One of the three sides of the rhetorical triangle is ethos. Ethos refers to the writer’s credibility and authority as perceived by readers. (For more information about this rhetorical appeal, please see "Ethos.") Using sources to support the claims you make strengthens your authority as a writer. Sources also show your readers that you’ve “done your homework,” that is, that you are able to make arguments about your topic because you have read other credible and significant writers who have contributed to the ongoing conversation about your topic. To be a scholarly writer is to respond to other writers who have already discussed certain aspects of the topic you are investigating. This ongoing conversation is one that you will contribute your original ideas to as well as a conversation that other writers will continue to respond to in the future. You should start your research by looking at the most current information on your topic. If you were to engage with others in a conversation, you would not try to refer back to something that was said hours ago, instead you would respond to what is being said at that particular moment. Using sources also shows your readers where you fit in with other writers in the larger conversation about your topic. Though your work may not yet be as famous as other writers, when you refer to writers like Freud, you can show your readers where your ideas derive from or even complicate other writers’ arguments.
Writers should utilize the latest, most significant and credible sources that engage with the topic at hand. For example, if you were to read a scientific study that only included sources that are thirty years old, the argument of the study might look outdated and untrustworthy. It is important to remember that writing (about almost any topic) is an ongoing conversation. You are not the first to write, and you certainly will not be the last. Use sources that show your readers you are up to date and knowledgeable about your topic. Sources that come from peer-reviewed journals or scholarly organizations are examples of credible sources. Avoid sources that do not utilize sources; it is difficult to verify where writers may have gotten the information in the article. One tip for finding sources is to look at the works cited page of a credible source; this can provide you with leads in developing a list for reading further on your topic.
It is very important to make connections to the sources that you include in your writing. First, remember that your essay is your opportunity to showcase your ideas and arguments. Avoid using an excessive amount of source material; doing so can take your readers’ focus away from your original arguments. Going back to the notion that writing is engaging in conversation, think of engaging with your source material as if you are having a conversation with the writers themselves. You can use source material to lend support, to complicate, or even to argue against previous ideas. Here is one example of engaging with source material in a conversational mode:
Tom Smith writes, “Most ponies enjoy skateboarding on Saturday nights” (8). Though my findings support Smith’s claims that most ponies do enjoy skateboarding, however, my research shows that ponies tend to skate on Sunday afternoons. The differences in our findings may come from the recent changes in skateboarding laws, which are not applicable on Sundays because skateboarding officials have the day off.
In this example, the writer responds to the source material by comparing and contrasting the source’s ideas with his or her own. The source material is the section of the sentence that appears between the quotation marks. This sentence comes from page 8 of Tom Smith’s book; this is indicated by the number 8 that appears between the parentheses. If the writer and Tom Smith were at a party together, their conversation would be interesting and vibrant. Here is one example of unsuccessful source engagement:
Tom Smith writes, “Most ponies enjoy skateboarding on Saturday nights” (8). I agree.
In this example, we see no engagement with the source material. If the writer and Tom Smith were talking at a party, it would be a boring conversation that does not go anywhere. Simply agreeing or disagreeing does not continue the conversation, nor does it highlight the importance of your findings. Another way of thinking about source engagement is a three-step process: explain, engage, and discuss.
- Explaining requires that you explain what the author in the source is talking about and why it is important. Do not take it for granted that readers will know why the source material you use is important or significant.
- The second step, engage, requires you to talk back to the source
- Finally, discuss the implications of your response. Here is an example of this process:
The latest study from Bird University found that “parrots tend to sleep all day on Sundays” (1). This finding is significant because it supports my hypothesis that Sunday is the official day of rest for parrots. Further research on this topic is necessary; it could be significant to many other fields of study if other varieties of birds also rest on Sundays.
Connecting your claims to source material is an important facet of structuring a strong argument. Scholarly and up to date sources give your ideas credibility and authority, just be sure to prioritize your own thoughts over those of your sources.