Note: This chapter builds on the rhetorical concepts introduced in the section, Reading and Writing Rhetorically.
What Is “Rhetorical Analysis”?
Rhetoric: The art of persuasion
Analysis: Breaking down the whole into pieces for the purpose of examination
Unlike a straightforward summary, a rhetorical analysis does not only require a restatement of ideas; instead, you must recognize rhetorical moves that an author is making in an attempt to persuade his or her audience to do or to think something. In the 21st century’s abundance of information, it can sometimes be difficult to discern what is a rhetorical strategy and what is simple manipulation; however, an understanding of rhetoric and rhetorical moves will help you become more savvy with the information surrounding you on a day-to-day basis. In other words, rhetorical moves can be a form of manipulation, but if one can recognize those moves, then one can be a more critical consumer of information rather than blindly accepting whatever one reads, sees, hears, etc.
The goal of a rhetorical analysis is to explain what is happening in the text, why the author might have chosen to use a particular move or set of rhetorical moves, and how those choices might affect the audience. The text you analyze might be explanatory, although there will be aspects of argument because you must negotiate with what the author is trying to do and what you think the author is doing. As Edward P.J. Corbett observes, rhetorical analysis “is more interested in a literary work for what it does than for what it is” (qtd. in Nordqvist).
One of the elements of doing a rhetorical analysis is looking at a text’s rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation is the context out of a which a text is created.
Another element of rhetorical analysis is simply reading and summarizing the text. You have to be able to describe the basics of the author’s thesis and main points before you can begin to analyze it.
To do rhetorical analysis, you will connect the rhetorical situation to the text. You will go beyond summarizing and instead look at how the author shapes his or her text based on its context. In developing your reading and analytical skills, allow yourself to think about what you’re reading, to question the text and your responses to it, as you read. Use the following questions to help you to take the text apart—dissecting it to see how it works:
- Does the author successfully support the thesis or claim? Is the point held consistently throughout the text, or does it wander at any point?
- Is the evidence the author used effective for the intended audience? How might the intended audience respond to the types of evidence that the author used to support the thesis/claim?
- What rhetorical moves do you see the author making to help achieve his or her purpose? Are there word choices or content choices that seem to you to be clearly related to the author’s agenda for the text?
- Describe the style and tone in the piece. Is it friendly? Authoritative? Does it lecture? Is it biting or sarcastic? Does the author use simple language, or is it full of jargon? Does the language feel positive or negative? Point to aspects of the text that create the tone; spend some time examining these and considering how and why they work.
- Is the author objective, or does he or she try to convince you to have a certain opinion? Why does the author try to persuade you to adopt this viewpoint? If the author is biased, does this interfere with the way you read and understand the text?
- Do you feel like the author knows who you are? Does the text seem to be aimed at readers like you or at a different audience? What assumptions does the author make about their audience? Would most people find these reasonable, acceptable, or accurate?
- Does the text’s flow make sense? Is the line of reasoning logical? Are there any gaps? Are there any spots where you feel the reasoning is flawed in some way?
- Does the author try to appeal to your emotions? Does the author use any controversial words in the headline or the article? Do these affect your reading or your interest?
- Do you believe the author? Do you accept their thoughts and ideas? Why or why not?
Once you have done this basic, rhetorical, critical reading of your text, you are ready to think about how the rhetorical situation–the context out of which the text arises–influences certain rhetorical appeals (logos, pathos, ethos) that appear in it.
Linked in this textbook is Laura Bolin Carroll’s essay. Click here to read Caroll’s essay: Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps Toward Rhetorical Analysis
Professional Examples of Rhetorical Analysis
Hooks, Bell. Cultural Criticism & Transformation. video. LCSC Library
Kilbourne, Jean. 20 Oct 2015. “Jesus is a Brand of Jeans.” The Humanist.
Kilbourne, Jean. Killing Us Softly video series. LCSC Library.
Kilbourne, Jean. Deadly Persuasion video series. LCSC Library.
Meslin, Dave. 2010. Antidote to Apathy. TED Talk.