Ethos, for the purposes of writing and this class, has to do with the way the writer is perceived by the readers. look at a few of the things a reader might learn about an author without the writer ever mentioning herself:

  • Educated
  • Conscientious
  • Lazy
  • Dishonest
  • Rushed
  • Careful
  • Caring
  • Enthusiastic
  • Boring
  • Passionate
  • Insightful
  • Manipulative

All these impressions and more may be given by what the author says and how he says it.

Readers may even derive impressions about what the writer looks like, her gender, how he dresses, or if she speaks with an accent. These impressions are important to the extent that they impact the purpose and effectiveness of the paper. 

You should have two specific goals as you consider how to build your ethos:

  • Make readers Trust you
  • Make readers Like or Respect you

By "like you," I don't mean that your readers should want to go on a date with you when they put the paper down. Readers usually like, or respect and appreciate, a writer who has taken the time to write a bombproof, trustworthy, interesting paper.   A few of the best ways to build strong ethos are:

  • Have good logos
  • Have good pathos
  • Show that you've researched your topic well
  • Show enthusiasm or that you care about your topic (it's contagious)
  • Show empathy when appropriate

If a writer's ethos suggests that they conducted only limited research (all sources are from the same place or from less-credible sources or critical points are not backed up), readers may feel less inclined to trust the paper. The writer’s arguments will therefore be less convincing and less effective.

If the paper is filled with typos and grammatical errors, with questionable reasoning or insensitive comments, the reader may loose respect for the writer and feel more inclined to read resistively.

You can get extra mileage by showing that you care about the people or things you write about, think and act ethically and with sensitivity where appropriate, and have no ulterior motives.

I occasionally see papers where the author’s standpoint totally disagrees with her audience’s. This is, in some cases, unavoidable, and shouldn’t present a major problem if handled well. But if you treat your audience as stupid or flat-out wrong, you will cause serious damage to your ethos and greatly weaken your purpose’s chances of succeeding. Try to show empathy. Make a few concessions if you can. Look at the issue through their eyes before ripping apart their beliefs.  For a good example of this tactic, read Eat Your Meaties?

Read more about cooperative and resistive readers and how you can influence their response to your paper.

Learn a few more things you can do to enhance or damage your ethos.