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Writing for the AP Exam » Writing the Rhetorical Analysis

Writing the Rhetorical Analysis Writing the Rhetorical Analysis


Simply put, a rhetorical analysis is a written explanation about HOW a writer (or speaker) attempts to change the mind of his or her audience. An effective rhetorical analysis demonstrates a full understanding of the interplay of the rhetorical triangle.

Purpose: First, one must clearly understand what the author/speaker wants.

Audience: Next, one must understand the targeted audience. A group of high school students would be a markedly different audience than, say, a a group of college professors.

Strategy: Considering the audience--and knowing the purpose--what would be the most effective strategies?

For the AP rhetorical analysis, students are presented with a complete argument from a published author. That author has a purpose or objective. That author has targeted an audience. That author has chosen the strategies that he or she believes most effective.

Essentially, students write a paper that demonstrates their understanding of rhetorical process at hand.

Reading comprehension is crucial: Students must first recognize and understand the author's purpose. Then, students have to read between the lines: What rhetorical strategies has the author chosen and why?

Students should NOT see themselves as part of the audience. They should stand apart as observers. They see the audience. They see the author. What is the author doing in order to affect the minds of the audience?   


Mr. Wevodau's Keys to the Rhetorical Analysis

(The points below are developed below and elsewhere on my website.)

  1. Begin with the Rhetorical Triangle: Identify the author's purpose, recognize the target audience, and discern the primary rhetorical strategies.
  2. Identify the Strategic Intent: Writer's have a purpose. Each word--and every detail--have been chosen. Why? How do the the writer's choice shape the audience's thoughts and feelings?
  3. Embedded Quotes: Quote only those words necessary. Embed them in your own words.
  4. How & Why? The two most important questions. Each time present the author's words, ask yourself: Why did he say that? How does this choice shape the audience's thoughts and feelings? Write down the answers to these questions.
  5. Follow the Argument: Writer's develop their positions. Your essay should follow this development.
  6. Strive for Complexity: If the author's uses a series of words or details to make one point, then write about these choices together in one paragraph. 
  7. End with Analysis: Your final paragraph should be your analysis of the author's final words. End by explaining how the final words are designed to win over the audience.

What are "rhetorical strategies"?

A rhetorical strategy is anything that a writer does that has the potential to change the thoughts or feelings of his audience. Consider the following (several will be detailed later):

  1. Figurative language (e.g., metaphors, similes): These creative comparisons can be used to help the audience better visualize the author's ideas. Consider that the rhetorical triangle itself is a visual metaphor for the rhetorical process.   
  2. Analogies (or comparisons in general)
  3. Emotional Appeals (how does the writer target the audience's emotions?)
  4. Logical Appeals (how does the writer target the audience's intelligence?)
  5. Attempts to establish the writer's credibility (how does the writer get the audience to trust or believe in what he or she says?)
  6. Use of repetition: If they repeat it often enough, people tend to believe it. Also, repetition aids memory recall.
  7. Diction: Emotionally-charged words can he extremely effective. Also, a writer might use a patterns of words to establish a theme or message. 
  8. Standout sentences (that is, sentences designed to grab your attention)
  9. Tone (consider how effective sarcasm can be)
  10. Cause-effect argumentation (if this happens, then....)
  11. Addressing the opposition (I don't need to argue my position if I can show that the opposition's views are absurd)
  12. Use of historical precedents (this falls under analogies but is worth noting separately)
  13. Contrast (sometimes a writer best shows his position by contrasting it to another, weaker view)
  14. Selection of Detail (remember, the person making the argument chooses what you see and don't see)



Examine the prompt and passage for clues about the audience. What do we know about them? Is it a general audience or a specific audience? What does the audience already know or think about the topic at hand? What don't they know? What is the historical setting? (Might it have any relevance?) Are there any significant events that the audience has recently experienced? What seems to be the audience's attitude or mindset before the speech or essay begins?

Read the prompt carefully for clues about the audience. Any and all background information given is designed to help you.

Effective persuadors KNOW their audience. They know weaknesses, predilections, concerns, etc.... A salesman visiting your house will first carefully note all the things that you have placed in the room while he makes small talk. He is assessing you. Getting to know you. Finding out what's important to you. You have to know the beast before you can tame it.

Before writing your essay, take time to consider the audience. Those who do will likely score higher.


Poor papers are easy to spot: Five paragraphs. Introduction with thesis. Three body paragraphs, each about one rhetorical strategy. And a conclusion that summarizes.

Here's the formula for a low-scoring paper:

The writer wants his audience to think he's right. To do this, he uses diction, selection of detail, and figurative language.

The writer uses diction when....

The writer uses selection of detail when....

The writer uses figurative language to....

In conclusion, by using diction, selection of detail, and figurative language, the writer convinces the audience to think he's right.

The writer may address relevant strategies, but the response as a whole suggests minimal understanding. It's too simplistic in its reasoning.  

It is important to understand that most strategies work together in combination. For example, in an essay, the strategies of diction and selection of detail generally combine to establish the speaker's persuasive attitude. For AP students, it would be redundant to present this information in separate paragraphs (one on diction, the other on selection of detail).

Often, it is best to base paragraphs on the rhetorical intent as opposed to the rhetorical strategy. For example, a writer intends to ridicule his subject. In order to accomplish this goal, he uses the strategies of diction, selection of detail, and figurative language (e.g., similies). Write about these three strategies in ONE paragraph detailing how they work together to ridicule the subject and bring readers to the author's point of view.

A good rule of thumb is to make a brief list at the bottom of the page under the heading, "WHAT THE WRITER WANTS...."

List out what the writer wants. These then become your paragraphs. Identify and explain all strategies the writer uses (within that single paragraph) to accomplish that goal. 


Go back to the rhetorical triangle: It's all about the audience. The writer wants something: He wants his or her audience to think or feel differently about something. Each analytical paragraph should address the audience. HOW does the writer want the audience to think or feel? WHY does he tell them the things he does? WHY might the audience's minds be changed?

End each body paragraph with an explanation on the probable effect on the audience, being sure to emphasize WHY and HOW the writer's choices might bring about this effect.

The more words shared about the rhetorical effect on the audience, the higher the essay score.  


Writers make choices. All word and details in the passage were chosen by its author. There are reasons behind every choice. You don't need fancy terms for your analysis: Simply explain WHY the author presented the information that he did.

You always have something to write about, as the author chose to include every word, fact, and detail.

Diction + Detail = Tone

You always have this formula to write about. With what feeling or emotion does the writer express himself? One's tone (or attitude) can be highly persuasive. A writer can use fear, anger, sympathy, or love to move his or her audience. If you have nothing else to say, write a paragraph about how the author conveys his or her attitude about the topic at hand.

Sequencing of Ideas: Follow the Developing Argument

Conclusions: End with the Final Appeal

A writer does not randomly present ideas. The sequencing of information is important. Consider the Leonid Fridman prompt (a selection from "America Needs Its Nerds") from several years ago.

Fridman began by establishing that America has an anti-intellectual culture. He then proposed that other countries--many of our rivals--have a pro-intellectual culture. He then ended on a note of concern that we may fall behind our economic rivals, which surely would trigger the end of American Supremacy.

The point would be that Fridman's essay had three distinct sections, each of which led to the other.

In writing a rhetorical analysis of Fridman's essay, a student should follow Fridman's structure. ("First Fridman establishes ________ by _________; Then, he __________.") Each stage of Fridman's argument becomes one paragraph.

This is quite different from structuring your essay around three rhetorical choices, such as metaphors, analogies, and selective diction. But, when you yourself write an argument, do you build the argument through rhetorical tools or do you build the argument through ideas? Of course its the latter! It's not your metaphor that wins me over, it's the ideas conveyed through the metaphor.

So, don't have paragraphs about metaphors, analogies, etc. Have paragraphs that present a stage in the author's argument and then illustrate how rhetorical choices (such as metaphors, analogies, etc.) convey the author's intent. 

Ending the Rhetorical Analysis?

Simply end by analyzing the writer's final rhetorical appeal. Generally, the ending is the final persuasive thrust, when the entire argument comes together.

Analyze how the argument comes to a conclusion. What does the writer leave his/her audience hanging with?

There's nothing more that needs to be said.

Do NOT say something like, "In conclusion, the writer's many rhetorical strategies convince his audience that....."

No! That's a dead, pointless sentence. End with your analysis of the writer's final rhetorical appeal.

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Edward Wevodau
Colleyville Heritage High School
5401 Heritage Avenue
Colleyville, TX 76034