Writing a Rhetorical Analysis: Critical Reading

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Writing a Rhetorical Analysis

Rhetorical Analysis: Critical Reading

Every individual involved in academia-no matter what the academic field is-partakes in critical thinking. Part of critical thinking involves reading, listening to and observing another person's writing, speech, presentation-or other piece of creative work-and analyzing and evaluating it.

When you are asked to do a "rhetorical analysis" of a text, you are being asked to apply your critical reading skills to break down the "whole" of the text into the sum of its "parts." You try to determine what the writer is trying to achieve, and what writing strategies he/she is using to try to achieve it.

Reading critically means more than just being moved, affected, informed, influenced, and persuaded by a piece of writing. Reading critically also means analyzing and understanding how the work has achieved its effect. Below is a list of questions to ask yourself when you begin to analyze a piece of prose. These questions can be used even if you're being asked only to read the text rather than write a formal analysis (a sample of detailed formal analysis follows later in this section).   Keep in mind that you don't need to apply all of these questions to every text.   This rather exhaustive list is simply one method for getting you started on reading (and then writing) more critically.

Helpful hints:

Analyze your chosen text, DO NOT merely summarize and DO NOT argue for or against the issue presented in the text you analyze.

Be creative and original; please do not choose a text that deals with overdone issues such as abortion or the death penalty.


Questions to ask for a Critical Reading:

1.      What is the general subject? Does the subject mean anything to you? Does it bring up any personal associations? Is the subject a controversial one?

2.      What is the thesis (the overall main point)? How does the thesis interpret/comment on the subject? 

3.      What is the tone of the text? Do you react at an emotional level to the text? Does this reaction change at all throughout the text?

4.      What is the writer's purpose? To explain? To inform? To anger? Persuade? Amuse? Motivate? Sadden? Ridicule? Anger? Is there more than one purpose? Does the purpose shift at all throughout the text?

5.      How does the writer develop his/her ideas? Narration? Description? Definition? Comparison? Analogy? Cause and Effect? Example? Why does the writer use these methods of development?

6.      How does the writer arrange his/her ideas? What are the patterns of arrangement? Particular to general? Broad to specific? Spatial? Chronological? Alternating? Block?

7.      Is the text unified and coherent? Are there adequate transitions? How do the transitions work?

8.      What is the sentence structure like in the text? Does the writer use fragments or run-ons? Declarative? Imperative? Interrogative? Exclamatory? Are they simple? Compound? Complex? Compound-complex? Short? Long? Loose? Periodic? Balanced? Parallel? Are there any patterns in the sentence structure? Can you make any connections between the patterns and the writer's purpose? 

9.      Does the writer use dialogue? Quotations? To what effect?                                                                                            

10.  How does the writer use diction? Is it formal? Informal? Technical? Jargon? Slang?

11.  Is the language connotative? Denotative? Is the language emotionally evocative? Does the language change throughout the piece?

12.   How does the language contribute to the writer's aim?

13.  Is there anything unusual in the writer's use of punctuation? What punctuation or other techniques of emphasis (italics, capitals, underlining, ellipses, parentheses) does the writer use? Is punctuation over- or under used? Which marks does the writer use when, and for what effects? Dashes to create a hasty breathlessness? Semi-colons for balance or contrast?  

14.  Are important terms repeated throughout the text? Why?

15.  Are there any particularly vivid images that stand out? What effect do these images have on the writer's purpose?

16.  Are devices of comparison used to convey or enhance meaning? Which tropes--similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, etc. does the writer use? When does he/she use them? Why? 

17.  Does the writer use devices of humor? Puns? Irony? Sarcasm? Understatement? Parody? Is the effect comic relief? Pleasure? Hysteria? Ridicule?

Guidelines for Writing a Rhetorical Analysis

When you write a rhetorical analysis, all you're really doing is putting onto paper the strategies you discovered/ideas you came up with when reading the text critically. Below is a set of guidelines devised to help you organize the thoughts from your critical reading process. The guidelines detail the aspects of the text you might consider discussing, and they offer you some direction in terms of organizing your paper. Remember that you do not have to cover all of these aspects when writing a formal rhetorical analysis.

The Guidelines

Your Title:

The title of your essay is the first point of contact you have with your reader. What sort of title would describe your paper and distinguish it from other papers written on the same essay?

Example: A Rhetorical Analysis of President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address


  1. How would you describe the rhetorical situation? What will you say about the speaker, the subject, the context, the audience, and the principle aim/purpose of the text? Are there any aims subordinate to the principal aim?

  2. How would you summarize the essay in one or two sentences? (Try not to digress into a lengthy paraphrase of the piece.) What is the speaker's thesis

  3. What features of substance and style will you focus on in the body of your essay, and why do consider them so important to the discourse? (This is your thesis.)


  1. How does the speaker develop the discourse, and why has she/he chosen these methods of development?

  2. How has the speaker arranged the discourse, and why has he/she chosen this pattern of arrangement over others? (Make specific reference to the introduction, the thesis, the body, and the conclusion if you think it is important.)

  3. If the essay is persuasive, which of the persuasive appeals (logos, ethos, or pathos) predominates, and how do these appeals strengthen or weaken the argument?

  4. Are there any fallacies or other weaknesses in the argument? How do they affect the reader’s response to the work? What kinds of assumptions are at work here? Are they fair assumptions? What are the particular strengths of the argument? How does the writer establish common ground?

  5. Does the writer make effective use of concession, refutation, and/or counter-argument?


  1. Which of the following features of style do you consider most important to the discourse and why?

    • language (including level of diction and tone of voice)

    • figurative language, symbolism, allusion (biblical, historical etc.), irony

    • humor (but be careful; some people might not "get it")

    • number and length of paragraphs

    • length and style of sentences

    • rhythm and repetition

  2. How do these particular features of style enable the writer to achieve her/his purpose?

Your Conclusion:

Use your conclusion to comment on the effect and effectiveness of the essay as a whole. How well does the writer achieve the purpose, appeal to the audience, and demonstrate the effect of style on content?

Note the following conventions of analysis:

  1. Analyze a text in the simple present tense

  2. Enclose essay titles inside quotation marks

  3. Refer to yourself as "the reader" or "the audience"

  4. Support your claims with textual evidence (direct quotations and paraphrases)

Sample Rhetorical Analyses

The following sample analyses the letter written from George Bush to Saddam Hussein. Compare this response to your reading of the text. Notice, in particular, the writer’s levels of detail here, the use of evidence from the text, and the depth of the analysis.

Sample Essay 1:

Political Spin: An Analysis of George Bush’s Letter to Saddam Hussein

President George Bush’s letter to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is, at least on the surface, a persuasive piece intended to convince the Iraqi leader to withdraw his forces from occupied Kuwait before war breaks out. Upon closer reading, however, the critical reader will see that Bush’s "argument" is, in fact, not much of a rational argument (let alone a convincing one), which is odd in that Bush himself repeatedly points out that much is at stake. The superficiality of the American President’s argument leads one to seek out other more likely purposes.

The chief rhetorical aim here seems not to be to persuade a ruthless dictator to act rationally, but rather to explain to another audience--perhaps the world and posterity--why we had to go to war. In this sense, George Bush is putting a political spin on a possibly bloody conflict in which many coalition soldiers may perish. Keep in mind that on the eve of the war, the pervading fear was that Saddam had at his fingertips, a vast stockpile of chemical or biological weapons, and possibly some nuclear devices. Bush works towards his dual purposes (an expository, reputation-clearing explanation masked behind a weak attempt at persuasion) through his calculated use of diction, repetition, sentence length, and persuasive appeals, all of which underscore the threatening tone that looms throughout the letter.

Why is Bush’s primary concern here not one of persuasion (despite the immediate context)? We must first ask ourselves whether or not Bush is actually even putting forth an argument. Are there two sides to this issue in the terms that Bush puts the situation (remember that an argument is a rational discussion that requires two sides)? Does the American President allow for two such sides, or is he simply dictating an either / or fallacy? Either Saddam removes his forces from Kuwait, or Saddam and his forces will be obliterated. If Bush is really doing everything in his power to avoid a military confrontation, why is there no further opportunity for negotiations? Sanctions? He is simply telling Saddam what he must do; he is dictating the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces. If you were Saddam, would you feel like you’re a part of a rational discussion, or would you be feeling like you’re being backed into a corner? Do you give in, or do you become even more defiant (the only way left for you to save any political face)?

Bush’s use of language and style is particularly important to both of his dual purposes. Given that excessive rhetoric is typical of political speeches and letters (Do you remember Saddam’s own favorites -- "The Mother Of All Battles" and "Americans will be swimming in pools of their own blood?"), it is notable that Bush refrains from using figurative language that plays on word meanings. In paragraph #2, he explains to Saddam that he is writing "because it is said by some that you do not understand just how isolated Iraq is" and because he wants "to eliminate any uncertainty or ambiguity" (paragraph #3) that may be confusing the Iraqi President. Bush wants his demands to be clear: he uses no uncertain terms. His sentences and paragraphs are short, for the most part, to get his message across tersely, and clearly, so that no meaning could be lost through interpretation or translation.

Bush’s deliberate use of inclusive and exclusive words helps to set up Saddam in opposition to the world. His repeated use of "world," "international community," "UN Security Council," "coalition partners," and "we" in polar opposition to words like "you," and "your" distinctly isolates Saddam Hussein from what appears to be world opinion. Bush makes every effort to portray himself and the United States as just simply contributing members of an international group. According to Bush, "this is not simply the policy of the United States; it is the position of the world community" (paragraph #4). As members of this coalition, America is simply one of many nations seeking a peaceful resolution.

Built subtly into his language are Bush’s persuasive appeals. He is clearly taking the moral high ground when he rather ironically asserts that "(t)here can be no reward for aggression"(paragraph #5). He assures Saddam that "(w)hat is at issue here is not the future of Kuwait--it will be free" implying that the reason for his (and the world’s) fast actions is one of democracy; he is championing the powerless, and at the same time, he says he has doesn’t want to punish the Iraqi people either. However, putting aside the fact that Kuwait wasn’t a very democratic country even before the invasion, we have to ask ourselves why Bush goes to such great lengths to come across as a defender of freedom. It doesn’t seem to be for Saddam’s benefit. Could this carefully constructed sense of ethos have anything to do with the "oil fields and installations" of paragraph #8? Certainly if thousands of Americans ended up dying in the Persian Gulf, Bush would want history to see his motivations as more lofty than the preservation of the West’s crude oil supply.

Bush’s ethical mask and attempts to distance himself and America from the central conflict begin to unravel themselves at the end of the letter. His cause and effect development of pointing out the results and possible results of Saddam’s actions and inactions lead to an ironic turn in tone. The American President contradicts his entire "us-the world" versus "you" argument in paragraph #8 when he finally reveals the ultimate threat behind the coalition forces--"(t)he American people would demand the strongest possible response"--ultimately, it is "us" (George Bush and the United States) versus "you." Therefore, you’d better do what you’re told, or we’ll annihilate you!

Ironically, Bush ends his letter by offering that, "I write this letter not to threaten, but to inform" (paragraph #9); he does, in a way, accomplish both. He clearly threatens the Iraqi leader with the numerous logical appeals to the immense forces arrayed against him (an appeal that has little "rational" basis to back it up given the either/or mentality behind it); also, he informs the world that if we end up in a prolonged, bloody exchange, it wasn’t because of the United States, and it certainly wasn’t because of the peace-loving American President. If bloodshed occurs, it is solely the responsibility of Saddam Hussein.

Sample Essay 2:
A Search for Equality

Anne Roiphe's "Confessions of a Female Chauvinist Sow" first appeared in the magazine New York in 1972. In this essay Roiphe aims to convince her readers that women must put faith in the idea that they are equal to men, not superior. "Women who want equality must be prepared to give it and believe in it . . . ." Personal anecdotes, contrast, and comparison are techniques Roiphe skillfully uses to create a strong, convincing essay.

Roiphe begins her essay with a personal anecdote describing the "horrifying" realization that she married a man exactly like her father. This technique immediately establishes the essay as informal and personal. It is a great way to capture the reader's interest. Also, this particular anecdote is used as background information for the first point Roiphe makes in the following paragraph—that ". . . people . . . have at one time or another been fouled up by their childhood experiences." Another anecdote in the essay explains how Roiphe's mother used to give Roiphe "mad money" before going on dates. "My mother and I knew young men were apt to drink too much . . ." and "mad money was for getting home on your own, no matter what form of insanity your date happened to evidence." Anecdotes such as this are entertaining and tend to lighten the mood of the essay. Also, it is quite easy for readers to relate to personal experience. Another function of anecdotes in this essay is to substantiate and support main ideas. At the end of one paragraph Roiphe states, "The hidden anti-male feelings, a result of the old system, will foul us up if they are allowed to persist." This is directly followed by the anecdote explaining the necessity for "mad money"—that men are untrustworthy, inconsiderate beasts. The anecdote clearly provides evidence and support for the fact that women have anti-male feelings.

Shortly after capturing the reader's interest with the introductory anecdote, Roiphe begins using contrast. The numerous examples of contrast throughout the essay portray men and women as being drastically different, especially morally. Boys are thought to be incapable of engaging in ". . . easy companionship . . ." as girls are able to do, and men are generally believed to be ". . . less moral . . ." than women. "Everyone assumes a mother will not let her child starve, yet it is necessary to legislate that a father must not do so." Roiphe uses contrast to illustrate the common anti-male attitudes women have, and in doing so, makes it obvious that women feel superior to men. This exactly, Roiphe points out, is the barrier to equality between men and women. It is clear to the reader that equality between the sexes will never exist as long as women continue to feel superior to men. The contrasts also function to support points Roiphe makes later concerning the similarities between men and women.

About midway through the essay, Roiphe makes a transition from contrast to comparison. She begins focusing on the idea that women are actually quite similar to men. She bluntly states, "Intellectually I know that's ridiculous . . ." to assume ". . . that women given power would not create wars." She admits, "Aggression is not . . . a male-sex-linked characteristic . . . ." Comparisons such as these smoothly lead Roiphe into making one of her strongest comparisons—that ". . . us laughing at them, us feeling superior to them, us ridiculing them behind their backs . . ." is ". . . inescapably female chauvinist sowness." These comparisons, particularly the last one, are shocking and cause the reader to reflect on previous ideas in the essay. Roiphe's statement, ". . . what they have done to us, and of course they have, and they did and they are . . .," momentarily makes readers believe that men are mainly to blame for the inequality between the sexes. However, through effective comparison Roiphe leads her readers to logically infer that women must also be responsible for the inequality between men and women. It then becomes clear to the reader that the ". . . secret sense of superiority . . ." women feel is what makes them equally as chauvinistic as men.

More important than the functions of the techniques she uses independently is how Roiphe uses them together. For example, had she bluntly stated early in her essay that women are "female chauvinist sows," without preceding it with contrast, a quite different effect would have been created. Her readers, particularly the women, would have undoubtedly been offended. This approach would certainly have prevented the essay from being convincing. It is obvious that Roiphe purposely used the techniques in a planned way. This allowed her to create a specifically designed essay that was beneficial in helping her present her ideas.

Sample Essay 3:
A Rhetorical Analysis of “Walking”

In the essay “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau, one of the “Seven Elements in Nature Writing” which is continuous throughout the entire essay is the philosophy of nature. Thoreau begins his three-part essay by referring to human’s role in nature “as an inhabitant, or a part or parcel of Nature.” He later criticizes members of society for their lack of such a relationship with nature. Thoreau also uses an experience from his own life to represent a personal account in nature, more specifically his experiences while walking into the forest near his property. Eco-social politics can be seen in this essay, when Thoreau analyzes building development as a taming and cheapening of the landscape. Thoreau brings the reader into a spiritual realm when he associates the divinity of nature and the spirit of walking with Christianity and Greek Mythology. In addition, when describing the Mississippi River, Thoreau describes the river as a kind of enchanted Holy Land.

Throughout all parts of the essay, including Thoreau’s description of an ecological psychology and philosophy on nature, the use of figurative language is prevalent. Before one can truly become a walker, one must be prepared to “send our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms” (page 1). Thoreau uses a simile to describe a village with roads springing from it as a lake with rivers springing from it. He also uses questions to impact the reader: after describing the mythological wonders Thoreau sees while witnessing a sunset, he uses a question to challenge the reader if they have looked at the sunset without imagining the mythological wonders themselves.

This essay is divided into three distinct parts. One commonality in this reading is that each part relates nature to being good and each part provides a piece of poetry to help illustrate this. In the first part the reader, who is probably the general public, develops a sense of inferiority. The author asserts that the kind of relationship he has with nature is one that is innate. In part two, the author speaks of nature as magical and criticizes the negative effects American society has had on the environment. In the third part, Thoreau leaves us stimulating our sensitivity toward the existence of nature and the spirituality it beholds. The structuring of the essay into three parts is effective in progressively showing that walking goes beyond the physical activity, but into an appreciation of nature.

Concerning Thoreau’s stance, this essay seems to arise out of the author’s negative view of American society, and is an attempt to open-up the reader’s sensitivity toward nature. At times he seems like a preacher at mass, using personal experiences with nature and relating those experiences to a higher being. The author effectively influences the reader to believe he or she is part of a Holy Land; the Holy Land has as personality, much like that of the reader. However, if the reader only sees nature to be instrumentally valuable, this reading may not be very effective in addressing the ecological effects of environmental degradation.

Sample Essay 4:



It is extremely difficult to peer up into the heavens on a dark, clear night and not wonder if there are others, somewhere up there, wondering the same thing. The expanse is overwhelming, even before scientists spout their estimates and approximations. The grain-of-sand analogies don’t seem to say any more than we already know. It’s big. It’s real big. And each pinpoint of light seems to have the same answer for our questioning eyes: Maybe.

If you just felt a rush of wonder, a breath of intellectual curiosity, then you just fell victim to an emotional literary technique. Though my intent was not to persuade you to any one point of view on extra-terrestrial life, I was trying to capture your attention as an audience. My attempt was not overly zealous because that would have worked against me. I tried to calculate it so as to engage your imagination without insulting your intelligence. It is a stratagem that is commonly used by those members of a profession based on logic whose target audience has a relatively high level of expected knowledge.

Is there life somewhere else in the Universe? We don’t really know. The truth is, we won’t know until we’ve either found life, or we’ve searched every star in vain. Recent technological and strategical advancements have helped our attempt to answer this ultimate question. Though the resulting optimism may precede itself, it is, nonetheless, refreshing. An April 1996 article entitled “Searching For Life On Other Planets,” published by Scientific American, suggests that we will very likely have answers in the next decade. Making such a speculation without immediately losing all credibility is a feat that this article and its authors accomplish remarkably well.

Every text, no matter what the field or subject, must persuade its reader in some form or another. Even small articles, written solely with the intent to inform, must persuade the reader that what they have written is true. Professors Roger Angel and Neville Woolf utilize logical appeal, or logos, during the majority of “Searching for Life on Other Planets” to obtain this end. That is to say, they created the article using systematic documentation and well-known example. By doing so they have targeted their intended audience directly in the trachea.

The article begins with a hint of emotional appeal relating the history of the question “are we alone in the universe?” However, even this initial sprinkle of emotion is well supported by reference to scientific discovery. The article immediately leaps to its thesis in the next paragraph. It reports that in the next decade humankind “could build the equipment needed to locate planets with life-forms like the primitive ones on Earth.” Now read that statement again. It doesn’t seem too objectionable of a prediction, or even out of the ordinary, does it? Now let me reword it slightly: humankind will locate other, life-inhabited planets within the next decade. When restated more simply and more directly, the statement seems audacious and risky.

It is exactly this kind of initial reaction that the authors wanted to avoid. They make the prediction by wording it to lack directness, and support it by focusing on how, where, and with what. This keeps the thesis very understated. Depending on your personal beliefs, what they are inferring could even be amazing or outrageous. By avoiding a direct statement the authors avoid direct disagreement. The article establishes not only that we will have the technology for the search, but also that there is life on other planets. To give an idea of the profundity of such a prediction, NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin has been quoted in regards to discovering extra-terrestrial life as saying that it “would change everything – no human endeavor or thought would be unchanged by that discovery.” By remaining informative, yet indirect, the authors make a somewhat risky guiding statement but avoid inciting the reading mind to question its validity.

The paragraphs that follow amount to a well-done overview of facts and findings that relate to our scientific search for extra-terrestrial life. Great detail is used once the step-by-step overview reaches the most current techniques in searching for other planets. It is no secret that it spends more effort in this region because that is what the audience for this article really wants to hear: What is being attempted or going be attempted soon. The answer to that question is what the scientific community always craves. By appeasing that particular focal point of curiosity the article captures its audience even more and, as a result, supports its initial supposition.

What becomes very curious about this article is the way in which the authors appeal to the reader ethically. They establish an ethical rapport without ever actually stating their qualifications or involving their identities with the article in anyway. The rapport is simply based on the information reported and the way it’s brought forth. They extend a wide array of facts and findings and historical dates and familiar names all related to the intended subject. Not stating their identities within this barrage effectively builds their ethical appeal without offering an opportunity for it to be questioned. By the end of the second paragraph the reader is persuaded that whoever the author is, he or she is well educated and up to date on the subject and is trying to help the reader become the same way. This strategy helps support the underlying intent of the article by disengaging the otherwise natural opposing questions that people have when being given new information. Bringing forth an unnecessarily wide base of related information effectively improves the strength of the underlying message.

From a persuasive standpoint it initially seems strange that the authors only suggest the concept that there might not be other life in the universe at all. An author can lose quite a bit of his or her ethical appeal by not paying the opposing viewpoint with enough respect. By only slightly suggesting this concept they risk losing a great deal of their ethical appeal because they have not respected the opposing viewpoint. In this case however, it was worth the risk and probably helped their cause. There are two reasons for this. One reason is that the members of the target audience (those who read Scientific American) either believe that there is extra-terrestrial life or at least approve of the effort being expended to search for it. The more crucial reason that the authors would leave out the opposing concept is quite simple. They don’t want it being considered. There are people who, because of religious or philosophical reasons, do not believe that extra-terrestrial life exists. To those people, the human endeavor of searching for extra-terrestrial life is a futile waste of time and money. The authors try to avoid this controversy because giving it focus can only hurt their intent. They stand too much to lose, as researching astronomers, to have the possibility that their work is useless brought to the forefront of discussion. Instead, they focus discussion on the progress that has been made and the problems for which they have already devised solutions. This effectively supports the idea, yet again, that we are getting closer to finding extra-terrestrial life on other planets.

What exactly was the purpose of this article, “Searching for Life on Other Planets”? Well, although we have discussed the persuasive benefits of ethical and logical appeal, some of the purpose of this article probably was to actually inform the reader. By itself, that is a very noble thing. The more the general scientific community is aware of what is going on the stronger it becomes. However, there is another aspect to that. Some of the purpose of the article was probably just to get published at all. After all, in the scientific community it enhances one’s status and resources when one is published, and the more often one is published. It is not to suggest that this essay is for or against any aspect or topic related to the “Searching for Life on Other Planets.” It is only that I am acknowledging the subtleties, the motivation underlying the good deed. Experience seems to suggest that no person or organization is completely altruistic in intent. And that is okay. For they, like you and like me, still peer up into the heavens on a dark, clear night and wonder if there are others, somewhere up there, wondering the same thing.


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