Organizing A Literary Analysis Essay

Writing a timed essay for an AP exam is stressful for even the most confident of students. The job of an AP teacher (or any writing teacher honestly) is to provide as many tools as possible for the student to have in their writing toolbox. Having different methods of organization is fundamental because it provides the outline and structure for the analysis and ideas of the essay. Organizing can be challenging because there is no one “right” way to do this. Below are the three most common ways to organize a timed writing response with examples of sample essays from AP central.

Insight – Organizing by insight about a passage starts with a big picture idea, observation, or theme further unpacked with textual evidence and/or devices linked back to the meaning. The advantage of this method of organization is students almost always address the meaning of the work to some degree and focus heavily on analysis. Students need to be careful if using this method of organization to include how the author or poet develops the passage through poetic and/or literary devices. Examples of topic sentences from sample essays on AP Central organized by insight are below:

(2012 Under the Feet of Jesus – 2A scored an 8)

  • “Initially a question is posed signifying to the reader that Estrella thirsts for knowledge and yearns for the discovery of knowing as much as possible.”
  • “Selective additional details serves to further characterize Estrella as resilient . . . “ (While this sentence begins with “selection of detail” the focus of the sentence and paragraph is on an insight (Estrella being resilient)

(2016 The Mayor of Casterbridge – 2B scored a 6)

  • “Hardy constantly focuses on the difference in Elizabeth,’s the daughter,  behavior and Michael’s, the father, behavior.”
  • “Due to Elizabeth’s constant shame from Michael’s criticism, Elizabeth is waged in a war between freedom, independence, and conformity in her behavior.”

Order of the Passage– Offering analysis, insight, and devices in the order in which they appear in the passage is another commonly used method of organization. The advantage of this method of organization is students are most likely to not leave out significant parts of a passage or have gaps in their thoughts since they are systematically working through the passage.  Students need to be careful if using this method of organization to include big picture ideas and insights.  Examples of topic sentences from sample essays on AP Cenral organized by order are below:

(2016 The Mayor of Casterbridge – 2A scored a 9)

  • “From the first sentence, the passage begins to set up a relationship between Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane as an unhealthy one.”
  • “Yet these lengths are not enough for Henchard, who moves on to criticizing his daughter’s handwriting.”

(2007 Johnny Got His Gun – 2A scored an 8)

  • “The opening paragraph of the passage sets the tone as peaceful yet important.”
  • “Trumbo also illustrates the men’s love, respect, and thoughtfulness through letting the reader into the young man’s head in the second paragraph from the point of view of the young man.”

Devices – Organizing by device has paragraphs centered on a particular device with examples of the device from the text. This is the most formulaic of the methods rarely yielding an essay no higher than a 6 (but see an exception below) but works well for students who struggle with writing or analysis. Students need to be careful if using this method of organization to include how the device reinforces the big picture idea or insight. Examples of topic sentences from sample essays on AP Central organized by device are below:

(2016 “Juggler” – 1A scored a 9)

  • “In the first and last stanzas, no alliteration beyond ‘daily dark’ appears evoking a tone that could hardly be described as cheerful.”
  • “The speaker’s view of the world, as seen through their lens of the juggler, is also observable through the various diction choices made throughout the poem.”

(2007 Johnny Got His Gun – 2B scored a 6)

  • “By telling the story from a third person point of view, Trumbo provides the reader with a more universal view of the father-son relationship.”
  • “Through the use of simple syntax, Trumbo further characterizes the relationship of the father and son.”

Some thoughts and ideas for teaching organization:

Be sure to discuss the HOW of writing and not just the WHAT. Many teachers focus so much on analysis and content, that students are not taught the art and craft of writing. Organizing falls into crafting an essay and needs to be discussed regularly. 

Study sample essays through the lens of organization. AP Central provides years upon years of sample essays which can serve as mentor texts. Spend a lesson having students look at essays to see various methods of organization.

Encourage students to experiment with different methods of organization. Students may be stuck in a default mode when it comes to organizing an essay and need to be forced to try something outside of their comfort zone. Choose a prompt that lends itself well to a particular method of organization and have students write using that method. (Be sure not to penalize them with a bad grade if the experiment does not work).

Spend time planning and organizing before writing. This seems obvious, yet many students neglect to plan and jump straight into writing. Five minutes of giving thought to how an essay will be developed and outlining the essay will result in a far better essay than one without planning.


Categories AP Lit Exam, writing

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 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.

Persuasive Appeals

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.

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