What is Evidence?
- information, data that a writer, speaker, knowledge maker . . . weaves into a text to substantiate a claim
- a defining attribute of successful workplace and school-based writing
Just as detectives use various types of evidence to study crime scenes, writers, speakers, and knowledge workers . . . use different types of evidence to help their audiences better understand their claims, interpretations, point of view, and conclusions.
Evidence & the Writing Process
When you think of the term evidence, what comes to mind? CSI? Law and Order? NCIS?
Certainly, detectives and law enforcement officers use evidence to prove that a criminal is guilty. What’s more, they use different types of evidence to find and convict the offending person(s), such as eyewitness accounts, DNA, fingerprints, and material evidence.
You want to focus on audience because different readers, different discourse communities, have unique and sometimes conflicting ideas about what constitutes reliable evidence. For instance, some people may be easily swayed by their emotions. That’s why rhetoricians appeal to pathos rather than ethos and logos. Others may find such appeals to pathos to be inappropriate, unprofessional, deceitful.
Regardless of the type used, all evidence serves the same general function: evidence bolsters a writer’s claims. The trick is to determine, during composing, what type of evidence will most help your point.
Reasoning with Evidence
Evidence is the sine qua non of substantive academic and workplace writing. Educated readers are trained in critical literacy practices: they expect writers, speakers, knowledge makers . . . to support claims with evidence. They assess the validity of the evidence by questioning its currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose .
Academic culture is an evidence-based culture. Good scholarship requires claims supported by facts, theories, and research. Finding the evidence is not enough, though, as it needs to be successfully integrated into texts. When composers call on the ideas or authority of a book, article, web site, primary source, or other outside information, they should be practiced in choosing the best possible information and integrating it effectively into their own prose. Research in composition and rhetoric reminds us that students struggling to understand new material often use sources in immature ways–perhaps by over-quoting or patch-writing.
Audiences, discourse communities, have unique conventions for integrating evidence into texts and for citing paraphrases, summaries, and quotes from the texts of others. Thus, one of the first things you want to do when composing a text is find out what citation style the audience expects you to use.
- APA Style (6th Edition)
- MLA Style and Formatting Guide (8th Edition)
Evidence as a Social, Cultural, Historical Artifact
Evidence vs Research
Students sometimes confuse evidence with research; the two do not mean the same thing.
Research should tell you about a conversation, one that began before you decided upon your project topic. When you incorporate research into a paper, you are integrating and responding to previous claims about your topic made by other writers. As such, it’s important to try to understand the main argument each source in a particular conversation is making, and these main arguments (and ensuing subclaims) can then be used as evidence—as support for your claims—in your paper. Let’s say for a bibliographic essay you decide to write about the Indian Mutiny. Well, as the Indian Mutiny began around 1857, people have been writing about the Mutiny since that time. Thus, it’s important to realize that by writing about the Indian Mutiny now, you’re contributing to an ongoing conversation. By doing research, you can see what’s already been said about this topic, decide what specific approach to the topic might be original and insightful, and determine what ideas from other writers provide an opening for you to assert your own claims.
Ho, Hock Lai, “The Legal Concept of Evidence”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/evidence-legal/>.