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Writing Rhetorical Criticism Essays: Outline & Sample

Rhetorical Criticism Essay Outline
A rhetorical criticism essay is a type of academic writing that analyzes and evaluates the persuasive elements of a piece of communication, such as a speech, essay, advertisement, or any other form of discourse. The goal of a rhetorical criticism essay is to examine how the author or speaker uses various rhetorical devices and strategies to persuade and influence their audience. This type of analysis goes beyond simply summarizing the content; it delves into the techniques and tactics employed to convey a particular message effectively.

MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Rhetorical Criticism Essay

Key Components

Here are the key components of a rhetorical criticism essay:

  1. Rhetorical Analysis: The essay typically begins with a thorough analysis of the text or speech being examined. This analysis involves identifying and discussing various rhetorical elements, including:
    • Ethos: The author’s credibility and character.
    • Pathos: The emotional appeals used to connect with the audience.
    • Logos: The logical arguments and evidence presented.
    • Kairos: The timeliness and relevance of the message.
    • Rhetorical devices: Figures of speech, metaphors, similes, and other linguistic tools used.
    • Tone and style: The author’s choice of language and writing/speaking style.
    • Audience analysis: Understanding who the intended audience is and how the rhetoric is tailored to them.
  2. Evaluation: After analyzing these rhetorical elements, the essay evaluates how effectively they contribute to the overall persuasive impact of the communication. You should assess whether the author’s use of rhetorical strategies enhances their message and if it effectively persuades the intended audience.
  3. Thesis Statement: The essay should have a clear and concise thesis statement that outlines the main argument or perspective the analysis will take. This thesis guides the rest of the essay.
  4. Structure: Rhetorical criticism essays generally follow a standard structure with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each body paragraph typically focuses on a specific rhetorical aspect or device and provides evidence and analysis to support the thesis statement.
  5. Evidence: It’s essential to provide specific examples from the text or speech to support your analysis. These examples should illustrate how the author uses rhetoric to persuade the audience.
  6. Conclusion: The conclusion summarizes the main points made in the essay and restates the thesis. It should also offer final insights into the significance of the rhetorical strategies employed and their impact on the audience.

Overall, a rhetorical criticism essay is a form of rhetorical analysis that seeks to understand how communication works persuasively by examining the choices made by the author or speaker. It’s a valuable tool for understanding the art of persuasion and communication in various contexts, including literature, politics, advertising, and public speaking.

General Outline

The format of a rhetorical criticism essay can vary depending on the specific type of rhetorical criticism you are conducting and your research objectives. However, the following is a general outline that you can adapt to fit the type of rhetorical criticism you are undertaking:

  1. Introduction:
    • Hook: Begin with an engaging statement or anecdote related to the communication piece you are analyzing to capture the reader’s attention.
    • Context: Provide essential background information about the text, speech, or communication you are critiquing, including the author, date, and any relevant historical or cultural context.
    • Purpose and Scope: Clearly state the purpose of your rhetorical criticism and the specific aspects you will be analyzing. Additionally, introduce any key theoretical frameworks or concepts you will be applying.
    • Thesis Statement: Clearly state the main argument or perspective of your analysis. This should address what specific rhetorical elements you will be examining and your overall assessment of their effectiveness.
  2. Description and Analysis of Rhetorical Elements:
    • Ethos, Logos, Pathos: Analyze how the author or speaker employs ethos (credibility), logos (logic and reason), and pathos (emotional appeal) in their communication. Provide examples and explain how these elements are used to persuade the audience.
    • Rhetorical Devices: Identify and analyze specific rhetorical devices, such as metaphors, similes, allegories, and other figures of speech. Explain how these devices contribute to the persuasive impact of the communication.
    • Style and Tone: Examine the author’s writing or speaking style, as well as the tone they employ. Discuss how these elements shape the overall message and influence the audience.
    • Audience Analysis: Consider the intended audience and how the rhetoric is tailored to connect with, convince, or engage them.
  3. Evaluation:
    • Effectiveness: Evaluate how well the rhetorical elements and strategies employed by the author achieve their intended persuasive goals. Discuss whether the communication is successful in persuading the audience and achieving its purpose.
    • Impact: Consider the broader impact of the communication on society, culture, or the field it addresses. Discuss any lasting effects or significance.
    • Limitations: Acknowledge any potential limitations or weaknesses in the author’s persuasive approach.
  4. Conclusion:
    • Restate Thesis: Summarize your main argument or perspective from the thesis statement.
    • Summary of Key Points: Recap the main points made in the analysis, highlighting the most significant findings.
    • Significance: Reflect on the overall significance of the communication and its relevance in a broader context.
    • Closing Statement: End with a thought-provoking or memorable closing statement that leaves a lasting impression on the reader.
  5. References:
    • If you have referenced any external sources or texts, include a list of references or citations in the appropriate citation style (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago).
    • Follow specific guidelines provided by your academic institution.
    • If you need to include supplementary material, such as visual aids, charts, or additional examples, you can place them in an appendix section.

Remember to adhere to the specific formatting guidelines provided by your instructor or institution, such as font size, spacing, and citation style. Additionally, make sure your essay flows logically from one section to the next, and that your analysis is well-supported by evidence from the communication piece you are critiquing.


Rhetorical Criticism Approaches
Rhetorical criticism encompasses various approaches and methods for analyzing and evaluating persuasive communication. Different types of rhetorical criticism focus on different aspects of communication and employ various theoretical frameworks. Here are some common types of rhetorical criticism:

  1. Genre Criticism:
    • Focus: Genre criticism examines communication within specific genres or categories, such as political speeches, advertising, literature, or film. It analyzes how conventions and expectations within a particular genre shape persuasive strategies.
    • Example: Analyzing a series of political campaign speeches delivered during the Democratic National Convention over several decades. This analysis can focus on how speakers conform to the genre of political conventions, including addressing key issues, rallying the party’s base, and showcasing party unity, and how this adherence affects their persuasive impact.
  2. Narrative Criticism:
    • Focus: Narrative criticism focuses on the storytelling elements within communication. It examines the structure, characters, plot, and themes of narratives to understand how they convey persuasive messages and engage audiences.
    • Example: Evaluating Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In this iconic address, King weaves together narratives from American history, biblical stories, and personal experiences to create a compelling narrative that serves as a powerful metaphor for civil rights. Analyzing the structure, characters, and themes within King’s narrative can reveal how he persuades the audience.
  3. Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Criticism:
    • Focus: Neo-Aristotelian criticism applies the classical principles of Aristotle’s rhetoric, such as ethos, logos, and pathos, to analyze contemporary communication. It focuses on elements like speaker credibility, logical arguments, and emotional appeals in persuasive discourse.
    • Example: Examining Ronald Reagan’s Challenger Disaster Address. In this speech, President Reagan uses Aristotle’s rhetorical principles to address a national tragedy. Analyzing how Reagan establishes his credibility (ethos), appeals to reason and logic (logos), and evokes emotional responses (pathos) can provide insights into the persuasive effectiveness of his address.
  4. Cluster Criticism:
    • Focus: Cluster criticism examines a cluster or group of related texts or speeches to identify recurring themes, patterns, and rhetorical strategies. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of these elements within a set of communication pieces.
    • Example: Analyzing a series of advertisements for a specific fast-food restaurant chain. By studying multiple advertisements from this chain, you can identify recurring themes, slogans, and visual elements that contribute to the brand’s identity and persuasive messaging strategy.
  5. Fantasy Theme Analysis:
    • Focus: Fantasy theme analysis, often associated with Kenneth Burke’s work, explores the shared narratives or “fantasy themes” within communication. It investigates how these themes create symbolic meaning and influence persuasion within a rhetorical context.
    • Example: Exploring the fantasy themes present in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” In this analysis, you can identify recurring fantasy themes, such as the dystopian society, totalitarian control, and resistance, to understand how these themes shape the novel’s persuasive impact and commentary on authoritarianism.
  6. Metaphoric Criticism:
    • Focus: Metaphoric criticism centers on the use of metaphorical language and imagery in communication. It assesses how metaphors shape understanding, evoke emotions, and convey persuasive messages.
    • Example: Analyzing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In this letter, King employs metaphors, such as “the cup of bitterness” and “the chains of discrimination,” to convey the experiences of African Americans and the injustices they face. This analysis can explore how these metaphors create vivid imagery and emotional resonance to persuade the audience.
  7. Pentadic/Dramatistic Criticism:
    • Focus: Pentadic criticism, developed by Kenneth Burke, focuses on the identification of five key elements (the pentad) in communication: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. This approach examines how these elements interact to construct persuasive narratives and motives.
    • Example: Examining a series of political debates between candidates from different parties. By applying Kenneth Burke’s pentad (act, scene, agent, agency, purpose), you can analyze how candidates use language and argumentation to frame their positions, assign motives, and compete for the support of voters.
  8. Visual Rhetorical Criticism:
    • Focus: This approach centers on the visual elements of communication, including images, symbols, colors, and design. Visual rhetorical criticism assesses how visuals contribute to the overall persuasive impact of a message, especially in contexts like advertising and graphic design.
    • Example: Evaluating a protest poster used during the Civil Rights Movement. This analysis can focus on the visual elements of the poster, including the use of color, imagery, and symbolism, to understand how visual rhetoric was employed to convey a powerful message of equality and justice.
  9. Cultural Criticism:
    • Focus: Cultural criticism explores how communication reflects and shapes cultural values, beliefs, and norms. It examines how persuasion is influenced by cultural context, including issues of race, gender, class, and identity.
    • Example: Analyzing a popular television show’s portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters and relationships. This cultural criticism can examine how the show reflects and influences societal attitudes and norms related to LGBTQ+ identities and relationships, as well as how it contributes to broader discussions of representation and diversity.
  10. Feminist Rhetorical Criticism:
    • Focus: This type of criticism applies feminist theory to analyze communication. It focuses on issues of gender representation, power dynamics, and the use of language to reinforce or challenge gender stereotypes and hierarchies.
    • Example: Analyzing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk titled “We Should All Be Feminists.” In this speech, Adichie discusses the importance of feminism and gender equality. A feminist rhetorical analysis would examine how Adichie employs feminist rhetoric to challenge stereotypes and advocate for women’s rights.
  11. Ideological Criticism:
    • Focus: Ideological criticism examines how communication reflects and perpetuates particular ideologies or belief systems. It investigates the underlying values and assumptions in persuasive messages and their impact on society.
    • Example: Examining George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” State of the Union Address in 2002. An ideological analysis can explore how Bush’s rhetoric framed the nations of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as threats to the United States, shaping public perception and laying the groundwork for subsequent policy decisions.
  12. Historical Rhetorical Criticism:
    • Focus: Historical criticism examines communication within its historical context. It seeks to understand how rhetorical strategies have evolved over time and how they have influenced social and political change.
    • Example: Examining Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech following the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. This historical analysis can consider the speech’s context, rhetorical strategies, and its impact on public sentiment and support for entering the war.
  13. Comparative Rhetorical Criticism:
    • Focus: This approach involves comparing and contrasting communication pieces to identify similarities, differences, and trends in rhetorical strategies. It often explores how different cultures or time periods use rhetoric to achieve persuasive goals.
    • Example: Comparing the rhetoric of two influential civil rights activists, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. By analyzing their speeches and writings, you can explore their different approaches to advocating for civil rights and racial equality, including their use of language, tone, and persuasion techniques.
  14. Political Rhetorical Criticism:
    • Focus: Political criticism focuses on political speeches, campaigns, and discourse. It analyzes how politicians use persuasion to shape public opinion, gain support, and advance their agendas.
    • Example: Analyzing Barack Obama’s inaugural address in 2009. A political rhetorical analysis would focus on how Obama used persuasive strategies to address the challenges facing the nation and set the tone for his presidency.
  15. Digital Rhetorical Criticism:
    • Focus: In the age of digital communication, this approach examines how rhetoric operates in digital spaces, including social media, websites, and online forums. It considers issues like online activism, meme culture, and the spread of information.
    • Example: Investigating the #MeToo movement and its impact on social media platforms. A digital rhetorical analysis can explore how the movement gained momentum, how survivors shared their stories online, and how the movement’s rhetoric influenced public discourse and policy discussions.
  16. Environmental Rhetorical Criticism:
    • Focus: This type of criticism explores how communication addresses environmental issues, sustainability, and ecological concerns. It evaluates how persuasive strategies are used to shape environmental attitudes and behaviors.
    • Example: Evaluating a documentary film like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” which addresses the issue of climate change. This environmental criticism can assess how the film uses rhetoric to convey the urgency of the environmental crisis, present scientific evidence, and advocate for sustainable solutions.
  17. Religious Rhetorical Criticism:
    • Focus: Focusing on religious texts, sermons, and religious discourse, this approach analyzes how religious rhetoric is used to convey beliefs, inspire faith, and influence religious communities.
    • Example: Studying the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., particularly his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” sermon. A religious rhetorical analysis can delve into how King drew on religious themes and biblical references to justify the civil rights movement and advocate for justice and equality.

These are just some examples of the many types of rhetorical criticism that scholars and analysts use to examine and assess persuasive communication. The choice of which type to employ often depends on the nature of the communication being studied and the specific research questions or goals of the analysis.