A Rhetorical Analysis Essay: What Is It and How to Write It

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“The pen is mightier than the sword” is a common saying that often does not stand up to scrutiny. Swords are the mightiest historical force. Swords form nations, win freedom, protect borders, etc. But that does not mean that the spoken or written word doesn’t have its place.

Aside from a select few activities, almost anything done in life will require communication and persuasion. Entire wars were turned around by inspiring rhetoric. People persuaded allies, won contracts, comforted the sick and suffering. 

There are very few areas of life where rhetorical analysis ( and rhetoric in general) is useless.

Regardless of culture or time, there is something about quality rhetoric that just pulls at our heartstrings. Modern civilization has almost given a bad name to the art of rhetoric because the only time we hear the term is in an ominous context. 

“Divisive rhetoric,” “dangerous rhetoric,” or “bad rhetoric” is in the top ten list of the press’s most abused terms.

So, is there anything inherently negative tied to the word and the technique that it describes?

What is Rhetoric?

The term propaganda is similar to rhetoric, where it has unfairly gained an unpleasant reputation.  Both rhetoric and propaganda are neutral terms. The first describes the art of persuasive speech, while the latter handles the dissemination of ideas.

The value and moral weight stem from the ideas themselves and not the method of delivery.

Like many important things in our civilization, the ancient Greeks pioneered the concept. The most famous definition comes from Aristotle, who described rhetoric as the ability to recognize the means of persuasion in every available case.

Ever since then, there has been a gradual dumbing down of the concept. Rhetoric is often associated with a lower cunning and a manipulative instinct.

While it is evident that those who seek power will always seek efficient paths to gather it, even good ideas need to be presented persuasively. One can argue that it is one’s moral duty to do so, given the importance of disseminating valuable concepts.

Rhetoric is much more than simple persuasion. Persuasion is a goal, not a method.

Someone gifted in rhetoric must be able to identify and empathize with differing perspectives. You actively have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Overall, rhetoric is a combination of multiple elements and abilities. This includes a high verbal ability and a knack for understanding and empathizing with other people.

What is Rhetorical Analysis?

Rhetorical analysis is a form of criticism that doesn’t look at primarily the literary qualities of a text. Instead, it analyzes the text from a rhetoric standpoint, weighing the interaction between the subject, the author, and the reader.

If you read enough analysis pieces, you will also pick up on how to write a rhetorical analysis essay on your own. Feel free to browse any rhetorical analysis essay example.

A Mind for Writing a Rhetorical Analysis Essay

It is common for certain professions to change a person’s way of thinking. For example, programmers often learn to think in code, as translating real-life situations into code blocks becomes second nature.

If you write enough rhetorical analysis essays, you will go through a similar process. You will be tasked with recognizing the interplay between the author, the text, and the intended audience.

Imagine a situation where you are in a new place. The first step should be orientation and establishing where you are. A similar mindset should be adopted while doing a rhetorical analysis of a text.

Who is the author? Is she/he famous? Does the author’s background affect the written work? In a way, you have to “look around.”

There are dozens of questions that will help you construct your case. Everything is relevant in one way or another. You may even have to break a few normal rules and desecrate a few sacred cows of the genre.

For example, normal literary criticism rarely focuses on something other than the work itself. The author, the target audience, the intent, the historical context are seldom relevant. However, a rhetorical analysis will weigh all of these factors.

When persuasion is the goal, it matters who reads the piece. While great literary works aim to be timeless and authentic at all times, rhetoric addresses people who are alive at the given time.

A theological text written in the 8th century may be persuasive for that time, but many details and context points will be lost on modern readers. Academic language and basic assumptions may also change.

Ideally, you would be best served by first training in literary criticism and then rhetorical analysis. For example, there is an essence of Shakespeare’s works that will be valid for as long as humans walk the Earth.

Still, some elements are underhanded or period-specific. A trained eye will catch the eternal truths about human nature via literary analysis while grasping the period-specific rhetoric.

Reverse-Engineer the Text

As a beginner, you have to train yourself not to pay attention just to the text outline. Another useful way of seeing a rhetorical analysis essay example is to imagine that you are building a court case.

Harkening back to Aristotle’s quote, you have to be aware of what you can use at all times.

In this regard, rhetorical analysis is a meta discipline. You will be writing about writing. There is no obligation to stick to the points of the original essay. Thus, the writer is given a vast amount of freedom to craft an argument.

Also, you can cheat, but only a little. Most people looking for rhetorical analysis topics are doing so because it is a college assignment. You can use the internet to find the subject itself but stop there.

Do not copy-paste the entire analysis. You will find that if you develop your rhetoric skills, they will help you in any career.

Characteristics of a Rhetorical Analysis Essay

There are general rules to constructing a rhetorical analysis essay outline. First, a strong command of the language is required. People tend to cringe at poorly written arguments, even if the presented opinion is reasonable.

An excellent rhetorical essay will be coherent and written in the present tense.  You do not need to use flowery language or any other type of complex prose. 

Also, do not go off on tangents. It is best to keep your eye on the ball and stick to the speech, article, or text at hand. Before you begin writing, you can consider the popular SOAP method used by many novice writers.

  • The S in SOAP stands for the subject, representing the general interest of the speech or text.
  • The O represents the occasion or the motive that triggered the writing of the argument.
  • A represents the audience. You will always write your analysis with a specific target audience in mind.
  • For Purpose, we have P. This aims to analyze and explain the author’s goals.

The Three Paths of Persuasion

Again, we come back to the wisdom of Aristotle. While he did not invent human argumentation, he made it less ad-hoc and more precise science. The best rhetorical analysis essay tips can be found in his writings.

He isolated three main appeals and motivations that will aid in persuasion: Ethos, Pathos and Logos.

1. Ethos

Ethos is the Greek word from which we derive the term “ethics.” Ethos arguments seek to underline the strong moral character of the speaker. This is contrary to a standard debate, where an appeal to the speaker’s character would be seen as an invalid logical fallacy.

So, how can you make an ethos-heavy argument?

Well, first, you have to know your audience. Make an effort to tailor your language and vocabulary to your desired listener or reader level.

Is your standard reader a teenager, or is he an Academic? Most people will rarely listen to those who are outside of their perceived group, so make an effort to blend in.

Also, make sure to seem fair and unbiased. Readers are more likely to listen to a person who seems like he is searching for the truth. You do not want to seem like you are pushing an agenda.

Finally, be sure to present your credentials. Make an effort to show that your opinion carries weight.

2. Pathos

Pathos is most likely the most popular method of appeal in any type of rhetoric. It represents the emotional appeal, targeting people’s feelings. The ability to manipulate and change people’s emotions is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Pathos appeals are the bread and butter of every marketing department and PR firm. A tiny percentage of the population is swayed by pure logical argument. Even though it is an uncomfortable truth, most humans are creatures of instinct and emotion. 

In literature, the most prevalent emotions that authors seek to invoke are lust, ambition, pity, and anger.  The root word is a clue in this regard, given that it means both “experience” and “suffering” in the original Greek.

So, how can you bring forth pathos?

You have to try and use a more emotional tone and weave emotional language amongst your arguments. Similar to our previous point about ethos, people do not like to know that they are being pitched an idea.

If your attempt at emotionalism is too out in the open, the audience will reject it. Use a more subtle approach and implied meaning. Also, even though circumstantial accounts will never be accepted in a proper debate, feel free to use them. Tell personal stories and anecdotes, and do everything necessary to invoke emotion.

3. Logos

Logos is the truest yet least effective of the three main appeals. We get our word “Logic” from Logos,  and it uses reason as its primary argumentative mechanism.

The straightforward and most rough translation of Logos would be “ word.” However, the idea is much more complex. Logos represents an idea, namely the concept of the interior thought itself. It is the thought that thinks other thoughts.

 Complicated meta-linguistics aside, a logos appeal is a reasonable and logical argument.           Yet, if precision and logic were the primary way to convince humans, mathematicians and physicists would run marketing departments.

As previously mentioned, we are mostly creatures of instinct and emotion. Logic is rarely heeded when it comes to our decision-making process.

It is why we get addicted to substances that harm us. It is why we are more likely to buy a product that is advertised using an attractive member of the opposite sex, even though pretty girls have no inherent connection to floor tiles or chicken sandwiches.

Marketers, politicians, and speechwriters train themselves to play our emotions like fiddles.

Logos appeals will convince a minimal number of people. However, that number is not zero, especially if we are dealing with a more academic topic.

So, how to use Logos argumentation?

Even though you are sneaking in a more emotional premise, you at least have to maintain the impression of a Logos appeal. This can be done via the heavy use of exact quotes, statistics, and citations. 

High-end specialized language is encouraged as long as it does not make your arguments harder to understand.

Conclusion

Modern schools are famous for teaching skills that are not useful in adult life. Many give the example that we learn trigonometry, yet most of us do not know how to do our taxes.

The same logic can be applied to writing. Very few people will need to write a literary analysis or a scientific paper. Yet, these two types of essays are very common school assignments.

Meanwhile, rhetoric and making a persuasive argument are some of the most valuable skills you can have. But the school system rarely assigns or teaches rhetoric essay analysis.

Overall, you need to be aware of any argument that can be spun in your favor. Do this for a sufficient amount of time, and it will become your new, default way of thinking.

Remember to be concise, clear, and use at least one of the three primary appeals: ethos, logos, and pathos. The best pieces of rhetoric will employ all three at once, in a particular proportion.