How do you write a rhetorical analysis essay?
Imagine you have to deliver a speech arguing for something your audience might not support. You will not just speak up your ideas, you will carefully organize your argument for your audience to believe you can be trusted and start feeling and thinking the same way.
In rhetorical analysis, you do the reverse thing:
Listen to or read such an argument composed by someone else and dig into how an author organized it, what techniques he used to appeal to the audience, what made the author’s argument (not)effective.
Note! In a rhetorical analysis paper, you do not assess the topic of the argument – be it the harm of mass surveillance, censorship of free speech on campus, or effects of the internet on the human mind. You state only the author’s position on the topic, analyze how he tried to make his audience share his views, and assess what he could do better.
There is a reason why I emphasize it, as looking through other sources on the topic, I came across a number of “bad advice” you might have already googled up.
For example, one of such sources suggests that “A rhetorical analysis paper is like a reflection on the assigned passage. Analyze the writer’s rhetorical style, but keep it natural and offer your thoughts and opinions”.
For you not to fall for tips that will lower your rhetorical analysis essay grade, let me explain what a rhetorical analysis essay is and, most importantly, what it’s not.
What Should and Should not be Found in a Rhetorical Analysis Paper
A common students’ mistake is to confuse a rhetorical analysis essay for an argumentative essay, a response paper or a literary analysis essay.
Let’s see how they differ:
Writing an argumentative essay, you argue for a specific idea. You analyze and quote other authors to support your argument. In a rhetorical analysis, you analyze and cite ONLY ONE SOURCE. You do not have to agree/disagree with the author’s position or provide counterarguments to what he says. You just analyze how what the author says helps him achieve his goal, which is to persuade his audience in this or that idea.
A response paper is what it sounds like. Just like in a rhetorical analysis, you start with summarising the argument the author is making, but the rest of the paper is devoted to how you react to this argument. You just say what you like and do not like about the author’s ideas and their presentation.
Literary analysis has much in common with rhetorical analysis. This paper also starts with a summary of an author’s argument and an analysis of how the author communicates a specific message or creates a specific tone. A principal difference is that a literary analysis considers how the author uses literary devices to achieve his goal, and a rhetorical analysis considers the use of rhetorical appeals.
There are three rhetorical appeals: ethos, logos and pathos.
Ethos stands for the establishment of authority and trust. You deal with ethos if the author presents himself as an expert in the field, cites reputable experts (using direct quotations in particular) or when he unites with the audience (using “we”, explaining how the issue concerns him personally, telling for how long he has been investigating the issue, etc.).
Logos is an appeal to logic. The author appeals to logos through citing facts and statistics, making the speech/writing coherent and structured, introducing what he is going to speak about and making intermediate conclusions, drawing parallels between different events and phenomena, etc.
Pathos is an emotional appeal to the audience or simply “winning their hearts”. It can be accomplished by telling a personal, funny or moving story, pointing to children or other vulnerable groups that need protection, using a specific tone, using emotionally colored language and literary devices such as metaphors, parallel constructions, rhetorical questions, and similar.
A combination of all three rhetorical appeals makes a speech/writing more effective (=persuasive). Telling only logical arguments without establishing trust or appealing to emotions will not make an audience change their views. The argument having too much emotional appeal with little factual support is considered not effective either.
Writing a Rhetorical Analysis Essay
To write a rhetorical analysis essay, you need to carefully analyze the text and find:
- the author’s message = the author’s argument = what the author wants to say
- examples of rhetorical appeals the author uses (be sure to make notes on quotations that prove the use of a specific rhetorical appeal)
When you are done with this rhetorical analysis, you may start writing a rhetorical analysis essay itself. This essay is normally a 5-paragraph essay of about 900 words.
- Start with a hook or background information (the context, in which the article you analyze was written).
- Summarise the authors claim or purpose in one sentence.
- Present key points the author makes to support his argument (include this only in longer essays; if the word count allows, you may also devote the first body paragraph to the key points the author makes)
- Finish with a thesis statement. A thesis statement for a rhetorical analysis paper should assess the effectiveness of a piece and state what allowed/did not allow an author to achieve his goal. For example,
The author managed to build a persuasive argument in favor of … due to the effective use of ethos, logos and pathos.
The author has started with an effective argument in favor of a gun carry, but later focus on emotional appeal with little factual support has weakened the author’s argument.
- If the author has created an effective argument and used all three appeals, it’s better to devote each paragraph to a separate appeal (ethos, logos and pathos); Otherwise, devote one paragraph to each statement you make. For example, you may devote two paragraphs to effective use of rhetorical appeals and one – to the ineffective use (inappropriate tone, being one-sided and not making concessions, overuse of appeal to logic or emotions in one part of an article, etc.)
- In each paragraph, include direct quotations that illustrate the author’s use of this or that appeal
- Follow each quotation with your own statement explaining why this quote shows the effectiveness/improper use of a rhetorical appeal.
- Conclusion restates and develops the thesis statement.
- Tell what the author could do to make an article or a speech even more effective. If you analyze a pronounced speech like “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King, recommending anything will sound a rather bold move. Instead, you may note the impact a speech/an article has made.
Here is a great sample of a rhetorical analysis essay that illustrates how this outline can be developed into an essay.
Topics for a Rhetorical Analysis Essay
There are no specific topics for a rhetorical analysis essay – a persuasive article of a speech makes it.
Here are some speeches and articles, which rhetoric you will love to analyze:
- A speech “I’m not a Crook” delivered by Richard Nixon
- A speech “I Have a Dream” delivered by Martin Luther King
- A speech “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” delivered by Winston Churchill
- Analysis of a President’s inauguration speech, for example, an “Inauguration Address” of John F. Kennedy
- “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech” delivered by William Faulkner
- “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift
- “Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin
- “Google is Making you Stupid” by Nicholas Carr
- “Why is ‘Compromise’ a Dirty Word?” by Deborah Tannen
- “Why I Want Women to Lead In” by Sharyl Sandberg
A good way to look for a recent article to analyze it by browsing opinion articles or editorials of reputable journals like The Atlantic, New York Times, The Guardian, or Scientific American.
The easiest choice might also be to analyze texts given as samples in They Say, I Say – the book shows model argumentative essays, so authors do use all three appeals to make persuasive claims.