STEP 1.a: What is a Rhetorical Essay anyway?
The keyword here is “rhetoric,” or the practice of using language to persuade an audience one way or another about a particular topic. Typically, these essays focus on the ways that this is done in a non-fiction work such as a speech, decree, autobiography, or another argument-driven text. The essay itself focuses on the argument that is made, and the devices (often referred to as “rhetorical devices”) that are used to make that argument.
STEP 1.b: Picking Your Source
Sometimes the humble student-writer is blessed with a prompt in which they can pick their own text to work with. If this happens to be your case, be sure to actually take time to think about your options. If you get to choose from a selection of provided texts, be sure to at least glance over each of them to get a sense of what the text is arguing. If you have a wider range of freedom, resist the urge to go with the first text you see without really knowing what it’s about. Remember, this text is going to be the cornerstone of your paper, and you’re going to be spending quite a bit of time looking and thinking about it, so try and make it something that you’re genuinely interested in. Trust me, it makes the writing process so much better.
STEP 2: Determining the Argument
Read the text! Once, twice, aloud, whatever it takes in order for you to best understand what the text is getting at. Consider the context and form of the text; a Medieval European historical account is going to tend to have a different purpose, and thus a different argument, than a recent college commencement speech. Depending on the type of text, you might even be able to find videos of the author delivering the argument to an audience! Try annotating a physical copy of the text, or breaking it down paragraph-by-paragraph to try to get a better understanding of what the text says as a whole. Once you think you know what the argument is, write it down!
STEP 3: Picking Devices and Quotes
Determining the argument is only half of the battle, you also need to determine how that argument is made. Now is the time to determine which rhetorical devices are the strongest contributors to the argument itself. While many students have been taught that the devices of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos are the typical rhetorical devices to focus on, there are many many more to choose from (infact, about 150+ more, listed here). The amount of devices you choose to focus on will vary from paper to paper, but generally it’s safe to pick two to four devices (such as irony, personification, and even the form in which the argument is given) to focus on. I find it helpful to highlight instances where these different devices are used with different colors. Through grouping this way, I find it much simpler to look at my text and quickly create a rough outline. When picking which quotes to use in your paper, really think about which quotes make the strongest impact on the argument, it will make your paper stronger in the long run.
STEP 4: Crafting Your Thesis
If you’ve written other thesis statements before, this shouldn’t be all that different. Your thesis should be a sentence or two that introduces what you want to say about the text. Typically, thesis statements for a rhetorical analysis paper will include an argument in the text, the devices used to make that argument, and whether or not that argument is made effectively. While this tends to be a basic skeleton for a thesis, there is still room for creativity for crafting your thesis. Does this text’s argument apply to current society? Can it be put into conversation with another text to strengthen it’s argument? Are there counter-arguments? Sometimes it can be helpful to draft a few thesis statements and then choose one which you feel is the strongest. Remember, a thesis has to be arguable, so make sure that your thesis isn’t just arguing for a blatantly obvious claim.
STEP 5: Start Outlining or Drafting!
You’ve made it! Now that you have a thesis and some quotes to work with, you’re in pretty good shape to start your next phase of the writing process. As you write, be wary of falling into summarizing; the point of your paper should be finding the “so what?” of the arguments made in the text, or the ways in which the devices build the argument. What are the greater implications of the text? Are there implicit sub-arguments that the author is trying to make within the greater argument?
As you go through this process, remember that there are always tutors at our lovely UMBC Writing Center who would be more than willing to help you through any step of this process. While this cheat-sheet can hopefully get you off on the right foot, there isn’t quite anything like talking out your ideas with another person. Know that even if these papers seem daunting, you have plenty of resources to take advantage of to help you along the way!
Contributed by: Emma Jett, Writing Tutor