How to Write a Rhetorical Criticism Paper

An idea means nothing unless it is communicated and received by others.

Rhetorical criticism is the study of the symbols and artifacts that define the world around us. These symbols, including texts, performances, art, speeches, film and even advertisements, stand as a reflection of our culture, and rhetorical criticism analyzes what these symbols mean and how they communicate that meaning to their audience. Through a reading and writing process that incorporates description, analysis, interpretation and evaluation, rhetorical criticism studies the relationships among a symbol, its author and its audience to deepen our understanding of it.

  • Symbol
  • Context information
  • Writing materials

1 Prewriting

Written language is a common and interesting focus of criticism.

2 Select a specific symbol

Select a specific symbol. Read or analyze your symbol closely, taking notes as you go along.

3 Research the context surrounding your symbol

Research the context surrounding your symbol. Consider the social, cultural and economic context, as well as the author’s intent and the response of its intended audience.

4 Identify any problems or puzzles

Identify any problems or “puzzles” you find within the symbol. These puzzles are generally related to contradictions or disjunctions among the symbol, its audience and its author.

5 Propose a solution

Propose a solution that solves the puzzle you discovered.

6 Format and Structure

7 Present the text

Present the text, the context and the puzzle you discovered in the previous Steps. Illustrate the puzzle, and then persuade your reader to believe that there is a problem with previous readings or interpretations of the symbol. Utilize the text and context to support your argument.

8 Provide a clear and convincing thesis statement

Provide a clear and convincing thesis statement in two or three sentences. Summarize the puzzle, pose a difficult rhetorical question and present your solution.

9 Present your solution in three or four pages

Present your solution in three or four pages. Make a persuasive argument that this solution solves the “puzzle” you discovered.

10 Restate your thesis

Restate your thesis and provide a summary of the symbol and what you’ve discovered through your close reading and analysis of it. Present new questions for your reader to contemplate.

  • Be specific with your symbol. Rather than examining an entire film, select a specific scene. Rather than examining the political career of a member of Congress, select a single speech. The more specific you are with your symbol, the more time and space you'll have to expand and deepen your analysis of the puzzle it presents.
  • Both your puzzle and solution should come from a close reading of the symbol and its context. Other resources should only be supplemental.
  • Be clear and assertive. Avoid terms that indicate hesitation and uncertainty, including might, sort of, kind of and maybe.
  • Constructing a rhetorical critique takes a great amount of thought and therefore requires a greater amount of time to construct. Give yourself at least a week to read, brainstorm, write and edit your paper.

Kristi Yorks began writing professionally in 2009. Her work has appeared in "Monkey Puzzle," "Fact Simile," "The Battered Suitcase" and online. She currently works as a professor of writing at Colorado Technical University. Yorks holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the College of Wooster and a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Naropa University.