Writing Rhetorical Criticism

This page provides instructions, advice and resources for writing an essay in rhetorical criticism. No amount of instructions in writing the rhetorical critical essay can substitute for a clear, creative writing style and meticulous research and citation. Nor can these instructions provide you with the rhetorician's gold, an idea about how a given rhetorical artifact works as a strategy. If you can write, have an idea, and do the work, this information will help you meet your goal.

Ten Steps to Writing the Essay

  1. Find a speech or other work that has a persuasive function. See How To Find a Speech.
  2. Research the work in its historical and critical context.
  3. Read the work closely and outline its rhetorical arrangement.
  4. Advance an initial thesis based on some rhetorical strategy you have noted in your reading of the work. A strategy applies a rhetorical device to a purpose.
  5. Research the rhetorical device you have identified in your thesis.
  6. Outline your essay.
  7. Write a first draft.
  8. Check your thesis. If the thesis no longer accounts for what you actually wrote, first see if you can re-align the thesis. If not, revise your writing so there is a clear through line from thesis to conclusion.
  9. Check your references and write your reference list.
  10. Rewrite the essay correcting the style, simplifying your sentences, cutting unnecessary filler and adding explanation.

A Few Simple Rules


  • Find the best possible source for the text of your speech. Published critical editions are best. For presidential and congressional speeches, government sources and presidential libraries are best. If using a web source, make sure you have the complete text of your speech. See How To Find a Speech for more.
  • Research the historical and critical context.
    For historical context use this process:
    1. Read general information on the web such as wikipedia articles for a quick introduction. Do not cite wikipedia articles. Instead note their references.
    2. Do a library search for books, using your fine academic institution's library.
    3. Do a database search for peer reviewed articles in relevant disciplines such as history and social sciences. Try to use the databases that are most closely related to the field of research, to reduce irrelevant results.
  • Critical context includes writings in rhetorical theory and criticism relevant to your text. This may include anything from books and articles on a specific speech, to the orator delivering the speech, to the topic and genre of the speech. Think broadly.
    For critical context use this process:
    1. For critical context, check the relevant bibliographies on this wiki first.
    2. Then do as for historical context: A library catalog search for books and a library database search for peer reviewed articles.
    3. Databases most useful for rhetorical approaches to various topics: Communication and Mass Media Complete (EbscoHost); The MLA International Bibliography (EbscoHost); Film and Television Literature Index (EbscoHost); JSTOR; Project Muse.

Checklist of Common Research Errors

Use this checklist and compare your essay to it, see if you are doing any of the following errors. Most of these can be easily corrected or reduced. The word "speech" is used throughout to refer to the text of a speech or other work being analyzed. Your subject might not be a speech, it could be another kind of written text, music, art, or moving images; nevertheless all these errors will apply.

  1. The source of the speech is undocumented, or the speech is incomplete.
  2. The speech was researched but not the context, or subject of the speech.
  3. There is no reference list.
  4. There are not enough peer reviewed books and articles in the references list. *One distinct title per page of the finished paper is a good rule of thumb minimum.*
  5. The reference list contains dictionaries, wikis, or only public web pages.

Citations, References and Writing Format

  • Use a professional style sheet and conform to it consistently. Rhetoricians are notorious peripatetics in the streets of academe. They may use different style sheets depending on academic discipline or publishers' requirements. The most commonly used are Chicago, Chicago Humanities, MLA, and APA.
  • Citations are footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical citations included in the text of your essay. References are complete author-title-publisher information appended to the end of the essay, unless your essay uses a footnote or endnote system which includes the complete reference in the first citation. Bibliographies are distinct from References in that bibliographies may include titles that are not directly cited in the essay, while References, also known as Works Cited, are restricted to titles directly cited in the essay.
  • All professional citation systems are designed to further these purposes:
    1. Give credit where credit is due. Always cite the source of the information you use, whether you quote it directly or not. Cite it by its author. Various instructions help you do that whether the piece is a separate work, a chapter in a book, an article in a journal, or even a quote in someone else's writing.
    2. Make it possible for your readers to find your sources. Make sure your citations direct readers to your references

Citations, References, and other Format Errors

  1. The essay lacks a title or named author.
  2. Lacks page numbers.
  3. The speech is missing from the reference list.
  4. The reference list is not alphabetized; or is numbered instead of alphabetized; or is both numbered or bulleted and alphabetized.
  5. The sources in the reference list are not cited in the essay.
  6. Sources are cited in the essay but missing from the reference list.
  7. The references are incomplete; information is lacking from the reference that would enable readers to find the reference.
  8. The author of the words quoted is not cited in parenthesis; or is cited but is not the alphabetized element in the reference list.
  9. Quotations are not properly marked off as running quotes in quotation marks or block quotes.
  10. Indirect quotes, where information is used but not directly quoted, are not cited.
  11. Citations are incomplete. This includes page and para. numbers where available.
  12. The citations, references, punctuation, spacing, margins, do not follow MLA form or some other recognized style sheet.

Errors of Writing Style and Content

  1. The speech is trivial, undocumented, or off topic.
  2. The essay lacks a thesis; or it lacks a clear argument; or it is unorganized. These three errors are related since lacking a thesis leads to the next two, and lacking organization means your argument is not clear; and so on.
  3. The ideas are not supported by evidence (see research errors above).
  4. There is no actual rhetorical analysis of the speech.
  5. Relies too much — or too little — on secondary sources.
  6. Uses too much — or too little — direct quote.
  7. Contains errors of fact or assertions that could be documented but are not.
  8. The style is overly familiar, colloquial, journalese, or otherwise not formal essay style.
  9. Contains numerous spelling and grammar errors.

The Parts of the Paper

The original template of any speech or prose essay has not changed since the days of Plato, who said, "a speech is like a body, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end." Even before Plato, we find the sophistic demo speech had these parts, for instance Gorgias' Encomium of Helen has a clear Exhordium, Narratio and Divisio, followed by arguments in the order listed in the Divisio, concluding with a Summatio where the same arguments are listed in reverse order, and a Peroratio where he declares the speech has succeeded in its goals of exonerating Helen and amusing himself.

In later times, the Romans elaborated the parts of the speech. The recommended outline for any paper below, is a guide that is subject to many variations depending on topic and other requirements. However it basically follows the model of a Roman forensic oration with all the necessary parts.

I. Introduction

A. Exhordium. In a critical essay, this is where you interest the reader in your topic, and justify it for purposes of a particular assignment, or project, or reader.

B. Narratio. This is where you can state your thesis in a critical essay.

C. Divisio. List the progress of your argument through the rest of the paper, based on your stated purpose.

II. Body

A. Arguments as listed in the divisio. For instance, your paper uses some theoretical term of rhetoric, you might explain the theory first, then proceed to analyze the speech referring to the theory as you go along. Or it might be more important to you to describe how the speech works, and include theoretical terms where necessary.

B. Digressions and counterarguments interspersed as necessary. Even Cicero did not really put all his refutations in one place. The body of your paper will be determined by your subject, your method, your theory and your own writing style.

III. Conclusion

A. Summatio. Review your arguments. It wouldn't hurt to emulate Gorgias and list them in reverse order, back to front. The purpose of this device is as an aid to your reader's memory, making sure your list concludes with your first and likely strongest point.

B. Peroratio. Get out of there fast and on a strong note.

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