A Way to Approach Rhetorical Analysis

When reading text closely, consider what it does as well as what it says.  Think about why you think this is important to the overall meaning of the text.  When you do this, you are thinking about how language functions, a dimension that’s distinct from what language says.

Says statements summarize the content of text.

Does statements describe construction, organization, and form with as little reference to content as possible

Because statements underscore the purpose the writer intends when employing particular construction, organization and form.

Basically, says/does/because analysis involves grappling with the difference between the content (says), the function and form (does), and the rationale behind the strategy employed by the writer.  While exploring the distinction between form and content may seem challenging (and even artificial), it is a useful tool during close reading and analysis of text.  Conducting a says/does/because analysis can also prove especially valuable during revision of your own writing, helping you account for coherence (or the lack of it) in your work.

Here’s a hint:  Often, language functions can be related to how a writer (including you) conveys his or her thesis, central idea, claim, or proposition.  So ask yourself—what is my (or the author’s) claim (and/or what’s my aim?) and what am I (is he or she) doing to get it across, in all its glory, to my (his or her) audience?

It’s often harder to write does/because statements than says statements.  Most of you have been asked to write content summaries, so says statements probably won’t seem too odd or strange.
Text:   “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” an essay by Donald Murray

I was never one to make a big deal over snapshots; I never spent long evenings with the family photograph album.  Let’s get on with the living.  To heck with yesterday, what are we going to do tomorrow?  But with the accumulation of yesterdays and the possibility of shrinking tomorrows, I find myself returning, as many over 60’s do, for a second glance and a third at family photos that snatch a moment from time.

In looking at mine, I become aware that it is so recent in the stretch of man’s history that we have been able to stop time in this way and hold still for reflection.  Vermeer is one of my favorite painters because of that sense of suspended time, with both clock and calendar held so wonderfully, so terribly still.

The people in the snapshots are all strangers.  My parents young, caught before I arrived or as they were when I saw them as towering grown-ups.  They seemed so old then and so young now.  And I am, to me, the strangest of all.

Says Analysis:
Photos were never really important to the author of this personal narrative; he wants to live life, not dwell on the past.  However, as he ages and reflects on his dwindling future, he finds that he is looking at family snapshots again and again.

As a result of looking at these pictures, he thinks about the relatively short time people have been able to capture moments with a camera. He thinks of how Vermeer, one of his favorite artists, did so in his paintings, long ago.

Looking at family photos again, he notes that the people look different in the photos taken when he was just a child.  Looking at the images, he remembers that back then these people seemed and looked so old, and now they look so young.  He then says that his own images strike him as the most strange.

Now here’s a version of what the passage does and why:
Donald Murray, in a personal essay, introduces a subject [looking at old family photographs] and conveys his initial attitude [dismissive] toward it.  He notes a change in his attitude [contemplative/renewing] and refers to a related change in his habits. [He now looks at photos over and over again.]

In paragraph 2, Murray further reflects on the general subject [of photography].  He elaborates on this idea [comparing a snatch of history to a snapshot]; he illustrates his thinking when hemakes a historical reference [to the history of photography];  he cites a personal preference involving a related object [Vermeer painting].

In paragraph 3, Murray focuses on particular, personal objects associated with his subject [childhood photos].  Extending his observations, he cites a paradox [the discrepancy between how people appeared in life (old) and how they now look in photos].  He then focuses more narrowly on the subject and himself [his own image strikes him as strange].

Note the verbs used when describing what a writer does and why:

Describes, states a proposition, narrates, provides history, lists, categorizes, itemizes, predicts, explains, reasons, compares, traces, illustrates, provides an example, evaluates, synthesizes, cites, elaborates, exemplifies, develops, offers a hypothesis, deepens, supports, contrasts, argues, etc.

[1] Adapted from John Brassil’s AP Summer Institute Course Guide, July 23, 2006