How to get UNSTUCK in Rhetorical Analysis

teenager writing rhetorical analysis; ap english language

You’ve been there: Your student mopes up to your desk for a rhetorical analysis writing conference, and the graphic organizer section for commentary is blank. Blankety blank blank. Nuthin’. The student is frustrated. You’re frustrated. You can’t steer a ship that’s not moving, right?

Here’s the deal: Students get stuck in rhetorical analysis for three reasons.

  1. The thesis statement is not debatable.
  2. The topic sentences are not debatable.
  3. The concrete details are not specific enough.

The job of analysis is to explain how a concrete detail illustrates the truth of a paragraph’s topic sentence. The job of a topic sentence is to defend the thesis statement. See how they are tied together? If one piece is weak, it’s over. Students WILL hit a brick wall.

How to Address Rhetorical Analysis Paralysis

The Thesis Statement

Believe it or not, this problem may be the easiest of the three to fix. It’s all about author’s purpose, so the question to ask the student is How did you address the author’s purpose in your thesis statement? If the writer or speaker’s intent is not addressed in the thesis, there is absolutely nothing to discuss either in the topic sentences or the paragraphs they introduce. Start over.

Topic Sentence

Of the three issues, this is the hardest to fix. Students often use the topic sentence as a place holder, a sort of reminder to themselves to talk about a particular choice the author made. What they forget to do is use it to defend the thesis statement. If the topic sentence has no teeth, there is nowhere to go in the analysis. So what’s the fix? If the thesis statement is squared away, ask the student to use the topic sentence to tie one movement, choice, or strategy to author’s purpose. A topic sentence is not repetition of the thesis; nor is it a rewording. I think of it more as one leg of a tripod. How does this leg help to hold up the seat that the author is sitting on while convincing the audience to agree with her or him?

If the topic sentence has no teeth, there is nowhere to go in the analysis.

Concrete Detail

Finally, we have the concrete detail, which contains the evidence being used to DEFEND that juicy debatable topic sentence. If it is general (Johnson’s figurative language throughout the essay . . .) or opinionated (He uses great diction . . .), put up the closed sign and go home. The paragraph is over. Without a SPECIFIC concrete detail, there is nothing to tie to that gorgeous topic sentence the student just corrected. Nine times out of ten, the problem is with the concrete detail. Ask the student to point to the section of the text being discussed. If she cannot point to it, there is the problem.

Want to read a bit more about the ways I approach rhetorical analysis? Read this blog post, 5 Approaches to Rhetorical Analysis.

Want to save yourself some conference time? Give students this CHECKLIST, 6 Questions to Beat Analysis Paralysis. Have them go through the detective steps before they come to you!


I’m a recovering high school English teacher and curriculum specialist with a passion for helping teachers leave school at school. I create engaging, rigorous curriculum resources for secondary ELA professionals, and I facilitate workshops to help those teachers implement the materials effectively.