Tips for Reading Nonfiction

Need help reading the websites, speeches, and articles featured on this site?
Use these core strategies to tackle even the most complex informational texts.

Analyze Rhetoric

As most experienced writers and speakers know, rhetoric is the art of using language effectively and persuasively. In an effective argument, a writer uses rhetoric to advance his or her viewpoint or purpose. Some of the rhetorical devices that a writer might rely on include parallelism, repetition, and rhetorical questions.

  • Parallelism is the use of similar grammatical constructions to emphasize a point. For example, in his essay The Crisis, Thomas Paine writes “what we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly.” He could have expressed this idea in a variety of ways, such as “if we don’t have to fight for something, we won’t value it very much,” but he chose to use parallelism to emphasize the idea’s importance.
  • With repetition, a writer purposefully repeats a word or phrase for emphasis. Think about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and consider the repetition of the phrase “I have a dream” throughout the text, as well as the repeated line “let freedom ring” at the close of the speech. What is the intended effect of these repeated lines on King’s audience?
  • Rhetorical questions are questions that the writer poses, without necessarily expecting an answer. The purpose of the question is to provoke thought and persuade the reader to consider an important idea. For example, in his speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass asks the audience the rhetorical question, “Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery?”

After reading through any argument a first time, read it again using these strategies to help you analyze rhetoric:

  • Identify the claim. Think about what the writer wants readers to do or believe. Look for the claim, or a statement of the writer’s position, in the first or last paragraph. Sometimes, the claim is not directly stated. In that case, examine the reasons and evidence the writer provides. Ask: What do these details suggest about the writer’s viewpoint?
  • Explore the reasons and evidence. Identify the writer’s reasons, or statements that support the claim. Keep track of any evidence that the writer uses to prove each reason. Evidence comes in many forms, such as facts, statistics, quotations, examples, or personal stories.
  • Analyze word choice. Look for words that have a positive or negative slant, or connotation. Make a note of any repeated words or phrases. Highlight examples of parallelism that stand out to you. Circle any rhetorical questions.
  • Evaluate rhetoric. Consider the effectiveness of the writer’s word choices. How well do they emphasize or enhance the writer’s viewpoint? To what extent do they help the writer achieve his or her purpose?