Rules for Writing a Reading Response Essay

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A reading response essay expresses a student’s thinking about a piece of literature. The rules for writing a response essay can vary depending on the purpose, the audience and the assignment. So, the first rule in reading response is to know the requirements for the task. Papers may vary in length and content based on the assignment. Beyond those directions, students need to know a few basic rules to guide the reading and to create the final piece.

1 Analysis

In most cases, reading response essays aren’t a retelling of the literature. The requirements may ask for some summarization, but generally these papers call for analysis and interpretation. A reading response essay begins with thoughtful reading of the literature. To read for deeper meaning, Patricia Kain, a representative for the Writing Center at Harvard University in 1998, suggests underlining key phrases and ideas in the text. They recommend examining patterns, repetition and contradictions in the text as the student attempts to find the messages and important ideas the writer has encoded in the literature using symbolism, figurative language and other literary devices. The student’s reading goal should be to find a unique but valid interpretation of those ideas based on textual evidence.

2 Argument

The response essay is a form of academic argument. The student’s interpretation of the author’s message or another significant aspect of the text forms the basis for the thesis or claim in the argument. For example, the student may claim that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” exposed the delusions in the 1920s version of the American dream. The introduction to the paper leads into that thesis. From there, the student should offer evidence from the text for support, probably relying on passages highlighted during the thoughtful reading. Outlining the argument and supporting evidence before drafting helps maintain logical organization in the paper which is necessary for a successful literary argument.

3 Structure

Response essays follow the rules for formal, academic writing. These papers normally follow the structure of a five-paragraph essay -- introductory paragraph that introduces the work and express thesis, body paragraphs that explain the supporting evidence and a conclusion that makes a relevant statement about the literature. Some of the supporting evidence should come from quotes from the text. Structure the paragraphs in the body so they begin with a topic sentence and develop that point with appropriate supporting examples. Paragraphs should be long, detailed and end with a closing sentence.

4 Tone

The student should avoid referring to himself in the first person when writing a formal response to literature. The student should use strong, vivid word choice when making points, favoring action verbs and an active voice. However, the tone should not become excessively flowery or expressive. The language of the paper shouldn’t call attention away from the argument, the evidence or the explanation. The reader will likely see through any attempt to fog weaknesses in the argument with linguistic trickery. The student should proofread the final piece at least twice, first to trace the argument to make certain the logic will be clear to the reader and second to eliminate mechanical errors that might distract the reader from the point of the paper.

David Raudenbush has more than 20 years of experience as a literacy teacher, staff developer and literacy coach. He has written for newspapers, magazines and online publications, and served as the editor of "Golfstyles New Jersey Magazine." Raudenbush holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in education.