How to Write a Rhetorical Analysis Essay

rhetorical analysis essay
  • Last Edited: July 15, 2017

In this rhetorical analysis essay tutorial, you will understand what it takes to complete this type of writing as well as learn how to write one. Whether this work is a speech or a novel, this guide will demonstrate what kinds of methods can be used to understand the perspective, voice, among other things within a writer’s work. A brief outline along with an example of an actual rhetorical analysis essay will be used to further add clarity to what is required for this type of essay.

It involves examination of a topic in several ways. One can choose a specific way to address a subject or use a variety of literary devices to convey the message to the reader. That message can be what one thinks of the writing style of an author or how a politician delivered a speech. Rhetorical analysis essays are all about dissecting the very things that make writing great or not so great without imparting one’s own opinions on the work.

Rhetorical analysis essays break apart the phrases and words that are generated by the author to unveil the persuasive methods and styles used to garner a reaction from the audience and looks towards the possible reasons why writers make the choices they do in their writing.

Definition

A rhetorical analysis essay is like a Russian nesting doll in the sense that one opens the doll and there is another doll inside. In a rhetorical analysis, one must break apart the phrases and words to understand the styles and perspective of the writer. This is how to begin analysis, by addressing the content.

Understanding how the ‘written parts’ of a writer’s work goes together is the main part of rhetorical essay writing. Analysis of text can entail understanding perspective or word choice. Or, it can be explaining the themes of a plot, while also looking for purpose and process.

A popular subject area for rhetorical analysis essays are speeches. The “I Have a Dream” speech by the late and great Martin Luther King Jr. His speech included repetition and used emotion and imagery to appeal to the audience. An appeal of emotion is known as pathos and will be discussed later in the essay.

Although speeches are often the main subject area, there are others like novels and essays that can be analyzed. Sometimes an author’s background can be used to introduce context into the analysis. An example of this is Dr. King Jr’s background as a pastor (Collins, 1986).

Dr. King Jr’s religious background played a role in how he viewed the world. This then led to how he wrote the speech that would change a nation. His beliefs and convictions were in full display during his time delivering that speech.

Context can play an important role in how people construct things like speeches and novels. If someone writes a book during a war, their reactions to the war may be placed within the written words. Rhetorical analysis can help bring that out by interpreting word choice, writing style, and even things like word tense and examining the background and life of the writer (Ramage, Bean, & Johnson, 2016).

How to Start a Rhetorical Analysis Essay

It can be difficult to find the motivation to write any essay, especially one that involves analysis that is both insightful and provides a thorough interpretation of a work that is neutral, free of criticism. Those looking to write a rhetorical analysis essay must open their minds to the various nuances and directions that can be taken when beginning such an essay. It can be a daunting task, but easy to overcome once one knows the steps.

The first thing to do when beginning a rhetorical analysis essay is to choose what part of the written work to be analyzed. People can choose to do a thorough analysis, dissecting language and context. Or, they can do something as simple as discussion of themes and a writer’s background (Raymond, 2007).

There are many choices when it comes to directions to take for a rhetorical analysis essay. The aim of the analysis is to take into consideration a writer’s genre, audience, purpose, stance, design/media when constructing an examination of the written work. It is about looking at the content, the purpose, the background of the author, the structure, the forum, and the message intended for the audience.

When figuring out what to do for the essay, one must look at the methods for effective communication like argumentation, fallacies, and persuasive appeals. Earlier pathos was mentioned briefly. Pathos is an emotional appeal to the reader.

There are two other kinds of persuasive appeals. The second is ethos or appeal to ethics. The key to ethos is convincing the audience by establishing credibility.

The third is logos. Logos is an appeal to logic. People who use logos often provide statistics, and other factual information to convince people of their reasoning. The example essay will feature all three to provide a clue into what analysis can be done in a rhetorical essay.

Although all of this is a lot to consider, critical reading should be the first step of a rhetorical analysis. Critical reading skills must be applied to the text read. For instance, an entire text can be split into parts to help determine what may have been done to achieve a message or convey a thought to an audience.

Going back to the “I Have a Dream Speech, the text can be split into the changes King Jr. wanted and the reasons for these changes. This is a call to reason or logos. “Instead of honoring the sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’” (King, M. L. Jr. (1963, Aug.28) Para 5).

Although the speech does contain an emotional appeal, Dr. King Jr was trying to convey the logical aspect of why he and the people of the Civil Rights Movement wanted equality. Because he was a pastor as was his father, his reputation implied he was a credible person. This was also seen in his actions via the peaceful protests.

Such an example clearly shows how to perform a rhetorical analysis by deriving meaning from the text. Looking again at the speech, he uses argumentation and appealing again to emotion by stating the mistake of not granting equality to the negroes would be a fatal error. “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro” (King, M. L. Jr. (1963, Aug.28) Para 6).

Outline

I. Introduction

A. Introduce subject/topic of analysis.

B. Make clear the purpose.

C. Engage with the reader.

D. The analysis must remain objective.

II. Body: Exploration of the main message, context, and devices used

A. What is the main message?

B. How is the message created in the written work?

C. What may be the assumptions or assertions made?

III. Summary of APPEALS showing examples in the text

A. ETHOS

1.  What are the author’s credentials?

B. LOGOS

 1.  What is the logical reasoning and evidence:

2.  What claims support the message?

3.  What evidence is presented?

C. PATHOS

1.  Is the writer using an emotional appeal?

2.  What are examples in the text?

3.  Is there poetic language?

IV. Extra section: Summary of the Argument’s Strengths and Weaknesses

A.  What about this work is able to convey well the message?

B.  What about it does not?

VI. Conclusion

A.  A brief recap of what was discussed.

Essay Topics

Rhetorical analysis essay topics can be difficult to choose because the manner of writing involved demands an exploration of meaning, context, and language. However, there are many that can be chosen that cover a variety of classes and can lead to an easier time exploring and analyzing. Speeches for example, are the easiest to use for a rhetorical analysis essay.

  • Speeches and sermons that are very popular can be excellent topics. The first one is Elizabeth Warren’s Black Lives Matter speech. It offers a look into a growing movement. It also provides a potential platform to determine motivation behind the movement for its notable leaders and advocates.
  • If one wants to look towards American history, the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln is easily regarded as the most historical speech in the United States. This speech is connected to the abolishment of slavery. As well as the inner turmoil of the American people.
  • If one wants to use modern days speeches, Steve Job’s commencement speech is one. Another is the ‘Brave Heart’ speech by William Wallace. For more pop culture speeches, one can look to Tom Hank’s Academy win for the movie, “Philadelphia”.
  • A recent noteworthy political speech is former president, Barack Obama’s inaugural address. Speeches earlier than that like J.F.K.’s inaugural address can also be a topic. Tragic speeches can yield an interesting read such as Richard Nixon’s resignation speech.
  • Speeches and sermons are not the only means of getting topics. To Kill a Mocking Bird and Consider the Lobster are just a few novels that may be worth an in-depth analysis. Hamlet by William Shakespeare is an excellent topic to explore tragedy in literature. President Trump’s inaugural address and Hillary Clinton’s many speeches can be used, especially to investigate the kind of messages they delivered during election season.
  • Theresa May gave an apology speech for the government’s reaction to the Grenfell Tower tragedy. She is a leader at a time where England is unstable following Brexit.
  • A final suggestion for a topic is the Hamilton play and why it may be controversial to some. The popularity of this topic has grown in recent times and remains an issue in current events. These serve as a rounded basis from which anyone can try to write a rhetorical analysis essay.

Example Essay

The “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is considered by many as the most memorable speech of the 20th century. The speech was delivered August 28th, 1963 to a mass of hundreds of thousands on the Lincoln Memorial steps (King & Armstrong, 2005). Serving as a base for equality that was brought on by the Civil War and the outlawing of slavery, King Jr’s speech contained elements that make most speeches great, assonance, repetition, consonance, ethos, pathos, and logos. By examining the context behind the creation of the speech, one can also determine the overall message and purpose.

The first major line from the speech that highlights King’s brilliant use of poetic language is the one discussing his children. “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (King, M. L. Jr. (1963, Aug.28) Para 12). This line is a wonderful example of assonance or repetition of sound/diphthong.

The part where he says, ‘will one day live’ are all short words that keep adding emotional impact as he continues with the delivery. He also keeps using ‘I Have a Dream’ to reinforce the main message of the speech, which is a hope and desire for equality for all. Hope and equality were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement to which King was a notable leader. He chose to perform his speech in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln to not only show there is hope and there can be a better tomorrow, but that if Lincoln could win the war and abolish slavery, so can the Civil Rights Movement end segregation and racial disparity.

Consonance is also prevalent within the speech. Consonance is similar to alliteration and rhyming. An example of this is ‘Sean went to the shore and wore shorts will roasting smores’. One can see this in another line of his speech where he also makes an emotional appeal (pathos) to convince his audience of the pain endured by people of color in a racially divided nation. “When will we be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities” (King, M. L. Jr. (1963, Aug.28) Para 9).

‘When will we’ and ‘fatigue of travel’ flow well and generate a feeling of a united front, but also through the similar sounding words and use of a similar number of syllables, a lyrical quality that lends to the use of spirituals by African slaves during hard times. Spirituals are Christian songs that spoke of the pain and suffering Africans endured during slavery. As a pastor, King was well versed in the Bible and knew of the power of spirituals in invoking feeling and imagery. By giving his speech a lyrical feel, it made it that much more effective to his audience.

Going back to King being a pastor and growing up in the church, his previous experience demonstrates to his audience that he is a ‘righteous man’, a man of honor because he is a man of God. When a man of God announces to his audience that there is a great injustice happening, they are more likely to believe him and side with him because of his past. Aside from his profession, King was also at the forefront of peaceful protests. He was pivotal in the fight for equality in the Civil Rights Movement (Karson, 2005).

King was great at creating language that evoked emotion and generated hope and unity in others. It also appealed logically to his audience. One part of the speech that exemplified logos was where he described the words of the Constitution. If all men are created equal, why are people of color not given equal rights?

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (King, 1963 para. 4).

By creating appeal through emotion, character, and logic, along with using language to effectively describe his message, King was able to garner the kind of attention he needed for his cause. His message for equality was heard not just from the words he spoke, but how he spoke them. That is how someone writes and delivers a powerful speech.

One final thing to consider in analyzing the “I Have a Dream” speech is the need for organization and finality. King explains the need for equality, for liberty, but then delivers a hopeful final message at the end of his speech. “Free at last! Free at last!” coming full circle demonstrating there will be victory in the fight for equality. That confidence and use of words shows King believed in his cause and believed in a positive outcome.

In conclusion, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a speech that empowered many to stand up for the rights of people of color. His words resonated and brought about change. This change came from the effort and skill scene in “I Have a Dream”.

Conclusion

Rhetorical analysis essays involve careful consideration of the voice and choices of the author. From use of the same phrases to alliteration, these choices allow access to the possible thoughts and meaning behind the written words. These kinds of essays invite people to ponder over what it means to write a speech or a novel.

It is important to not simply look at the word choice or writing style of an author, but also the context surrounding the author at the time of writing the novel or speech. Many things within one’s environment can contribute to how a person writes something. Without understanding the context surrounding the author, the depth of analysis may not be as great.

By covering the definitions and key terms as well as topics, one can see what it would take to construct a proper rhetorical analysis essay. The example provided also offers a clear guide of what to do to achieve the level of insight and understanding that is required of such an essay. These tools will help anyone having problems figuring out what do and write.

Topics can be difficult to select, but often speeches are the easiest to use. The speaker provides a means of examining the message and speeches often include all three persuasive appeals. Although plays and books can still provide meaningful analysis.

Such analysis invites exploration of what the message of the writer could be and how the writer went about achieving effective portrayal of the message. Not everything regarding rhetorical analysis needs to be done in a way that asks for profound examination and interpretation. There is a spectrum for analysis in these kinds of essays. It is dependent on the topic and length of the essay.

Rhetorical essays can be difficult to master. They take use of various devices in order to be effective. However, like a good recipe, once you managed to understand the various steps, it becomes like second nature. If these essays have helped you, feel free to look at more of our essay guides. The essay guides serve as a means of providing a way to understand and explore a topic.

References

Collins, D. R. (1986). Not only dreamers: The story of Martin Luther King, Sr. and Martin Luther King, Jr. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press.

Karson, J. (2005). The civil rights movement. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.

King Jr., M. (1968). Martin Luther King I Have a Dream Speech – American Rhetoric. Retrieved from http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

King, M. L., & Armstrong, T. (2005). The papers of Martin Luther King, Jr: Vol. 5. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ramage, J. D., Bean, J. C., & Johnson, J. (2016). Writing arguments: A rhetoric with readings.

Raymond, R. (2007). Questioning: Literary and rhetorical analysis for writers. Southlake, TX: Fountainhead Press.

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