Some freelance writers understand Greek. Aristotle’s “modes for persuasion”—otherwise known as rhetorical appeals—are the heart, mind, and gut of writing—ethos, pathos, and logos.[1] They are means of persuading others to believe a particular point of view. Speechwriters live by them. Advertisers use them to sway us. Poets rhyme them. Lawyers weave them into legal arguments. Romance writers buy them in bushel baskets. And novelists use all three, the better to keep you in the story.

Laura Spencer wrote an article titled The Freelance Writer’s Code of Ethics.[2] It may apply to freelance writers, but doesn’t appear to be directed at writers writ large. Lawyers have a code of ethics.[3] So do physicians[4] and small business owners.[5]

So, why is there no uniform code for ethical writing? No code of ethics for writers?

Maybe it’s because writing is not a profession—it’s a calling. Cynics say ethics is a euphemism for how a higher price is explained to a hapless buyer.[6] Ethics might be “mora,” which is either an unwarranted legal delay, a hardwood tree, a division of the Spartan Army, a wicker footstool, a dishonor, or a finger game. Its adjective is cheap.[7]

“The poet’s heart, like all other hearts, is an interminable artichoke.”

Pablo Neruda

No doubt, writers face ethical dilemmas every time we stroke our keyboards. In no particular order, we all face plagiarism, honesty, chastity, copyrighty—and hoopteedoodle. The first three are serious problems, but when it comes to copyrighty, often shortened to just copyright or hoopteedoodle, we often write in the blind. What ethical writers need most is a conversion table for pathos, logos, and best of all, ethos.

Pathos is how writers appeal to their reader’s emotion by writing a convincing story. Logos is an appeal to our readers’ logic—persuading by citing facts and figures.  Ethos is an ethical appeal. We write to convince readers we have credibility and character. That is, we have credible sources and are worthy of their reading time. Ethos is the Greek word for “character.” The word “ethic” is derived from ethos.

So there you have it. Use pathos to reach your reader’s heart. Use logos to reach her head. And use ethos to reach her gut—that’s where right and wrong are filtered.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[6] The New Devil’s Dictionary, Rhoda Koenig, Lyons Press, Guilford CT. p. 51, 2012.

[7] Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary, by Josefa Heifetz Byrne, University Books, Citadel Press, Secaucus, NJ, 10th Printing, 1980.