Writing with Confidence at the Sentence Level

by | Nov 17, 2020

Authority and confidence in scholarly writing are closely connected. The more confident you sound, the more authoritative your argument will sound, too. But what if you have a clear, compelling argument and solid contributions to your field but are still told your writing voice “sounds like a student”? Comments like these can further undermine how confident you feel, amplifying imposter syndrome.

No matter how confident you might feel, there are concrete tools that can help convey confidence in your writing itself. Advice about the nuts and bolts of sentences is more often couched in terms of clarity but sentence structure has everything to do with writing with confidence as well. Learning to flex these muscles will let readers know that your voice and ideas are worth engaging.

Check sentence subjects

One of the places where many authors struggle to write with confidence is when they’re discussing existing scholarship. A good place to begin is by underlining the subjects of your sentences in your discussions of scholarly literature. If a majority of these sentences use other authors’ names in the subject position (e.g., “Author X writes that…”), you may have a problem!

This structure subtly focuses reader attention on other scholars as individuals rather than on their ideas or arguments. It can restrict your sentences to summarizing previous works, making it harder to understand how you align with or differ from them. Finally, this sentence structure can also undermine your confidence by resting too heavily on others’ scholarly authority rather than your own interpretation and restatement of their ideas.

Try reworking these sentences to move concepts, bodies of literature, or yourself into the subject position. Emphasizing fields over authors can be especially useful for interdisciplinary audiences, framing the larger intellectual debates you engage as more important than individuals. Adjusting subjects will not only convey more confidence but will also force you to clarify your position with respect to the cited work:

  • Author-as-subject: “Rahder discusses confident writing, laying out several tools for a strong scholarly voice.”
  • Idea-as-subject: “Rahder’s discussion of confident writing is useful to my analysis because…” 
  • Self-as-subject: “I draw on Rahder’s framework for confident writing to…”

As you rework sentences in this way, you might end up revealing places where you have organized your manuscript around authors or articles, rather than ideas. Noticing this can help you restructure paragraphs as well, approaching your scholarly writing with confidence. You might also identify unnecessary citations, included not because they are important to your current argument but because they were in an earlier version of the manuscript like a seminar paper or conference presentation.

Of course, there are cases where author-as-subject construction is helpful to building an argument, such as statements about the authors themselves (e.g., highlighting their influence on a particular field) or to introduce direct quotes. But repeating this sentence structure over and over leaves an impression that you do not trust your own scholarly voice

Eliminate the passive voice

If while doing the previous exercise you find it difficult to identify the subjects of some of your sentences, you might be overusing the passive voice. Long critiqued as causing clarity problems, passive voice creates similar problems for confidence. The two are closely related—the clearer and more direct your written voice, the more confident you sound.

In particular, look closely at the sentences that articulate your own ideas, arguments, and interventions. If any of these use the passive voice, you are likely undermining your own authority and readers’ confidence.

Sharpen your verbs

Once you have checked the subjects and voice of your sentences, it’s time to turn to the verbs. There are a few things to look for here: First, eliminate overuse of “helper verbs”—those that modify rather than describe the main action of the sentence. In terms of your written voice, these are major confidence-killers.

For example, you can replace phrases like

  • “I am able to analyze…”, “It is possible to argue that…”, or “I work to decenter…”

with more confident versions like

  • “I analyze…”, “I argue…”, or “I decenter…”

If you can delete a verb without changing the sentence’s meaning, do so!

Second, make your verbs as specific as possible. We all turn to the scholarly standbys at times—terms like arguing, analyzing, and intervening. But whenever possible, keep your writing lively, strong, and confident with specificity in your verbs. When engaging with other scholarship, sharp verbs complement the attention to sentence subjects above by articulating your relationship to others’ ideas: you might build on, differ from, overlap with, complement, draw on, braid together, or bridge other works. Each of these verbs is specific. Allow the how and why of the verb to unfold into a confident statement of your unique perspective.

Finally, do a careful review to purge verbs that explicitly signal lack of writing confidence by framing your argument in terms of desires or attempts. These include want, wish, try, endeavor, seek, strive, and others. These typically appear in the “helper verb” position noted above, but are particularly insidious in creating an impression of lack of confidence. Your manuscript shouldn’t hope to argue; it should actually argue.

Use short, declarative sentences

As students, many authors internalize the idea that good academic writing includes long, winding sentences laden with complex jargon. These have their place—some ideas are complicated and need sentences to match. But too many of these weigh your writing down and can actually decrease a reader’s sense of your authority and confidence by giving the impression that you are hiding behind overly complicated language. Mix long, nuanced sentences with short snappy ones to drive your key points home.

Let significance stand on its own

Overusing phrases that state importance or significance can counterintuitively undermine attempts at writing with confidence. It is essential to understand and articulate why your research and arguments are important. But by overusing these words, you appear less confident. You can also distract reader attention from the central contributions of your work by using these words to describe minor pieces of evidence.

Look for phrases like, “It is significant to note that…” or “Importantly, …” and see what happens if they are deleted. In a few cases, these do helpful work to draw reader attention to a new and unique insight, but most of the time they simply add wordiness. Used too often, they take the power out of your analytical voice—if everything is “significant,” nothing stands out as significant. There is nothing technically wrong with, “It is significant to note that Einstein appreciated cats,” but directness sounds more confident: “Einstein appreciated cats.”

Fake it until you make it

Many of the above writing habits are unconscious ways of playing defense against potential critical readers: over-relying on other scholars’ names to bolster your authority, using passive voice to avoid first-person ownership of your new ideas, and inserting extra words and phrases to prop up statements you worry might not stand on their own.

Luckily, you can address these issues in your writing whether or not you feel confident—and, much like positive self-affirmations spoken aloud, you may actually find that your confidence in your own ideas grows as a result.

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