What is a response paper?

Writing a “response paper” might seem to imply that you will be writing about your emotional responses and reactions to a particular text.  Thinking about how you felt about a text is a legitimate—and often useful—starting point for finding a paper topic that interests you; however, in writing the paper, you will need to move beyond these initial feelings and develop a critical response.  Remember that this course asks you to be an active reader; the response paper will challenge you to create meaning from the text rather than simply absorbing the material.  To do so, your paper should critically engage the text in some way.  A response paper examines and begins to formulate the questions that a more formal analytical argument essay might address.


Ultimately in your college career, you will be asked to devise your own paper topics and make original academic arguments rather than responding to specific questions.  The response paper will help you begin to see how to pinpoint and assess the kinds of issues that most interest you in the texts you read. 


In your response paper, you may choose to respond to the essay as a whole or to a particular point or points made by the author.  Whatever you choose to focus on, the response must be critical, not simply a summary or a description of your personal feelings about the essay.  The response paper consists of your close examination and analysis of the text (giving attention to the details and language of the text) and the questions in the text that most intrigue you.  It should pull together your thoughts about a particular issue in the text. 


You may point out contradictions in the text, you may assess the strengths and weaknesses of an argument in the text, you may develop an argument out of a close reading—there are a number of possible approaches.  Try to move beyond simply disagreeing or agreeing with arguments in the text.  Why do you disagree?  If you agree, you must think about why you response is important.  Is your point (your argument) slightly different?  Are you adding to or in any way modifying what the author is saying?.


Skills progression—putting the building blocks of academic writing together:

In the summary, you outlined the main points of a text; in the close reading, you dissected a specific aspect of a text.  The response paper continues this progression from summary to argument, clearly emphasizing argument; rather than proceeding in the order the text proceeds, it is organized according to the progression of your argument.  Instead of summarizing a text (though some brief summary may be necessary to familiarize your reader with the ideas you are discussing), you will analyze the text—that is, you will provide and assess evidence—specific textual references, quotations—using your close reading skills to make your argument.



Some suggested approaches:

These questions are not an endpoint—simply answering them will not create a response paper.  Use them to brainstorm and begin formulating a claim—a specific and arguable response to the aspect of the text you’re addressing.  You may want to combine different approaches.


1.      Choose a concept or theme in the text and mark all of its occurrences.

-Is there a pattern to the instances you marked?

-What does this concept seem to do for the text as a whole?

-What else does the concept or theme mean in a larger context?  (Think about applying to concept to something outside the text.)  Has the author addressed these issues?  If not, how might they affect his/her argument?


2.      Focus on a specific argument in the text.

-Make a list of the evidence/examples the author uses to support the argument.

-Which evidence is strongest/weakest and why?

-Does the author appeal to fact-based evidence, expertise, logic, emotion, or a combination of these strategies?

-Does the author list counterarguments?  How does he/she address them?

-Does the author contradict him/herself?  Is the contradiction significant?  How does it affect the argument?


3.      What questions do you have about the text?  What was confusing or startling?

-Note where these questions occur.

-Can you come up with any answers from the context?  Any counterpoints?  Does anything seem left out?

-Is your question related to any other themes of the text?  Can these help answer your question?


4.      Choose a word or phrase that troubles or intrigues you.

-Practice your close reading skills.  Define the word, using the dictionary, but also write out the word’s connotations (i.e. what does the word bring to mind?  How is it used colloquially?).

-How does the author’s careful selection of this word alter or flavor the overall meaning of or a specific argument in the text?

-What other words in the text are similar?  Or, what words seem to indicate an opposite meaning?  Can these groups of words point you to an assessment of a theme in the text?


5.      What is the tone of the piece?  (Light-hearted?  Somber?  Ironic?  Straightforward?  Aggressive?  Argumentative?  Emotional?  Detached?  Analytical?  Energetic?  Outraged?  Resigned?  The list could go on and on…)

-What textual clues indicate the essay’s tone?

-Does the tone change?  Is there a pattern to the changes?

-So what?  Why is the tone important?  How does it contribute to or alter the meaning of the text?