What does this paragraph say?

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The Rhetorical Summary

Instead of addressing the question of “what does this paragraph say?” as in a regular summary, a rhetorical summary asks the question, paragraph by paragraph,

What Does This Paragraph DO?

What function is the writer trying to accomplish by including this paragraph? How does the paragraph help her accomplish what the writing is trying to accomplish?

You can begin to think about the rhetorical functions of a particular paragraph by recalling Aristotle’s three artistic appeals: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos.

But within these broad (and often overlapping) categories a paragraph can perform an almost infinite number of rhetorical functions. For instance, a particular paragraph in a personal essay might:

  1. Tell a funny story to introduce the main theme of the essay as a whole and to increase the writer’s ethos as being a fun, interesting person whose company we might enjoy;

  2. Evoke a situation in the past that is clearly unjust and anger-provoking (for instance, denying women the right to vote) and then analogize that situation to the current situation the author is trying to denounce in the essay as a whole;

  3. Point out how someone on the opposite side of the issue from the current writer is either mistaken, or using bad evidence, or in possession of an ulterior motive;

  4. Supply background information for a later point in the essay;

  5. Set up an “us” and “them” situation in which the writer aligns herself with her audience against a particular enemy;

  6. Any number of other functions.

Begin your rhetorical summary by a one-sentence description of the writer’s overall goal for the essay as a whole. Then briefly describe, paragraph by paragraph, how the text you’re working with functions. Use one sentence per paragraph at the most. Use the following format:

OVERALL GOAL: ___________________________________________________________________

¶ 1. ________________________________________________________________________________

¶ 2. ________________________________________________________________________________

¶ 3. ________________________________________________________________________________

Etc., etc.

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