friends with an octopus. It’s hard to say without asking a cephalopod—which was Jabr’s point. We simply can’t know. But he still managed to leave readers in a satisfying place by examining what we do know about octopus biology and behavior and illustrating how our beliefs and emotions can easily fill the gaps in our knowledge.

Putting original ideas like this out in the world feels intimidating even to seasoned writers. To identify faulty assumptions or logic (and to keep imposter syndrome at bay), some writers vet their ideas with trusted friends and sources. If journalists are worried about potential bias or blind spots, they can do what journalists do best: report them out. Many writers quell their doubts by trusting that their editors won’t let a horribly flawed story go out into the world. And if a story turns out to contain errors, journalists should be prepared to admit their mistakes and work to regain their readers’ trust.

The possibility of having to walk back a published piece may feel riskier for some journalists than others, particularly those who are early-career or come from underrepresented backgrounds. As a Black man, McCullom says he feels like he has less margin for error than others. “I could not afford to make many public mistakes,” he says. But he has still cultivated a sense of authority by developing specific areas of expertise, such as AI, biometrics, and crime.

On the flip side, journalists from privileged backgrounds may need to critically examine the source of their authority, especially when reporting on countries and communities that are not their own. “My authority, in some ways, used to be that I was the outsider, white journalist arriving in a crisis location,” says Chandler, a self-described serial parachute journalist. Now, she seeks to earn a sense of authority through deep, on-the-ground sourcing, looking for opportunities to cover the same places repeatedly, and rethinking her reporting model to collaborate with local journalists.

There are many reasons a writer might feel uneasy about writing with authority—and a measure of humility helps protect against taking authority too far. But overcoming anxieties and learning to trust your work is worth it. “There has to come a point where you make it actionable instead of just crippling,” Kahn says. “You can’t just sit there quavering in the background on the chance that you’ve missed something.”

 

 

Courtesy of Julia Rosen

Julia Rosen is a freelance journalist covering science and the environment from Portland, Oregon. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Hakai, High Country News, and many other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @1juliarosen.

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