Organizing Your Analysis
This resource covers how to write a rhetorical analysis essay of primarily visual texts with a focus on demonstrating the author’s understanding of the rhetorical situation and design principles.
Contributors:Mark Pepper, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2015-08-30 05:01:04
There is no one perfect way to organize a rhetorical analysis essay. In fact, writers should always be a bit leery of plug-in formulas that offer a perfect essay format. Remember, organization itself is not the enemy, only organization without considering the specific demands of your particular writing task. That said, here are some general tips for plotting out the overall form of your essay.
Like any rhetorical analysis essay, an essay analyzing a visual document should quickly set the stage for what you’re doing. Try to cover the following concerns in the initial paragraphs:
- Make sure to let the reader know you’re performing a rhetorical analysis. Otherwise, they may expect you to take positions or make an evaluative argument that may not be coming.
- Clearly state what the document under consideration is and possibly give some pertinent background information about its history or development. The intro can be a good place for a quick, narrative summary of the document. The key word here is “quick, for you may be dealing with something large (for example, an entire episode of a cartoon like the Simpsons). Save more in-depth descriptions for your body paragraph analysis.
- If you’re dealing with a smaller document (like a photograph or an advertisement), and copyright allows, the introduction or first page is a good place to integrate it into your page.
- Give a basic run down of the rhetorical situation surrounding the document: the author, the audience, the purpose, the context, etc.
Thesis Statements and Focus
Many authors struggle with thesis statements or controlling ideas in regards to rhetorical analysis essays. There may be a temptation to think that merely announcing the text as a rhetorical analysis is purpose enough. However, especially depending on your essay’s length, your reader may need a more direct and clear statement of your intentions. Below are a few examples.
1. Clearly narrow the focus of what your essay will cover. Ask yourself if one or two design aspects of the document is interesting and complex enough to warrant a full analytical treatment.
The website for Amazon.com provides an excellent example of alignment and proximity to assist its visitors in navigating a potentially large and confusing amount of information.
2. Since visual documents often seek to move people towards a certain action (buying a product, attending an event, expressing a sentiment), an essay may analyze the rhetorical techniques used to accomplish this purpose. The thesis statement should reflect this goal.
The call-out flyer for the Purdue Rowing Team uses a mixture of dynamic imagery and tantalizing promises to create interest in potential, new members.
3. Rhetorical analysis can also easily lead to making original arguments. Performing the analysis may lead you to an argument; or vice versa, you may start with an argument and search for proof that supports it.
A close analysis of the female body images in the July 2007 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine reveals contradictions between the articles’ calls for self-esteem and the advertisements’ unrealistic, beauty demands.
These are merely suggestions. The best measure for what your focus and thesis statement should be the document itself and the demands of your writing situation. Remember that the main thrust of your thesis statement should be on how the document creates meaning and accomplishes its purposes. The OWl has additional information on writing thesis statements.
Analysis Order (Body Paragraphs)
Depending on the genre and size of the document under analysis, there are a number of logical ways to organize your body paragraphs. Below are a few possible options. Which ever you choose, the goal of your body paragraphs is to present parts of the document, give an extended analysis of how that part functions, and suggest how the part ties into a larger point (your thesis statement or goal).
This is the most straight-forward approach, but it can also be effective if done for a reason (as opposed to not being able to think of another way). For example, if you are analyzing a photo essay on the web or in a booklet, a chronological treatment allows you to present your insights in the same order that a viewer of the document experiences those images. It is likely that the images have been put in that order and juxtaposed for a reason, so this line of analysis can be easily integrated into the essay.
Be careful using chronological ordering when dealing with a document that contains a narrative (i.e. a television show or music video). Focusing on the chronological could easily lead you to plot summary which is not the point of a rhetorical analysis.
A spatial ordering covers the parts of a document in the order the eye is likely to scan them. This is different than chronological order, for that is dictated by pages or screens where spatial order concerns order amongst a single page or plane. There are no unwavering guidelines for this, but you can use the following general guidelines.
- Left to right and top to down is still the normal reading and scanning pattern for English-speaking countries.
- The eye will naturally look for centers. This may be the technical center of the page or the center of the largest item on the page.
- Lines are often used to provide directions and paths for the eye to follow.
- Research has shown that on web pages, the eye tends to linger in the top left quadrant before moving left to right. Only after spending a considerable amount of time on the top, visible portion of the page will they then scroll down.
The classic, rhetorical appeals are logos, pathos, and ethos. These concepts roughly correspond to the logic, emotion, and character of the document’s attempt to persuade. You can find more information on these concepts elsewhere on the OWL. Once you understand these devices, you could potentially order your essay by analyzing the document’s use of logos, ethos, and pathos in different sections.
The conclusion of a rhetorical analysis essay may not operate too differently from the conclusion of any other kind of essay. Still, many writers struggle with what a conclusion should or should not do. You can find tips elsewhere on the OWL on writing conclusions. In short, however, you should restate your main ideas and explain why they are important; restate your thesis; and outline further research or work you believe should be completed to further your efforts.
Writing a Thesis Sentence: An Introduction
Few sentences in your paper will vex you as much as the thesis sentence. And with good reason: the thesis sentence is typically that one sentence in the paper with the potential to assert, control, and structure the entire argument. Without a strong, thoughtful thesis or claim, a paper might seem unfocused.
Complicating the matter further is that different disciplines have different notions of what constitutes a good thesis sentence. Sometimes you'll encounter differences not only from discipline to discipline, but also from course to course. One of your professors might frown on a thesis sentence that announces your process: "This paper will argue X by asserting A, B, and C." Another professor might prefer this approach.
So what makes a good thesis sentence?
Despite the differences from discipline to discipline and from course to course, a good thesis will generally have the following characteristics:
A good thesis sentence will make a claim.
A good thesis rarely turns an intellectual problem into a black & white, "either/or" proposition that the writer will then defend. Rather, a good thesis offers a nuanced and interesting perspective that the writer can develop via careful analysis. This perspective must be more than an observation. For example, "America is violent" is an observation. "Americans are violent because they are fearful" (the position that Michael Moore takes in Bowling for Columbine) is an argument. Why? Because it posits a perspective. It makes a claim.
Put another way, a good thesis sentence will inspire (rather than quiet) other points of view. One might argue that America is violent because of its violent entertainment industry. Or because of the proliferation of guns. Or because of the disintegration of the family. In short, if your thesis is positing something that no one can (or would wish to) argue with, then it's not a good thesis.
A good thesis sentence will define the scope of your argument.
Your thesis sentence determines what you will discuss in your paper. It also determines what you won't discuss. Every paragraph in your paper exists in order to support your thesis and its claim. Accordingly, if one of your paragraphs seems irrelevant, you have two choices: get rid of the paragraph, or rewrite your thesis so that it is complex enough to embrace the whole of your argument.
A good thesis will shape your argument.
A good thesis not only signals to the reader what claim you're making, but also suggests how your argument will be presented. In other words, your thesis sentence should suggest the structure or shape of your argument to your reader.
Say, for example, that you are going to argue that "American fearfulness expresses itself in two curious ways: A and B." In this case, the reader understands that you are going to have two important points to cover, and that these points will appear in a certain order. If you suggest a particular ordering principle in your thesis and then abandon it, the reader could become confused.
Developing A Thesis: Sample Methods
Professors employ a variety of methods to teach students how to compose good thesis sentences. Your professor has likely demonstrated several methods to you. Here we offer sample methods employed by three instructors from the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric: John Donaghy, Sara Biggs Chaney, and Karen Gocsik. Please note that these methods do not represent a program-wide sense of the thesis and how it should be taught or practiced. In fact, no such program-wide method exists. Instructors in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric believe that there are many approaches which can help students compose a good thesis. We offer you these examples with the hope that you will think about their underlying principles and consider how these principles might transfer to the work that you're doing in your classrooms.
JOHN DONAGHY: FINDING PATTERNS, SOLVING PROBLEMS
Professor John Donaghy's method is founded on the understanding that a good thesis comes from good analysis. In his view, analysis is a complicated process that requires readers to break down a text (event, object, or phenomenon) into parts, discovering patterns among the parts, and coming up with a theory for why these patterns exist. Professor Donaghy believes that students are initially afraid of analysis. He's puzzled by this fear. In fact, Professor Donaghy argues, we are analyzing all the time: life presents us with data that we are continually sorting by finding patterns, creating categories, and making meaning. Analysis is necessary for something as simple as crossing the street. Students can be encouraged to see that they already possess analytical skills that can be transferred to writing papers.
To illustrate how analysis brings us to the development of a thesis, Professor Donaghy suggests three steps regarding a simple reading of the following Gary Snyder poem, "Pine tree tops:"
In the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
The creak of boots. Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.
First, when analyzing, students need to be conscious of examining parts of a text, looking for patterns (or repeating elements). In a short poem, students can make a number of simple observations, including:
- Number of words (34)
- Number of syllables in words (mostly single syllable)
- Parts of speech: mostly nouns; adjectives are scarce; surprisingly few verbs
Second, students need to try to determine how these parts and patterns are speaking to each other. Do these parts and patterns illustrate a similarity? Draw a contrast? Create an emphasis? Together form a new observation or idea? In terms of the poem:
- Nouns: so many nouns emphasizes the "thing-ness" of the poem
- Adjectives: very few; one (blue) is attached to a noun
- Verbs: the verbs (glows, bend, fade) are gentle, yielding verbs
Finally, students can put forward a proposition. For instance: Snyder builds his poem on nouns to give power to the "things" in his scene. Or Snyder chooses verbs that seem to yield to the nouns in order to tell us how to behave in the presence of nature. This proposition, with some tweaking, can become a working thesis.
SARA BIGGS CHANEY: EVOLVING THE THESIS BY UNPACKING THE ASSUMPTIONS & MAKING COUNTER-CLAIMS
Professor Sara Chaney uses various methods to help her students arrive at a thesis. One that has proven successful is requiring students to examine their assumptions. Professor Chaney begins this instruction by introducing the student to the enthymeme. Like the syllogism (All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal), the enthymeme has three parts: the major premise, the minor premise, and the conclusion. The difference is that in the case of the syllogism, the major premise is based on fact (All men are mortal), while in the enthymeme it's based on a commonly held belief (cheating is unethical, smoking around children is a danger to their health, etc.). As Professor Chaney notes, in many cases the enthymeme is presented with the major premise left unstated: She smokes around her daughter; she endangers her daughter's health. Professor Chaney illustrates the importance in finding the "missing" major premise, arguing that unpacking an argument's unstated assumptions can help students to better analyze the texts they're writing about, and to create better texts of their own.
The key question to ask is: What must be true about the world in order for this statement to be true? Students are asked to put forth all hidden assumptions, large and small. This forces the students to dig beneath the surface of the text, to explore the structure and the nuance of the argument. In the process, ideas for a thesis will present themselves.
Once the students have drafted a thesis, Professor Chaney has a strategy (borrowed from David Rossenwasser and Jill Stephen's Writing Analytically) for evolving the thesis by putting forward counter-claims. Students sometimes make the mistake of forcing evidence to fit an overly rigid claim, or of presenting their claim in the form of a list, with few connections between the points. To evolve the thesis, Professor Chaney asks students to begin with their basic claim and then to methodically increase the complexity of that claim through the introduction of complicating evidence. This new evidence forces students to redefine their initial claims and to determine how the counter-claim might or might not be accommodated by their thesis.
For instance, a student may have written the following thesis: "Reported cases of autism in children have increased by almost 200% in the last twenty years because autism has been redefined to include less severe forms of the disorder." Professor Chaney presents students with this complicating evidence: "Some research also suggests that autism may be linked to mercury exposure in childhood vaccines." Students may weigh the evidence to see which has more merit; they might expand their thesis to point to two reasons for rising autism; they might acknowledge the truth in both statements but want to subordinate one argument to the other; they might point out a causal relationship between the two sentences (i.e., has the frequent levels of mercury exposures led to a new definition of autism in the DSM-IV, which in turn has increased the numbers of reported cases of autism?). Using any of these methods, students will have improved their thesis sentences.
KAREN GOCSIK: FINDING THE UMBRELLA IDEA
Professor Karen Gocsik advises that developing a good thesis is often the result of finding the "umbrella idea." Finding this idea requires that students move back and forth between a text's particularities and its big ideas in order to find a suitable "fit" between the two that the students can write about. This fit is then summed up in the "umbrella idea," or the big idea that all of their observations can stand under.
For instance, in an exploration of the Gospels as rhetoric, a student makes the specific observation that, in three of the four gospels, Jesus is reported as saying dramatically different things during his crucifixion. This observation by itself won't produce a paper - it's simply a statement of fact, with which no one will disagree. Nevertheless, this observation provokes a broader question: do these differences constitute a contradiction in the text? And if so, how do we understand this contradiction? What are the conditions of religious truth? Is there room for a contradiction as important as this?
Of course, these questions are too big to be addressed in an academic paper. And so the student returns to the text, still with these too-big questions haunting him. Reviewing the specific contradictions of the text, he crafts another set of questions: How should we understand the differences we see across the four gospels? What might have inspired these writers to craft this important crucifixion scene differently - particularly when, as is true of the authors of Matthew and Luke, they were using the same sources? The student posits that these differences arise from a difference in audience, historical moment, and rhetorical purpose. He turns to scholarship and finds his interpretation confirmed.
But the bigger questions persist. If the gospels are constructed to serve the earthly purposes of converting or supporting the beliefs of specific audiences, how can they also be considered as true? After doing a great deal of sketching, the student posits that perhaps the differences and contradictions are precisely what communicates the texts' truth to its audience of believers. After all, if the truth of a supreme being is beyond human grasp, then perhaps it requires a many-voiced or polyglossic narrative. With this idea in mind, the student produces a paper that not only details the variances across the texts, but offers a claim about why an audience of believers are not deterred by the differences. It is this claim that serves as the umbrella idea, synthesizing the student writer's various observations and ideas.
To sum up, successful employment of the umbrella method depends on four steps:
- Students must move fluidly back and forth between the text and their abstractions/generalizations, ready to adjust their ideas to the new evidence and new abstractions that they encounter.
- Students must sketch their ideas. Drawing their ideas helps students pull their thinking out of linear, two-dimensional modes, enabling them to see multiple possibilities for their essays.
- Students must seek an umbrella idea, under which their ideas can stand. To get to this umbrella idea, they need not only to analyze but to synthesize: they need to bring disparate ideas together, to see if they fit.
- They further need to create this synthesis by playing with language, creating an umbrella sentence that can embrace their ideas. This requires that students write and revise their thesis sentence several times as they write their paper. It also requires that students have a basic understanding of the principles of style, so that they can understand how to place their ideas in appropriate clauses, create the proper emphasis, and so on.
Alternatives to the Thesis Sentence
Sometimes, the purpose of a piece of writing is not to make a claim but to raise questions. Other times, a writer wants to leave a matter unresolved, inspiring the reader to create his or her own position. In these cases, the thesis sentence might take other forms: the thesis question or the implied thesis.
The Thesis Question
As we've said, not every piece of writing sets out to make a claim. If your purpose as a writer is to explore, for instance, the reasons for the 9/11 attacks (a topic for which you are not prepared to make a claim), your thesis might read: "What forces conspired to bring these men to crash four jetliners into American soil?"
You'll note that this question, while provocative, does not offer a sense of the argument's structure. It permits the writer to pursue all ideas, without committing to any. While this freedom might seem appealing, in fact you will find that the lack of a declarative thesis statement requires more work: you need to tighten your internal structure and your transitions from paragraph to paragraph so that the essay is clear and the reader can easily follow your line of inquiry.
The Implied Thesis
One of the most fascinating things about a thesis sentence is that it is the most important sentence in a paper - even when it's not there.
Some of our best writers never explicitly declare their theses. In some essays, you'll find it difficult to point to a single sentence that declares the argument. Still, the essay is coherent and makes a point. In these cases, the writers have used an implied thesis.
Writers use an implied thesis when they want to maintain a light hand. However, just because the writer doesn't delcare the thesis doesn't mean that she was working without one. Good writers will have their thesis clearly stated - either in their own minds, or in their notes for the paper. They may elect not to put the thesis in the paper, but every paragraph, every sentence that they write is controlled by the thesis all the same.
If you decide to write a paper with an implied thesis, be sure that you have a strong grasp of your argument and its structure. Also be sure that you supply adequate transitions, so that the reader can follow your argument with ease.
Will This Thesis Sentence Make the Grade? (A Check List)
In the end, you may have spent a good deal of time writing your thesis and still not know if it's a good one. Here are some questions to ask yourself.
- Does my thesis sentence attempt to answer (or at least to explore) a challenging intellectual question?
- Is the point I'm making one that would generate discussion and argument, or is it one that would leave people asking, "So what?"
- Is my thesis too vague? Too general? Should I focus on some more specific aspect of my topic?
- Does my thesis deal directly with the topic at hand, or is it a declaration of my personal feelings?
- Does my thesis indicate the direction of my argument? Does it suggest a structure for my paper?
- Does my introductory paragraph define terms important to my thesis? If I am writing a research paper, does my introduction "place" my thesis within the larger, ongoing scholarly discussion about my topic?
- Is the language in my thesis vivid and clear? Have I structured my sentence so that the important information is in the main clause? Have I used subordinate clauses to house less important information? Have I used parallelism to show the relationship between parts of my thesis? In short, is this thesis the very best sentence that it can be?
What else do you need to know about thesis sentences?
A good thesis usually relies on a strong introduction, sharing the work.
As your writing becomes more sophisticated, you will find that a one-sentence thesis statement cannot bear the burden of your entire argument. Therefore, you will find yourself relying increasingly on your introduction to lay the groundwork. Use your introduction to explain some of your argument's points and/or to define its terms. Save the "punch" for your thesis. For more information about creating good introductions that can support your thesis sentences, see Introductions and Conclusions elsewhere in this website.
The structure of your thesis, along with its introduction, should in some way reflect the logic that brought you to your argument.
It's helpful when structuring your thesis sentence to consider for a moment how it was that you came to your argument in the first place. No matter what discipline you are working in, you came to your idea by way of certain observations. For example, perhaps you have noticed in a History of Education course that female college students around the turn of the century seem very often to write about the idea of service to the community. How did you come to that observation? What did you observe first? And, more importantly, how did you go about exploring the significance of this observation? Did you investigate other college documents to see if the value of service was explicitly stated there? Or was this value implied in course descriptions, extra curricular possibilities, and so forth? Reconstruct for yourself how you came to your observations, and use this to help you to create a coherent introduction and thesis.
A good working thesis is your best friend.
Those writers who understand the concept of "working thesis" are way ahead of the game. A "working thesis" is a thesis that works for you, helping you to see where your ideas are going. Many students keep their working thesis in front of them at all times to help them to control the direction of their argument. But what happens when you stumble onto an idea that your thesis isn't prepared for? Or, more important, what happens when you think everything is going well in your paper and suddenly you arrive at a block? Always return to your working thesis, and give it a critical once-over. You may find that the block in your writing process is related to some limitation in your thesis. Or you may find that hidden somewhere in that working thesis is the germ of an even better idea. Stay in conversation with your thesis throughout the writing process. You'll be surprised at what you can learn from it.