Why Writing Works

Disciplinary Approaches to Composing Texts

Making Your Writing Work: Ethos & Commonplaces

by Dr. Amanda Bemer

What makes good writing “work”? There are a number of factors--and most all of them boil down to the concept of ethos. So what is ethos? It is one of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion (the other two are logos and pathos). Ethos is a form of persuasion that relies on how people perceive or think about the writer’s reputation or character. Ethos deals with the personal character of the writer, or at least what others believe your personal character to be. In your writing, you have the ability to “become” an authority on your topic. While they’re reading your writing, readers are asking themselves some questions about the writer that ultimately determine whether your piece of writing “works” or not: Is the writer someone I would believe on this topic? Are they someone I want to believe? Do I believe them? You’ll notice that none of the questions were: Do I agree with them? Am I persuaded by them? Overall, ethos convinces the reader that the author has the authority to be writing about the topic in the first place.

Writing the “Right” Way

To write the "right" way requires going beyond Aristotle's definition. Writing in the style of the discipline is a key way to develop ethos. This doesn’t mean you have to say what everyone in your field is saying; instead, it means your piece of writing needs to “fit into” the discipline. Failure to write in the style of your discipline probably means that your readers are going to dismiss what you have to say, no matter what you’re saying. (Note that we realize that this is not necessarily fair, but it is typically the case.)

You might notice that some writers seem to be able to ignore the writing conventions of their field or subvert them in some way. These writers are likely to have an ethos that is ingrained in the minds of their readers. This is the concept of situated ethos. Having a long history in their field or a high degree in their field typically provides this situated ethos, which allows these writers to get away with flouting some of the conventions of their field. What are the rest of us to do? We follow the conventions of the field and invent our ethos by fitting in or showing that we belong (also known as invented ethos).

Writing in the style of your discipline (and thus developing ethos) means a lot of things:

  • Using the types of sources that are preferred in your discipline (by doing so, you are “borrowing” the ethos of those sources)
  • Using the types of language preferred in your discipline
  • Formatting your argument in the correct way according to where you’re publishing it or who is reading it (this is probably the easiest way to write like you belong there!)
  • Establishing common ground with your audience (what beliefs or values do you share?)

Commonplaces: Writing about the “Right” Topics

One way to develop your ethos is to determine the commonplaces in which you should be writing. Commonplaces are not actual, physical locations--if you’re writing about agriculture, this doesn’t mean you should sit in a barn or cornfield while you’re writing in order to be persuasive. Commonplaces can be thought of as mental locations instead--they are the values and beliefs that swirl around in the minds of the people in the discipline in which you’re writing. Essentially, commonplaces are the mental places where people in the discipline tend to agree or have shared beliefs. They are ideals that are thought of as true. An example might be elementary school teachers--a commonplace they share is that education is valuable. Another likely commonplace they share is that all children deserve an education. Commonplaces are sometimes hard to uncover because they are often innate beliefs; we don’t often think about these values or beliefs because we take for granted that they are true. It’s important to dig into the commonplaces that people within your discipline hold because they reveal truths about the work these people do and why they do it. It can also help you to be persuasive when writing in the discipline. Approaching a paper for elementary education class with the belief that “not all children deserve an education” will make it hard for you to develop ethos. Your audience will feel the lack of common ground and will doubt your authority on elementary education.

So how do you determine what is “right” for your discipline in order to use ethos and commonplaces to your advantage? You should get familiar with the communication work of your discipline: read things that have been published in your discipline, talk to scholars in your discipline, and surround yourself in the writing and thought process of your discipline.

Things to think about:

  • What are the commonplaces that philosophy majors hold? Communication studies majors? Environmental science majors? (The list goes on--think about whatever discipline you like!)
  • What have you read recently in which the author built a solid sense of ethos, or character? How did the author do it?
  • Check out the opinion page of your local newspaper. How do people establish (or attempt to establish) ethos in their letters to the editor?