Standardized tests generally require short responses in their closing sections; these are most frequently persuasive or expository pieces with occasional narratives or responses to literature. Short responses are assigned through single-sentence prompts. No matter what kind of prompt, however, the basic steps to writing a short response are the same.

A Quick Thesis from a Prompt

Short response answers are focused on a single task, such as comparing or contrasting two ideas or finding an example. Their time constraint may be as small as eight minutes or as long as 15. Most short responses require between five and 11 sentences in a single paragraph. The first thing for the student to do is to create the topic sentence or thesis for the piece. The writer does this by cannibalizing the prompt, so to speak, and using its exact wording for the topic sentence/thesis.

The Prompt and What Follows

For example, a prompt that reads "Give an example of dramatic irony in 'Macbeth'" is rendered as a topic sentence as: "An example of dramatic irony in 'Macbeth' is Macduff's speech in Act 2, scene 3." A prompt of this nature wants at least a 5 sentence paragraph answer. Using the concrete detail/commentary method for short writing, developed by teaching expert Jane Schaeffer, the student continues with one sentence of concrete detail -- the quote referred to -- then two commentary sentences that explain the dramatic irony of the quote and a closing sentence.

The Pattern of Concrete Detail and Commentary

A concrete detail is the fact that proves the point or thesis; "for example" is a good beginning for it. Commentary is created with mental sentence starters -- thought but never written -- of "this shows that" for the first sentence and "this is because" for the second. So the formula is rendered: a. topic sentence, TS, from the prompt b. concrete detail, CD, proof or quote to support c. commentary, CM, with the mental starter "this shows that" d. commentary with "this is because" as a mental starter, and a closing sentence, CS. The pattern is TS/CD/CM/CM/CS.

Consult the Rubric

The pattern of CD/CM/CM can be repeated for eight or eleven sentences for more complicated prompts such as compare/contrast. Once the piece is complete, the student should refer to the rubric of the essay to be sure all requirements have been addressed. Virtually all rubrics require a clear topic or thesis, cogent examples and focused writing; the method of CD/CM/CM guarantees this in the writing of a short piece.