To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.
– Kenneth Burke
In college, you will probably be expected to write a paper in response to another text often referred to as a Response Essay. The text could be in the form of a newspaper or magazine article, a government or business report, a book, or even visual texts, such as magazine advertisements. (For our purposes here, we will not be covering responses of literary texts.)
Instructors often assign response essays to not only encourage a deep reading of a text, but also empower students to form critical opinions of their own in response to others’ opinions. Responding to texts requires students to carefully consider how they feel about often controversial issues, perhaps issues students have never considered before. Often, the outcome for students of writing response essays can be a new understanding and appreciation – even a passion – for a topic.
How to Begin
The first step is the obvious – read the text carefully. But this step is often glossed over too rapidly. It’s not enough to read through a text once; read it enough times that you thoroughly understand the topic, the writer’s opinions, the main ideas, the minor details, and can articulate them without re-reading the text. This may take several reads before you fully understand the entirety of the text.
Annotate, Annotate, Annotate
As you read through the text, note in the margins what each paragraph is communicating. Some instructors will ask to see your annotations to make sure you’re taking notes. One way to gain a thorough understanding of the key points as you read is to note what each paragraph is saying, and what each paragraph is doing.
Annotating what the paragraph is saying is to simply summarize briefly the main idea in each paragraph. This helps you to retain the information and aids you in finding key points. Annotating what a paragraph is doing is to take note of what the author’s intention is. Does the writer argue a main point? Does the author prove his point with facts or statistics or other evidence? Does the paragraph cite background and history? Notice that when you annotate what your paragraphs “does,” you’ll use verbs to show action. This will demonstrate what rhetorical strategies the author is using to build his or her argument, and will play a key role in how you analyze the text.
Identify Major and Minor Details
Once you’ve done a thorough read-through and annotated the paragraphs, it’s a good idea to read again and highlight the details. You might use a color marker to highlight the major details of the paragraph, and then use a different color marker to highlight the minor supporting details. Although this sounds easy, this step is where students often fail. It is imperative to be able to identify the key major details that are moving the argument forward, and differentiate them from the minor details that only offer supporting evidence.
Now that you have read through the text a few times, you might be thinking about some inconsistencies, contradictions, or lapses in information. This is the time to jot down questions you might have. Are you finding holes in the writer’s argument? Does the writer fail to fully communicate the full scope of the problem, or fall short of explaining other key points? Do you feel the writer is fair and unbiased, or leaning heavily toward one side without giving voice to the opposition? Does anything surprise or puzzle you?
What do YOU Think?
The objective of a Response assignment is to respond, so you’ll be asked to communicate what your opinions are. As you carefully consider your response to the text and author, think about how you feel about the text.
Do you agree or disagree?
What exactly do you agree or disagree with?
Can you recall a similar personal experience or do you have prior knowledge of the topic?
What key ideas might you want to evaluate more closely?
Once you have a clear idea what you think about what you’ve read, now it’s time to put it all together.
Drafting: Organize your Thoughts
If you’ve followed all of these steps to prepare your response, congratulations! If you’ve taken careful notes, annotated the text thoroughly, and have an informed opinion, you may find you have the skeleton of your response paper written.
Putting it all Together
Begin the paper by introducing the author and title of the text, as in the following example:
In Victor Frisk’s article, “No Way Out,” the author states that the US should detain all travelers coming into the country from destinations that have been proved to have Ebola cases within the last year.
This first sentence does many things: it introduces the author; introduces the article title, and gives the author’s main argument or idea.
The following sentences in the intro should briefly summarize the text. This should be a very brief summary of what you read. It’s not unusual for instructors to ask you to skip the summary, so follow your guidelines carefully.
The final sentence in the intro will state your thesis, a concise focused opinion of where you stand. Do you agree or disagree with the author’s premise?
There are several ways to organize the body of a response. Most instructors ask students to include textual evidence in the body. You might do this by inserting an author quote, contextualizing the quote, then commenting on the quote with your response. Regardless of how you organize it, the body paragraphs should contain only one idea each, and connect back to your thesis. What you include in the body will be determined by your assignment guidelines, but remember to always relate back to the thesis as you go.
The conclusion is a restatement of your thesis and how it fits with the original text’s argument. Reinforce your thesis, but avoid restating it word for word. You might leave the reader with a thoughtful comment or question to consider, or a prediction of future consequences or outcomes. Avoid inserting new information or quotes in the conclusion.
Response essays pose special challenges for students, but with several close readings and careful note taking, you’ll be well on your way to a successful paper.