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I‘ve followed several online discussions in recent months about how to become an “authority blogger.” Ryan Imel wrote a short piece at Copyblogger about it, there is a forum by that name, and Chris Garrett is marketing an online course designed to teach “strategic blogging for business and professionals.”

Before a writer who is devoted to his/her craft can be deemed an “authority,” however, he/she must start by focusing upon establishing his/her credibility. In my profession, we refer to the “straight face” test. I ask myself, when evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a case, whether I can assert a particular argument “with a straight face.” Credibility boils down to the basic, but sometimes ethereal idea of trust. A credible writer is one who has the ability to elicit his/her readers’ belief in the information, message, idea or opinion communicated by the writer and, usually over time, earns their trust and, eventually, loyalty.

Ryan posits that it isn’t particularly difficult to blog or write with authority, citing Jerry Seinfeld as an example of an individual who became an authority

on the everyday. And all he had to do was stand up and say “Did you ever notice how . . .”

This tells me that it isn’t all that hard to become an authority on something. . .

. . . A large part of it is stepping up to be that authority. So, before anything else: Are you willing to be an authority on your topic? Can you accept that responsibility? Being seen as an authority becomes a large responsibility. . .

Decide now whether you want to be that authority or not. Once you’ve decided to become an authority you’re already halfway there. If you want it and expect the sort of respect an authority figure receives, you’ll be well on your way.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? With all due respect to Ryan and his fellow self-proclaimed authorities on “authority blogging,” I must dissent. Frankly, I find the suggestion that one can simply declare themselves to be an authority on a particular topic and then begin pontificating on the subject decidedly “Palin-esque” — and doomed to fail.

Why Ryan overlooks is the fact that Jerry Seinfeld — like anyone who has earned the right to be termed an “authority” — did not just step onto a stage for the first time and instantly become a success. Like all successful comics, Seinfeld spent years perfecting his routine, playing increasingly larger clubs as he fine-tuned his material. It is true that Seinfeld developed a niche that had been previously ignored, i.e., the art of sharing observations about the minuscule aspects of daily life, even developing a one of the most successful sitcoms in history and marketing it as a show about nothing. Therein lies his true genius. But innovation should not be mistaken for or deemed a substitute for good, old-fashioned hard work. And in the case of someone who wants to become an authority on a particular topic the value of study, research, and development of a solid knowledge-base cannot be underestimated. Simply put, shortcuts don’t work.

Why do I mention Governor Sarah Palin? Because she is a classic example of an individual who has attempted to skip the hard work of preparation and establishing one’s credibility in favor of instantly being deemed an authority. Her rapidly declining approval ratings demonstrate that the strategy has failed.

No, she is not a writer, but the lessons to be learned from her candidacy are readily applicable to writers.

Just one week ago, October 20, 2008, Palin told a third grader who asked her what the job of being Vice President entails that the Vice President is “in charge of the U.S. Senate.” She elaborated, explaining that being Vice President is a “great job” that she looks “forward to having” because “they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes that will make life better” for Americans. It was a catastrophic blunder that could — and should — have easily been avoided. (Ironically, it has been reported that Palin continued the interview even as McCain staffers attempted to end it.)

In reality, the Vice President serves as the President of the Senate, but “shall have no Vote, unless they be evenly divided.” (U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 3.)

During the twentieth century, the role of the vice president has evolved into more of an executive branch position. Now, the vice president is usually seen as an integral part of a president’s administration and presides over the Senate only on ceremonial occasions or when a tie-breaking vote may be needed. Yet, even though the nature of the job has changed, it is still greatly affected by the personality and skills of the individual incumbent. (See U.S. Senate’s Official Site.)

As a young student, I learned to visit the library to conduct research, taking notes on index cards and systematically organizing them into an outline before beginning to write the assigned paper, article, or other document. But the art of conducting research in a library using books is, literally, a lost art. Today, reliable, accurate information is literally a click away. For instance, it took me less than 15 seconds to type “United States Senate” into the Google search box and navigate to its official website. A few seconds later, I was reading about the Constitutional authority for the office of the Vice President, duties enumerated therein, individuals who have held the office over the years, and historical evolution of the Vice President’s role.

The fact that information on every conceivable subject is so readily available has made it crucial that writers do the homework required in order to establish their credibility early on in their writing career and eventually become recognized experts in their niche, field, or area of expertise. After all, if a writer publishes erroneous information, the fact will quickly be revealed by astute readers.

Perhaps if Governor Palin had spent a little more time researching the parameters of the job she is seeking — just for starters — her approval numbers might be better because she would be perceived as having credibility and authority on a variety of topics that are of concern to American voters.

All writers can learn from her mistakes. There is no substitute for taking the time to become knowledgeable as to the subject you are writing about, double and triple-checking the facts. If you have a computer and Internet access, you don’t even need to leave your house. You may not be angling to become Vice President of the United State, but your credibility — and, hence, your success — are at stake.


1 Comment

  1. Tanner Christensen

    Being viewed as an authority really depends on a few different factors, each different for the reader. The one defining thing that all authorities share is that they are knowledgeable (good point) about whatever it is they are talking about.

    The Seinfeld example given at the beginning of the article by Ryan Imel is hard to accept, because 1. Seinfeld is a comedian, and 2. Seinfeld is a comedian that makes jokes about life (a pretty big topic).

    Just my 2 cents anyway.

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