To begin, let’s discuss the definition of a rhetorical analysis essay. This form of essay writing, common in an academic context, encourages students to engage with a communication by offering a thoughtful critique. Although most rhetorical essays analyze a piece of nonfiction writing, this style may also be used to discuss the persuasive techniques used by advertisers, filmmakers, and others. The goal of a person writing a rhetorical analysis is not to persuade or summarize; instead, the author aims to provide an insightful analysis of the rhetorical strategies used in the original work.
In order to write a successful rhetorical essay, you must:
Identify the author, work, and intended audience
Provide historical or social context for the work
Identify the author’s main argument and any supporting arguments
Identify some of the rhetorical strategies that the author uses to support his or her arguments
Give examples of rhetorical strategies
Identify rhetorical appeals to egos, logos, and pathos
Define the author’s assumptions
Include a strong thesis
Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.
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In most rhetorical analysis essays, the writer introduces the source material that they plan to analyze within the introductory paragraph. Usually, the source author’s name and title of the source material appears in the first sentence of the essay. Often, the writer provides some information about the author’s accomplishments, such as prizes or awards. In the introductory paragraph, summarizing the medium and the target audience for the work can also be helpful. For instance, if you analyze a TV commercial, you might say that it aired from 1971-1973 on daytime television that catered to female viewers.
Provide Historical or Social Context for the Work
In the introduction of your essay, it may be helpful to provide additional information about the author’s credibility, notable information about the writing process, or any other historical or social context that might be necessary to understand the work. As an example, if the author published this essay as part of a larger work, you might want to mention some of the other works published as part of that anthology. Similarly, if an author refers to contemporary political events within a work, an effective rhetorical analysis should summarize those events for readers.
Identify the Author’s Main Argument and Any Supporting Arguments
Before you write the body of the essay, you should examine the source material and identify the author’s main argument. Next, you should think about any supporting arguments that the author uses to bolster the main argument. If you’re analyzing an essay, it may be helpful to make an outline of the essay, highlighting the main thesis and topic sentences. Next, think about the evidence the author relies on to build each supporting argument.
Identify the Rhetorical Strategies
As you look at source material, think about the persuasive techniques that further the author’s purpose. At this phase, you should be looking beyond what the original communication states. Instead, you should think about how the author utilizes the tools of the medium to underscore each argument. Rhetorical techniques will differ, depending on the medium. In an essay analyzing a newspaper editorial, you might look for ways that the author’s writing style reinforces his or her ideas. For example, think about how the writer uses the following rhetorical devices:
On the other hand, when you analyze a magazine advertisement, you might explain how the advertiser uses:
Point of View
Give Examples of Rhetorical Strategies
For each rhetorical strategy, try to identify a specific example. For the written word, you can provide examples in the form of quotations or paraphrases. For other mediums, try to describe the example as clearly as possible. For instance, you might describe a particular shot in a film, giving details about the composition, duration, and timestamp. In this way, a reader could easily identify and review the shot for themselves.
Identify Rhetorical Appeals
Most rhetorical analyses connect individual strategies to a larger purpose within the communication. To build an effective argument, most source authors must appeal to ethos, logos, and pathos within a communication. Ethos refers to building credibility. For instance, any devices that bolster the author’s authority, such as a polished presentation or a five-star rating, may help persuade the reader that the author has a credible argument. An appeal to logos aims to persuade the audience through logic. The author may cite fact-based evidence, such as historical documents or statistics, that support his or her claim. Lastly, appeals to pathos prompt an emotional response. Examples may include personal stories, emotional language, or attempts to shock the audience. Many well-written essays do not address the classical rhetorical appeals directly, but a thorough knowledge of these persuasive techniques can enrich rhetorical analysis.
Define the Author’s Assumptions
In order to produce an original analysis, students may find it helpful to explicitly state any warrants, or assumptions, that the author uses to connect his or her claim to the evidence. While authors often leave readers to infer the relationship between the argument and the evidence, students may be able to provide rich analysis by stating any assumptions plainly. In some cases, the backing for a particular warrant may be insufficient or outdated. Sophisticated analyses should point out any unstated assumptions that are no longer valid.
Include a Strong Thesis
After assembling all the elements of a rhetorical analysis, use critical thinking to identify the best way to frame your arguments. For example, you may decide to address each section of a short essay in chronological order, beginning with the essay’s introduction and ending with the conclusion. In contrast, you may want to discuss one rhetorical device at a time. As a third option, you may want to organize your analysis in terms of the emotional appeals, logical appeals, and pathetic appeals.
No matter how you decide to structure your essay, you should construct a strong thesis statement that previews your organizational structure and main argument. The thesis should provide you with a roadmap as you write your essay. Then, each body paragraph builds on the thesis by including a topic sentence, a supporting argument, and evidence or examples. As with any other research paper or essay, be sure to end your rhetorical analysis with a compelling conclusion. In the conclusion of your essay, restate your thesis and summarize your arguments.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.