Ethos & Editing: Part 1

I’ve worked on my English undergraduate degree on and off for six years, and while I’ve been trained in digital rhetoric and work in a studio at school, I’m finally taking a traditional rhetoric course titled “History and Theory of Rhetoric.” Rhetoric is so crucial to effective writing that many rhetorical concepts are notions I understood already in a pragmatic sense but didn’t identify as learned concepts. As I develop and broaden the scope for this blog, I’ve decided to make didactic posts about enlightening topics regarding both traditional and technological rhetoric. Anyways, I’m learning about logos, pathos, and ethos (arguably the best-known rhetorical theory) in the context of other rhetorical concepts that predate technology, which has complicated yet improved my understanding. In this post, I share with you the connection between editing and ethos.

What Is Ethos?

Language is the vessel by which we communicate our thoughts and visions. Reading, writing, and speaking are tools both for societal progress and societal destruction. We accomplish those goals by sharing our ideas with others, persuading them, and ultimately inciting them to action. Obviously, the way we communicate with people shapes their perceptions of us and our ideas. This is where editing enters the picture as a vital aspect in writing: editing aims for flawless craft, and flawless craft builds ethos, which helps persuade. The term “flawless craft” carries multiple implications that we will later explore.

Ethos equates to authority/trustworthiness as a speaker/writer/leader. If I say that I want to establish a strong ethos as an English grammar expert through my blog, I indicate that I plan to publish professional, near-perfect articles that positively reflect my knowledge and experience. As an editor, if I publicly presented text that I hadn’t meticulously combed over–if I decided to care a little less just once–my editing ethos would be damaged, as my performance would negatively reflect on my skill set.

Building Ethos

Here’s the kicker: facilitating a strong ethos is essential when actively aiming to persuade others. If my ethos as an editor incurred damage, potential clients or readers would take me less seriously; when the ethos of a political group, company, public figure, etc. gets damaged, they lose voters, money, careers, etc. 

Ethos is built in many ways, and I’ll detail three of them. Maintaining consistency in  one’s morals/values versus one’s actions builds his/her ethos. For example, a cynical atheist who promotes a hedonistic lifestyle probably maintains strong ethos with like-minded people and no ethos with devout Christians. However, if a devout Christian is revealed as a sexual predator, that person loses ethos with Christians and atheists alike. Though we are all hypocritical in some ways at some times, most people are repulsed by large-scale scandals involving lies/cheating. Extra qualifications like education or job experience also facilitate ethos. For instance, I expect a professor with decades of teaching experience to make more poignant/novel observations throughout the semester than I would a TA because I assume the seasoned professor has been exposed to more scholarship over the years. One other way I’ll note to foster ethos is service/friendliness/wit. If a person negatively interacts with an employee at Harris Teeter, he/she is unlikely to forget it soon, even if it doesn’t stop him/her from shopping there ever again. However, if a person generally has positive interactions with the Lowe’s Food employees, he/she will likely choose the latter over the former when there’s an option.

I identified three methods of ethos-building that are unrelated to editing on the surface. However, the examples demonstrate principles that are applicable to editing. Stay tuned for the next installation this week to see how these examples connect to editing and more!


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