Writing a Rhetorical Analysis
Professors often ask their students to write a rhetorical analysis or a critical response to a text
that is important to the content of the course. The purpose of this module is to teach students
how to write an effective rhetorical analysis. This module defines the terms rhetoric and
rhetorical analysis. It provides a template for a rhetorical analysis/critical response and model
analyses for a text-book chapter, an article from an academic journal, and a public lecture or
presentation, because these are common writing assignments in many college and university
courses. This module also discusses and explains one type of a response to a text of special
interest to students: how professors evaluate student writing.
Rhetoric is the art of using language to fulfill a purpose for a particular audience. In its
simplest form, rhetoric is your email to or your conversation with your smart friend:
Please, Jay, can you help me study chem tonight? I really need to get a good grade in this
course! Love you!
Embedded in these words is a clear purpose directed towards a specific audience. It makes an
emotional appeal, which helps fulfill its purpose and which is, again, appropriate for its reader.
If the audience changed, so too would the tone, style, and content of the text ; and the emotional
appeal might disappear completely.
May I come by your office some time this week, at your convenience, to get some advice
on how I might best prepare for the Chemistry 209 mid-term exam on the 15 ? I want to
do well in your course.
Thank you, Alice Dodgson.
A rhetorical analysis is a response to and a discussion, commentary , and assessment of the
effectiveness, or lack thereof, of a written or a spoken text. Also known as a critical response, a
rhetorical analysis is the act of applying the principles of critical thinking to a text. A rhetorical
analysis usually focuses on the question implicit in our definition of rhetoric:
Does this text have a clear purpose, expressed in language appropriate for its audience?
A rhetorical analysis of that email to your smart friend would praise its succinct statement of
purpose; its polite, if somewhat urgent and emotional tone; and its appropriately informal style,
directed as it is to a friend. A rhetorical analysis of the email to the professor would do the same,
noting that the style is appropriately, polite, formal, and composed, respecting, again, the reader
to whom it is directed. A rhetorical analysis is not a summary (see Essentials of Academic Writing, page xx) or a
paraphrase (see Essentials of Academic Writing, page xx) though implicit in the analysis there
would certainly be a summary/paraphrase of the text. A rhetorical analysis is more: a
constructively critical assessment of the extent to which a text is effective in communicating its
The rhetorical analysis is a common, indeed a ubiquitous academic writing assignment.
Professors often ask their students to read, analyze, respond to, review a chapter from the course
text book or an article in an academic journal or a public lecture.
A Template for a Rhetorical Analysis
A rhetorical analysis will assess, evaluate, discuss, comment on the effectiveness of a text in
establishing a purpose and communicating that purpose to its target audience. What makes
communication—rhetoric—effective? What makes writing and/or speaking good? If we
brainstormed answers to these questions, our list would include:
A clear purpose
Good research sources
A clear thesis
Clear and effective projection
If we then tried to organize our list into a clearer system of main headings and sub-headings,
we would establish the four key principles of effective rhetoric:
Effective Rhetoric Is Informative
Valid, perhaps original ideas Effective Rhetoric Has Substance
One or any combination of examples, details, definitions, anecdotes, comparisons,
contrasts, causes, effects, develop each paragraph’s topic sentence sufficiently
Effective Rhetoric is Clear
Good organizational structure
Uses cohesive ties/ transitional words/phrases between and among sentences and
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are standard
Effective Rhetoric Has Style
Rhythm and flow in sentence structure
Diction/vocabulary appropriate for target audience
Figurative language used, if and when appropriate
A good rhetorical analysis will assess the extent to which the speaker or writer has composed
and presented a text that meets these four criteria. It would be begin by providing the context of
the text (author, title, place of publication) and by reiterating the text’s main idea or thesis. In its
body, it would comment on each of the four criteria, perhaps in four discrete paragraphs. In its
conclusion, it would summarize the body and present a cumulative and a summative assessment
of the text’s effectiveness. Our rhetorical analysis template, then, would look like this:
Title: A Rhetorical Analysis of XXXX
Context and thesis
An assessment of the quality, efficacy, intelligence of ideas, insights, information presented in
the text. Do we learn something important by reading or listening to this text?
An assessment of the extent to which ideas are developed, using examples, details, anecdotes,
comparisons, contrasts, causes, effects; extent to which information is supported, where
necessary, by research. Does the author/speaker provide us with enough information?
An assessment of the extent to which text is well-organized, is cohesive, uses transitions
effectively between and among sentences and paragraphs, uses proper grammar, spelling,
punctuation. Is it easy enough to understand what the speaker/writer is saying?
An assessment of the extent to which sentence structure, diction, figurative language, rhythm,
flow (style) are appropriate for the audience for whom the text was composed. Is the text
readable—does it sustain our attention? Final, cumulative and summative comment and evaluation
Is this relevant to society today? To me personally?
Of course, your instructor might provide you with a different template or with instructions
that modify the requirements of an effective rhetorical analysis as those requirements are
presented above. Obviously, those instructions supersede the advice presented here.
If your instructor does not provide criteria or is vague about them, the template above will
help you complete the assignment successfully. You might choose to alter the organizational
structure of your review, as it is presented in the template, which is fine, as long as you include
some discussion of the four main criteria.
Examples of Rhetorical Analyses
Professors often ask their students to read carefully and write a response to a chapter in the
course text book, or to read carefully and respond to an article from an academic journal related
to the content of the course, or to attend and then write a review of a lecture or a presentation.
Here are model rhetorical analyses of each of, critical responses to, these three assignments.
These models apply the template presented above. Remember that your instructor might provide
instructions for completing the assignment, instructions that modify or, more likely, that use
different terminology from those implicit in the template.
A Chapter from a Textbook
College and university instructors often ask students to read carefully and write a critical
response to a chapter from the course text book. This assignment helps instructors evaluate the
extent to which students can understand and think critically about course material. It is also a
way instructors have of making certain their students are completing assigned readings. It also
helps instructors determine the usefulness of the course text book. If student responses are
negative or if the analyses indicate students are having trouble understanding the text, instructors
will often select a new text the next time they teach the course.
Here is an example of a student’s critical response to a text book chapter called “The
Tumultuous Sixties,” from an American history text book. It follows the template described
earlier in the module. It presents a summary of the insights into the social, political, and cultural
history of the 1960’s that the authors recount. It discusses the methods the authors use to
develop these insights in enough detail so that readers get a clear indication of their meaning and
significance. It explains how the methods the authors use to communicate their message clearly.
And it comments on the efficacy of the authors’ style.
At three pages, it is about a tenth the length of the original
A Critical Response to “The Tumultuous Sixties,” from A People and a Nation
November, 2011 “The Tumultuous Sixties” is the thirtieth chapter of the ninth edition (2012) of A People and
a Nation, an American history text book by Mary Beth Norton, et al. This chapter provides a
balanced and comprehensive account of the political, social, and cultural history of America
from 1960 to 1968.
These were years of momentous change in America’s social and political landscape, and the
authors provide an informed account of these changes and their impact upon American society
and the world. The 1960’s began with the inauguration of President Kennedy, whose life story
prior to 1960 the authors summarize. They discuss his personal values and leadership style and
his narrow victory over Richard Nixon. They discuss his determination to wage the Cold War
more effectively than did his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, outlining Kennedy’s vision of
convincing third-world countries that democracy was superior to communism by helping
developing nations, through agencies such as the Peace Corps, feed, educate, and provide health
care for their populations, instead of propagandizing. They note also that Kennedy was not
adverse to “counterinsurgency to defeat revolutionaries who challenged pro-American Third
World governments” (829), though he did try to work with Soviet leader Khruschchev to slow
the nuclear arms race. The authors provide an account of the two most important Cold War
events that Kennedy had to deal with: the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and the most
dangerous but ultimately successfully resolved Cuban Missile Crisis.
The 1960’s was also a historic decade for the Civil Rights Movement, which the authors
chronicle in some detail. They note the initially slow progress under Kennedy’s administration,
accelerated by sit-ins protesting segregation and the emergence of effective leaders, notably
Martin Luther King, Jr. The authors describe major events in the Civil Rights Movement,
including voter registration; freedom marches, especially the August 28, 1963 march on
Washington, D.C.; the violent and tragic confrontations between African Americans and whites
opposed to change, especially in Birmingham, Alabama; the opposition to integration led by
Alabama Governor George Wallace; and the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in
The catastrophic event of the 1960’s was the assassination of President Kennedy on
November 22, 1963. The authors devote a page to describing this event and its dramatic
The second half of Chapter 30 discusses the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice
president, elected for a full term in the 1964 election, after defeating republican Barry
Goldwater. A “liberal in the style of Franklin D. Roosevelt” (835), Johnson signed into the law
the Civil Rights Act, which ended legal discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion,
gender, and national origin. He also established programs to improve access to college for
poorer students and to award grants for the advancement of the arts and humanities. His
signature program was his War on Poverty, which aimed to provide employment, educational
opportunities, and good healthcare for America’s poor. Johnson’s programs were widely
praised, though opposed by conservatives who believed the role of the federal government
should be much more limited. The chapter provides an effective retrospective summary of the
failures and successes of the War on Poverty.
Johnson’s most controversial policy, however, was his escalation of the war in Vietnam,
which the chapter explains effectively. The authors provide a context for the war, the seeds of
which were planted in the late 1950’s, when leaders in communist North Vietnam threatened
military action to achieve unification with the South. They summarize Kennedy’s opposition to the spread of communism in Vietnam before detailing the stages in Johnson’s escalation of
American involvement. The major events—the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the steady rise in
ground forces, the relentless bombing raids, the Vietcong’s intransigence—are handled deftly
The authors proceed to outline American opposition to the war, which began as student
protests and gradually expanded, until much of the nation as a whole was critical of Johnson’s
efforts. Protests against the war seemed to ignite other forms of social protest, especially among
more radical members of the African American community—Malcolm X and the Black
Panthers—who believed that the progress in addressing their concerns was too slow. In Detroit,
Newark, and Los Angeles, urban unrest morphed into race riots, often pitting black youth against
white police officers and resulting in the tragic deaths members of both groups. The authors note
that there were also more conservative voices, such as members of the conservative Young
Americans for Freedom, who were not so much favoring the status quo as more conservative
solutions to the nation’s foreign and domestic problems. But the focus is on the role of students
and young people, especially those, like the hippies, with “counterculture” values, inspired by
the iconic rock music of the times.
The chapter culminates with a section simply called “1968,” this being the year that most of
the decade’s social, political, and cultural issues peaked. The authors recount the chilling Tet
Offensive, a sweeping attack by the Vietcong on key strategic targets in Saigon. American
forces repelled the offensive but at a cost that further alienated the American public’s support for
the war. A few months later, in April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, provoking
renewed riots in American cities. Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was also assassinated,
by an Arab nationalist opposed to his support for Israel. In August, in Chicago, violent
demonstrations, fanned more than quelled by Mayor Dailey’s orders to the police to be tough on
demonstrators, marred the Democratic National Convention. Protests against Vietnam and
against the wide spread perception that too much power was concentrated in the hands of too few
people spread to Europe and Asia.
The chapter does find a positive note on which to close. At the end of 1968, Apollo 8, orbited
the moon, confirming American superiority in technology and symbolizing a brighter future.
“The Turbulent Sixties” is an interesting, informative, balanced, and well-researched chapter
in A People and a Nation. It covers an era of American history, particularly rich in political,
social, and cultural history, an era to which many entire books have been devoted. The authors’
challenge was to include sufficient information to explain the decade’s events in enough detail,
within the space of a single chapter. They use a wide variety of developmental methods to
develop the content of the chapter.
The chapter is rich in details, examples, statistics, causes, and effects. The first section, for
example, about the Cold War, outlines the strengths and weaknesses of President Kennedy’s
foreign policy and provides full accounts of the causes of the tensions between America and the
Soviet Union. The authors explain efficiently the causes and effects of the Bay of Pigs invasion
and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Throughout the chapter, they quote not only other historians but
also the important writers, artists, and journalists of the time—Norman Mailer, David
Halberstam, Walter Cronkite, Bob Dylan, William Buckley—to enrich their discussion. They
use the compare/contrast developmental method effectively, especially in their account of the
decades two presidents and the one who preceded (Eisenhower) and succeeded (Nixon) them.
The substance of the chapter is further enriched by the authors’ use of sidebars, photographs,
maps, charts, and graphs, typical features of a college text book, used with good effect here. A 1963 photograph of the beautiful Kennedy family helps convey the tone of youthful optimism
and enthusiasm which characterized the early years of the decade. A later photograph of police
dogs attacking civil rights protesters dramatically conveys the decade’s darker side. A
photograph of President Johnson, with a poor family aided by his signature War on Poverty
Program contrasts a photo of a wounded American soldier serving in Vietnam. A full-page map
of Vietnam helps readers understand the reasons why American forces had so much trouble
subduing a determined Vietcong. A “Links to the World” sidebar, features British music—of the
Beatles and the Rolling Stones, among others—which provided the soundtrack for the decade.
Clarity is established primarily through the chapter’s organizational structure, which is
chronological, as we would expect a history text to be, though the chronology is appropriately
broken in the interest of sustaining a narrative. The account of the successes and failures of
Johnson’s social programs, for example, begins in 1964 and continues until 1974, to provide a
thorough analysis of the programs’ impact beyond the decade. The next section, on the Vietnam
War, backtracks to the 1950’s then follows the progress of the war to 1968. The chronology is
broken but the narrative is sustained and clarity is thereby enhanced. The chapter’s clarity is
also established through the system of headings and sub-headings, the subheadings in shaded
highlight boxes which do not break the flow of information but alert readers to the sections main
themes. The section on “Johnson and Vietnam,” for example, has, as it shaded sub-headings:
“Kennedy’s Legacy in Vietnam,” “Tonkin Gulf Incident and Resolution,” “Decision for
Escalation,” “Opposition to Americanization,” “American Soldiers in Vietnam,” and “Divisions
The authors’ writing style is engaging. The text is designed for use in an undergraduate
history course and the style is appropriate to the reading level of college undergraduates. The
vocabulary and sentence structure are sophisticated but the authors avoid using terms and
concepts that only professional historians or history graduate students might understand and
appreciate. The authors frequently use anecdotes to engage their readers, a stylistic devise
appealing to college students. The first one, featuring a discussion among a group of young
black men planning a sit-in in February of 1960 to protest segregation, and the subsequent action
they take, does not ring true and seems to misuse the cliché “It’s time to fish or cut bait.” Others,
especially those, based on actual recordings, of President Kennedy consulting with his cabinet,
are more effective.
A People and a Nation is now in its 9 edition and, based upon a close reading of “The
Turbulent Sixties,” its success is warranted. This chapter is concise but comprehensive,
providing readers with insight into the historical, political, social, and cultur