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Rhetorical and Textual Analysis Tools

"Rhetorical Analysis" sounds daunting, but it is actually quite straightforward. When you analyze the rhetoric of a text (or a film, or advertisement, or speech), you are writing to discover what the purpose of the text is and how it fulfills that purpose for a particular audience. Think of it this way: every time an author writes, he or she makes thousands of decisions: 

 

  • Should I use the word "ginormous," or would "massive" be more appropriate?
  • Should I include personal details, or adopt an impersonal, objective tone? 
  • Would humor go over well with this audience, or would it hurt my credibility? 
  • Would a quote from a university scientist or from a respected politician be more convincing? 

 

When you analyze a text, you are uncovering the decisions that another author made, and considering how those decisions might have affected the way the text turned out. 

 

Most, perhaps all, of your evidence in a rhetorical analysis will come from the text you are analyzing (which, of course, you'll need to cite properly). Your paper will probably have a number of quotes that are followed by your commentary about them. Take a look at the sample essays to the right to see how this works. 

 

A good starting point would be to determine the rhetorical situation, especially the purpose and audience of the text, but also the context of it. Context can encompass many things—the exigency (or what made the author decide to write/speak), the occasion, the venue or media in which it originally appeared; and even more generally, the state of the world and historical background in regard to the topic(s) being addressed. An article about air travel, for instance, would be quite different if it were written before September 11, 2001. Here is a basic overview of the rhetorical situation

 

 

Next, you'll analyze the ways in which the writer sets out to achieve his or her purpose--and how successfully he or she does so. You might start by considering the use of appeals--logos, pathos, and ethos. You can see the different appeals at work, for instance, in Dr. Martin Luther King’s  “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

 

The kinds of choices an author makes are endless, which means there's plenty for you to write about. You could consider the text's organizational strategy, tropes (aka rhetorical devices), style and tone, word choice, use of quotations…the list goes on. Any choice the author makes in a piece is a potentially rich object of analysis. This list of questions gets at many of the strategies you can think about. Don't worry--you certainly don't need to cover all of these strategies. A great analysis identifies patterns of strategies and focuses on the those that are particularly rich. For each strategy you identify, you will want to consider this question: "how does this help the author achieve his or her purpose, given this particular audience?" After thinking about these strategies and patterns, you will ultimately come up with a thesis or organizing idea that will hold your analysis together--a claim you make about the author's choices in the text.