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Rhetorical Analysis (Pre-Drafting Work)

I’ve been working with my students for the last couple of months on writing Rhetorical Analysis papers. Rhetorical Analysis papers go by many names: Rhetorical Analysis, Summary/ Strong Response, Textual Analysis, Response papers, and many more. However, to one degree or another, any paper of this type requires the writer (you) to analyze the purpose, audience, and structure of a text. That is, your teacher wants to know if you can figure out how a text works as a piece of writing, and he or she is less concerned with the issue the text addresses.

It is this focus on the how of a text (the rhetorical strategies used in its design) rather than the what of a text (a text’s subject matter) that tends to confuse students. So, I’d like to offer some tips today on how you can prepare to write a stunning Rhetorical Analysis paper (whatever your teacher happens to be calling it).

First, you need to read the text you’ve been asked to analyze paying attention to places in the text that really catch your interest. The Norton Field Guide to Writing calls these places “hot spots,” and they tend to capture your interest because a particular passage makes you really angry or you find yourself saying (or shouting) at the text, “That is so true!” or something like that. Alternatively, you might find yourself thinking, “I’ve never thought of X that way before.” Or even, “I didn’t know Y.” Whatever it is that gets you to respond to the text, you need to mark those passages for later.

Second, you need to re-read the text for what the author says. (By the way, you will definitely need to read your text more than once. In fact, you will probably end up reading it at least three or four times before you are reading to start writing a draft.) Essentially, you are getting ready to write a summary of the text. This is really important. Since you’ve just marked all of these “hot spots” in the text, you need to make sure that you aren’t just reacting to those in a knee-jerk fashion. You want to make sure that, in as an objective a manner as possible, you can articulate exactly what the author is trying to say without being either a naysayer or a cheerleader.

Third, ideally when you re-read the text to summarize it, you also started noticing the basic organization of the piece. How long does the author take to introduce the piece? What is his or her thesis (main claim)? Where does she or he put the thesis (at the beginning of the text right after the introduction, somewhere in the middle, or saved for the end). Also identify if the author comes right out and states the thesis or implies it. Locating where the thesis is and how it is presented to the reader can give you important clues about how the essay or article is structured. That is, you can begin to figure out its genre. Once you’ve identified the thesis and where it’s located, then identify where the reasons that support it are located and how they are presented. At this point, you should be able to create an outline or document map of the essay you are reading.

Fourth, identify the audience the author is addressing, the author’s purpose for writing the article, and the context (or situation) in which the article was written. The audience means the group of people who the author is pitching the article to—business people, teachers, students, psychologists, the general public, and on and on it goes. Sometimes authors will state their audience as Michael Kleine does when he says, “All of us who teach academic writing . . .” At other times the audience is implied, and you’ll need to figure it out from the context. The context includes the publication in which the article or essay was published, when it was published, and any events or discussions that were happening at the time the article was published that can shed light on why the author decided to write. Sometimes, the purpose of the article can also help you figure out the context. The purpose includes what the author wants his or her audience to believe, feel, or do after reading the article. For example, in the Kleine article I just mentioned, Kleine wants teachers to teach students how to do academic research and writing so they (students) will be able to do the kind of in-depth research that academics do.

Fifth, once you have identified the audience, purpose, and context of a piece, start identifying strategies the author has used to create the flow of the text, its mood, and its style. This is the time to notice what types of evidence are being used and how they are being used; how the author uses word choice and/or sentence structure to create an academic, humorous, sarcastic or other tone; or how the author uses examples, statistics, or other methods to create appeals to the classic appeals of ethos, logos, and/or pathos. [Click here for a link to a site that will explain these in more detail.] I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the strategies available for authors. Your teacher may have specific strategies she or he wants you to look at. In other cases, any good writing textbook will have lists of strategies you can identify if you can’t think of more on your own. However, looking at the kind of evidence that is used, how it is used, and whether or not it is appropriate can be a good start as can looking at word tone and sentence structure.

Sixth, once you have identified strategies, you can start figuring out why the author has used them (to what effect) and, this is crucial, whether or not the strategies the author has employed effectively convince his or her audience and meet his or her purpose. At this point, you also want to determine what your overall impression of the article is. Are you convinced? If so, what really convinced you about the author’s purpose? If not, how did the author fail in his or her purpose? Keep in mind that, sometimes, it’s not the presentation of the article that fails—the strategies may have been perfectly employed and may be perfectly convincing to someone else—but you don’t buy the argument because it conflicts with your fundamental values in some way. In which case, you need to identify if you are a part of the author’s intended audience and she or he misread you in some critical way or if you are a not a part of the author’s intended audience and so you read the text in a way the author hadn’t anticipated. If it is the first, then you can talk about what concerns the author should have anticipated in order to address her or his audience more effectively. If the second, then you can discuss how the author might have addressed and responded to the counterarguments this alternate audience might have made.

Once you have done all of this background work, then you are ready to start drafting your Rhetorical Analysis paper. But that, my friends, is a blog for another day.

Works Cited and Annotated Bibliography

Bullock, Richard. The Norton Field Guide to Writing. New York: Norton, 2006. (print)

By the way, if you have access to Bullock’s book, I highly recommend looking at Chapter 7 “Analyzing a Text” and Chapter 38 “Reading Strategies.” Those chapters are full of tips and suggestions for how to read your text in a way that will help you find strategies to explore and, in chapter 7 in particular, Bullock provides a way for you to take your information and turn it into a draft. It’s good reading!

Kleine, Michael. “What Is It We Do When We Write Articles Like This One—And How Can We Get Students to Join Us?” The Writing Instructor 6 (1987): 151-161. (print)

While this article may not be as useful for students (although even students may find the suggestions on pages 159-160 intriguing), writing teachers may be inspired with ways they can help their students be more conscientious readers, which should, in turn, produce more interesting research papers. Personally, I believe rhetorical reading needs to be the first step to doing really meaningful research.


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