What Is Rhetorical Analysis?

T. Carrier

Rhetorical analysis is critical reading and analysis that evaluates the "how" of a text. In other words, the content of the work is secondary to how that content is created and implemented to achieve a certain effect. Such analyses disassemble a work and evaluate how the parts work together. Examples of subjects considered in rhetorical analysis include the intended theme and achieved tone of a work.

Rhetorical analysis looks at the "how" of a text.
Rhetorical analysis looks at the "how" of a text.

Perhaps the foundation of conducting a rhetorical analysis rests in determining the main theme or main point of a work, as this represents the crux of the rhetorical invention process. In a traditional written essay, the introductory paragraph usually contains a sentence called the thesis statement that provides a brief summary of what the author hopes to achieve with the essay. For example, the author might argue in favor of a particular public policy.

An author may frame a theme or argument within a certain rhetorical approach.
An author may frame a theme or argument within a certain rhetorical approach.

An author may frame a theme or argument within a certain rhetorical approach. Some texts are intended to persuade, while others might simply inform readers about a particular issue. A written text may even be a rhetorical analysis itself, breaking an event or issue into its parts and evaluating each contributing factor.

Depending on the author’s specific approach and intent, he or she may use different rhetorical tools. Tone is often one important tool. The author might use simple words and adopt a conversational tone if he or she is hoping to persuade the reader, for example, while adopting a more academic tone that expresses competency when explaining something.

In addition, the author might use different appeals for different audiences. If an audience responds better to logos — or appeals based on logic and reason — then the author will likely employ many hard facts and include contrary arguments. On the other hand, emotional appeals, or pathos, might be better served with stylistic choices like strong, descriptive passages, metaphorical comparative phrases, and emotionally charged anecdotes that are strategically delayed and placed in later portions of the text. These considerations are another facet of rhetorical analysis.

A comprehensive rhetorical analysis will consider a piece down to the level of sentence and even word choice. As a whole, the analysis might evaluate how unified and coherent the work appears in its arrangement. Paragraph and sentence order might determine how an author builds a certain point, and paragraph transitions can provide insight into how well the author navigates a topic. Sentence variation and word choice can help set the tone of a piece, and can give an idea of how formal of a tone a writer intends. Further, certain words may be used specifically to invoke a certain response in the reader.

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