Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Ethos is the rhetorical appeal of your character. Your ethos in writing is who the reader "gets to know". Even in the most impersonal paper, the reader gets a sense of the writer, a sense of his or her credibility (which should be taken to mean quite literally "believability"). In Greek, ethos could mean custom, habit, disposition, or character. It is also at the root of "ethics".

Unlike politics, however, scholarship does not make any explicitly moral demands of you. You don't have to be a good parent, spouse, or patriot to be an organization theorist. Your ethos may, however, be affected by your political positioning. While scholarly ethos is not always damaged by the simple fact of stating your political position explicitly, or by inadvertently expressing your implicit position, different fields do have different political "leanings", so sometimes you can get in trouble simply by having inappropriate views.

But in academic writing your main ethos appeal lies in the work you do to esablish and maintain a scholarly persona. (Persona means "mask". You are trying to generate a stable image of yourself as a scholar in the reader's mind.) Booth, Colomb and Williams have pointed out that simple things like getting your references right (so that your reader can find your sources) contribute to your ethos (3rd edition: page 195-6). Naturally, there is also the problem of getting simple facts straight. If you make claims about the world that the reader knows to be false, your ethos will suffer. As it also will if your reader goes back to your souce and discovers that you have plagiarized it.

Don't think to yourself that only a pedant would require you to double check your draft against your sources. Think of it as a point of honour. Your reader often will.

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