Essay Assignment

Return to Essay

Jefferson, GWRTC 103
Fall 2009

Paper #1 prompt: Rhetorical Analysis

Rhetorical analysis: In “Aristotle and Friends,” we read that “rhetoric is the art of framing an argument so that it can be appreciated by an audience.” Rhetorical analysis focuses on how an argument is presented, rather than on the subject that the argument engages. When you analyze rhetoric, you’re seeking to discover the strategy or strategies used to build the argument in order “to determine how [it] persuades and positions its readers” (Rosenwasser and Stephen 69). So, for example, if a text is all about “activist judges,” a rhetorical analysis would seek to unpack how the text presents the argument to a specific audience and whether the strategy succeeds or not. It would not present your views on “legislating from the bench,” but would instead remain neutral on the topic. This ability to determine how someone else’s argument works or does not work helps us to know whether we should be persuaded. It is the same ability that positions us to enter into the conversation with our own carefully crafted arguments. 

Pick your text carefully. Option A is an opinion piece or editorial from The Breeze (and since only a few issues have been published so far this semester, you’re welcome to find an argument from the archives available at Option B is a relatively recent opinion piece or editorial from other university newspapers around the country, or from a major national newspaper or magazine. For both Option A and Option B, remember that arguments with rhetorical dimensions worth analyzing are usually only found in the opinion / editorial / letters-to-the-editor pages; most other articles fall under the factual / informative / journalistic category and should thus be avoided for this assignment. Option C is a recent speech by a major American political figure ( offers a fairly comprehensive selection, alphabetized by the speaker’s first name). Selecting your text will require careful thought. First, you can either agree or disagree with the substance of the text and still write an excellent rhetorical analysis. Second, the style of your text can range from serious discussion to a casual commentary. Third, and this is important, there is a difference between a text that invites, requires, and even demands analysis and a text that will simply be easy to analyze.   

Start by analyzing the heck out of your text and then narrow down. Every word, every image, every reference, every organizational choice could be important. Each was chosen to the exclusion of others by (skilled) rhetoricians who want you to see as they see

  • Analyze the intended audience, the occasion and context, the exigence (or urgency), the message (or intended message), and the purpose (or purposes) of your text. They should all have real bearing on how it is put together.
  • Analyze the kind (or kinds) of appeal your text uses. Does it rely on logos (logic and evidence), pathos (emotions evoked in the audience), or does it establish ethos (the credibility of the speaker)? Are there different kinds of appeal? How do they work together? Is one more important than others? Does the reliance on one kind of appeal obscure the failure of another kind of appeal? Where exactly does the appeal succeed or fail?
  • Analyze how the appeal works? Think about the style. Think about the language. Which words stand out? Which are stressed? What meanings do they suggest? What cultural ideas or ideals do they draw on? Does it assume too much, or (purposefully) leave things out? Does it go too far? Why were these words chosen, and not others? Do they fit together? Do they make sense? What effect do they have?
  • Analyze the narrative your text constructs. Do you see it organizing effectively, or helping readers to really “see” the situation? Think about the way individual moments in the text are constructed, about how they build, or how the transitions function, or don’t. Think about how it all could have been done differently, in order to think about why it was done as it is.

Now narrow down. What is most important? Focus on what stands out, rather than on covering everything that could be said. Trying to do too much easily leads to a paper that is not unified, that is too broad, that merely skims the surface, and that therefore does not argue effectively.

Argue. Importantly, as noted in a supplemental reading I’ll post to Blackboard under “Course Documents,” “a rhetorical analysis will be a persuasive piece itself. First, you should write for an audience beyond this classroom. In other words, do NOT assume that everyone reading your paer has read the piece you are writing about. Write as if your readers do not know anything about your text and its author9s). Second, you’ll need to make a claim about the [text] you are studying to explain how or how well it works” (Lunsford et al. 43). “Ineffective” and “effective” are adjectives to start from; “fair,” “complete,” “incoherent,” “inconsistent,” “reassuring,” “self-defeating,” “underhanded,” “off-putting,” “manipulative,” “useful,” or “inspiring” are more specific, but they still need explanation and proof. You should consider the members of our class, including me, to be your audience. You can thus assume that we’re familiar with the terms you’ll use to analyze your article’s rhetoric.

Organize. How you organize your paper will be your decision, but think about what your readers will need to know in order to understand the specifics of your argument, AND think about focusing in on what is most important and then building, to lead your audience through the steps of your argument. As you focus in, you can certainly quote, paraphrase, or summarize, but the bulk of your space should be devoted to analysis. Analyze closely as a resistant reader to really show how the text works. 

Additional Possibility. Research is not required for this paper (though it is allowed and in some cases might be NECESSARY). You may decide to track down quotations to see if they are used accurately, or in their right context, or to find out who said them, or when they were said. You might want to inform yourself and your readers about the specific situation the text speaks to. You might want to do other kinds of external evaluation.


  • Format your work as shown on your syllabus.
  • 3.5+ - 5 pages
  •  If you know how to do in-text citations (MLA style), do so; if you don’t, it’s okay for this paper.
  • Attach a Works Cited page as the last page of your essay. (Your Works Cited page does not count as one of your 3.5+ pages.Your Works Cited page might have only one citation on it: your text. You’ll find information on how to format an MLA Works Cited page in your handbook, but we’ll also talk about formatting in class.
  • Turn in a copy of your text, as well as copies of any other sources you use, with your final draft.

Evaluation: I will distribute and discuss our expectations for an effective rhetorical analysis in class. Your rough draft, your participation in peer workshop sessions, your preparation during our one-on-one meeting, and your revision will play a part in your final grade for the paper.


Works Cited

Lunsford, Andrea A., John J. Ruskiewicz, and Keith Walters. Everything’s an Argument with Readings.

3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. 4th ed. New York: Heinle, 2005.


Return to Essay