Purpose: A rhetorical analysis essay analyzes how an author argues rather than what an author argues. It focuses on what we (following the Greek philosopher Aristotle) call the “rhetorical” features of a text: the author’s situation, his/her purpose for writing, the intended audience, the kinds of claims, and the various types and validity of evidence presented. Breaking down an argument to its distinct elements can teach you how an argument persuades readers and can facilitate your ability to judge why an argument may be effective or ineffective. Understanding how arguments work–as well as why they sometimes fail–can help you develop your own strong arguments.
For this essay, you will choose to analyze one of the non-fiction texts we’ve read, either “Hidden Intellectualism” by Gerald Graff, “I’m Considering Becoming a Sports Fan – How Do I Pick a Team?” by Andy Hinds, “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” by Tressie McMillan Cottom, or “The Talk: After Ferguson, a Shaded Conversation about Race” by Dana Canedy.
- minimum of 3 full double-spaced pages (excluding the Works Cited page);
- any summarized, paraphrased, and/or quoted source material documented with in-text parenthetical citations;
- Works Cited page, with sources listed according to MLA specifications;
- conventional formatting: 12-point Times New Roman font; double-spaced; MLA first-page header; new paragraphs tabbed in ½ inch.
Structural requirements: Keep the following essay components in mind as you begin drafting, for they will need to be included in your final draft:
- Opening Paragraph: Introduce and contextualize your chosen text by briefly summarizing the main argument and leading into your specific analytical thesis statement.
- The thesis statement should indicate the overall effectiveness/persuasiveness of the text’s argument and allude to the major points to be discussed in the essay.
- Body Paragraphs: Provide thorough analysis of the author’s intended audience, purpose, appeals to readers, concessions, refutations, and/or counterarguments. Each paragraph should include
- a topic sentence that obviously relates to and signals development of your thesis;
- evidence, which should consist of short passages from the text that are framed with lead-in phrases and analytical commentary
- analysis of each piece of evidence that goes beyond merely summarizing what the text says: discuss why the author may have used certain argumentative strategies and why the intended audience is or is not likely to be convinced.
- Conclusion: End your essay with a thoughtful—and not redundant—discussion of the argument’s general effectiveness and “big picture” value.
Audience: This essay is intended for a formal, academic audience already familiar with the subject you choose to analyze.
The following pages provide more specific tips and guidelines that will be useful as you begin brainstorming, writing, and revising.
Analyzing your Text
You will need to spend a great deal of time studying whichever argument you choose, so select an argument that engages you. As you reread your chosen text, follow these steps to produce thorough and rigorous analysis:
- Identify the original intended audience and read the text several times from that perspective. (Identifying the original audience may involve some minor research but can often be deduced from appeals and assumptions used in the text.) Understanding the intended audience is essential to a good analysis, as you may find some arguments quite effective for one audience but not another. Imagine, for example, how different an article about climate change would be if it were intended for an audience of seasoned scholars well-versed in the subject as opposed to an audience of middleschoolers. The strategies used to appeal to one audience wouldn’t necessarily work as well for the other, so the argument itself must be viewed within the context of its audience to fully understand and fairly analyze it.
- Identify the author’s purpose for writing the text. Is s/he, ● expressing an idea or opinion?
- responding to a particular occasion or another text?
- exploring a topic or inquiring into a problem?
- analyzing, synthesizing, or interpreting data?
- persuading the reader of an argument?
- reflecting on a topic?
- advocating for change?
Just as the author’s argumentative strategies will vary with varying audiences, so too will their strategies change as their purposes change. Analyzing an argument with its specific purpose in mind will thus help ensure your analysis is fair and accurate.
- Identify the various ways the author seeks to appeal to the readers’ values and beliefs: ● what words does the author use and how does word choice create a tone?
- does the author reveal his/her point of view; and, if yes, is the view revealed explicitly or implicitly?
- scrutinize the evidence the authors provides to support the sub-claims within the argument:
are claims backed up with data?
- what types of data does the author present: empirical, anecdotal, testimonial?
- are the sources for the evidence valid and authoritative?
- how well do all of the author’s appeals fit the intended audience and purpose?
- Look for concessions, refutations, and counterarguments, and think about how the audience is likely to react to these.
- Does the author fairly and accurately address relevant objections and counterarguments?
- Does the author back up his/her refutations with evidence?● Does the author show respect for different viewpoints?
Crafting a Thesis Statement
You can’t evaluate all of the argument’s elements in a short essay, so narrow your focus and present a thesis that focuses on a few. Use one of the templates below to get started.
*Note: In most cases, you cannot simply fill in the blanks; you need to alter sentence structure and wording to create your own clear, unique thesis. Also, use the author’s name rather than “the author.”
Although the author seems to make a convincing case that ____________________, his argument ultimately falls short because __________________________.
The author makes a strong case for _____________________________________; however, she weakens her argument by ____________________________________________________.
Most readers will agree with the author’s position on ___________________________, but the argument falters when he argues ______________________________________.
While the author’s argument that __________________________ is difficult to refute, she neglects to address _________________________ and ___________________________, which undermines her argument.
The author provides strong evidence to convince readers that _____________________, ______________________, and _________________________.
The author’s argument ultimately fails because he does not adequately address
_________________________, ____________________________, and _______________________.
The author offers powerful support in the form of _________________________ , _____________________________, and ______________________.
The evidence offered to support the claim that ___________________________ will no doubt convince the intended audience, but more support is needed before readers agree that _______________________ and ___________________________.
On the surface, the argument is convincing, but if readers don’t share the assumption that ________________________, they will not agree that ___________________.
If readers agree that __________________________ and _____________________ are fair assumptions, they will likely agree with the argument.
The audience for this argument likely shares/does not share the assumptions that _______________, _______________________ and _____________________, so they will/will not be convinced that __________________________.
In addition to the evidence the author provides, _______________ and ______________ further supports her argument.
While the evidence offered is convincing, what the author neglects to consider is __________________ and ________________________.
Drafting the Essay
Remember that drafting is only one stage in the writing process. Begin drafting with the understanding that you can (and should!) adjust your wording, structure, and argument after you get your initial thoughts down on paper. In general, your first draft should do the following:
- Begin with an introductory paragraph in which you briefly summarize the argument in an engaging way and present your thesis. (In most academic arguments, the thesis appears at the end of the opening paragraph.)
- Keep in mind I’m your audience and I’ve read the text you’re analyzing—this means you do not need to summarize the text extensively.
- Include detailed body paragraphs, each of which
- Presents a clear topic sentence that obviously relates back to and signals development of your thesis:
For example, if your thesis is
Although author X seems to make a convincing case that college English professors are lazy and overpaid, his argument ultimately falls short because his data are not representative—that is, he does not examine the working conditions of faculty at community colleges and public universities, nor does author X distinguish between full- and part-time faculty…
…one of your topic sentences would likely signal discussion of what a “representative sample” is and why one is important for a good argument. You might then build off that paragraph in subsequent paragraphs devoted to discussing the working conditions of English faculty at other types of colleges and universities, including community colleges and public universities. Additional paragraphs could also discuss the workloads of full-time faculty versus part-time, or adjunct, faculty.
- Back up your analytical claims with evidence, which should consist of short passages from the text along with your analysis of these passages. Each paragraph should help your readers understand why a specific argument within the text is or is not effective. To help readers understand, you need to go beyond quoting and summarizing the argument. Discuss what the author does to convince his or her intended audience and why that audience is or is not likely to be convinced.
- End with a conclusion that does more than just summarize what you’ve already written. Effective conclusions will take your argument one step further by indicating why your topic of discussion is worthy of study.
Once you’ve produced a draft, look critically at your thesis, organization, opening and concluding strategies, and body paragraphs.
A good strategy to check your draft is to create a reverse outline of it. Construct the outline by listing the main idea of each paragraph. If a paragraph’s topic sentence provides a succinct version of the paragraph’s argument, you can paste that sentence into the outline as a summary for that paragraph. Otherwise, write a one-sentence summary to express the main point of the paragraph. Now, review your list and make sure that each point relates back to the main claim (your thesis).
- Many writers find that new ideas or topics appear near the end of a reverse outline. These topic shifts may signal that you need to revise certain paragraphs in your draft to be sure they relate back to your main idea, or they may inspire you to revise your main idea so it takes on some of the new points these paragraphs suggest.
- By viewing the structure of your paper from the vantage of a reverse outline, you can make productive decisions about whether to keep certain paragraphs or cut them from a draft. In reviewing your draft and the reverse outline, look for the following:
- ideas that are irrelevant to your thesis or that reveal your thesis needs to be revised;
- redundancy—paragraphs repeated ideas;
- unnecessary summary—remember, I am your reader and I’ve read the essay you’re analyzing;
- paragraphs that encompass more than one idea;
- paragraphs (analysis) needing greater development;
- passages/quotations needing greater explanation and/or better integration.
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