Responding to literature

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purpose of response to literature essay

In most English courses, you will be asked to read and respond to a work of literature by writing an essay. This can either be about a poem, a short story or a play. How do you respond to literature and where do you start?

  • Understand your essay guidelines
  • Different kinds of writing assignments

 First of all, you can start by making sure you understand the essay guidelines:

Read the guidelines carefully.

Are there questions that need answering?

When is the assignment due?

How long should the paper be? (number of words or pages)

What citation style is required? (Usually, for English classes, you use MLA.)

What physical format is required? (Do you need a title page,  margins, line spacing ?)

Do you need to include secondary sources? What type of sources and how many are required? (books, journal articles? Are websites allowed?)

Does your instructor give a grading rubric or criteria for marking the essay? If so, what are they?

If you are unclear about the guidelines, check with your instructor.

This guide is intended to help you with the most common types of essays you use when writing about literature: the analytical essay, the compare and contrast essay or the argumentative essay. However, reading your assignment guidelines carefully will help you determine which kind of writing or response your instructor is looking for. The five most common types of academic writing are the following:

Report-  Reports are generally fact-based and descriptive with an objective tone. The purpose is to describe something. A book report, for example, will generally focus on a description of setting, characters, plot, conflict, etc. and will not focus too much on analysis. 

Analysis-  An analysis is an explanation of how parts of something relate to a whole. The purpose of an analysis is to look closely at certain elements of something and explain how they work together to create larger meaning.

Summary-  A summary is an abbreviation of the main points of an original text. Its purpose is to communicate in a condensed fashion the main points of something.

Reflection-  A reflection is a personal response to something that is based on your own feelings, sensations, initial reactions, etc. A reflection is subjective, can use first person ("I") and is a good way to start thinking about how a text has made you feel. 

Essay-  An essay is a piece of writing that is structured in such a way that it supports a debatable claim. It should be written from an objective standpoint, and its purpose is to persuade the reader to believe the claims you are making. An essay consists of a series of organized paragraphs that offer details in support of a position. In addition to different types of academic writing, there are different types of academic essays.

  • Analytic-  The analytical essay is the most common kind of essay you will write for a literature course. The analytic essay goes beyond simple summary and description.  Rather than telling the reader the facts of the situation, the analytic essay demands that you examine information and evaluate it. In other words, the analytic essay does not simply ask what, where and when; it asks how, why and what is the effect of this?
  • Compare and contrast-  This is the examination of similarities and differences between two things. You may choose to compare and contrast two stories or two poems by the same or different authors. However, you must have a purpose in deciding why to compare or contrast two texts that goes beyond a mere explanation of the similarities and differences between them. It should explain what the implications of these similarities and differences are, and what one might learn from looking at these two texts side-by-side. 
  • Argumentative-  Argumentative essays bring up an important debatable issue that has two distinct sides. The thesis of an argumentative essay always clearly states which side of the issue is being supported; it does not merely state that there are two sides to the issue. In literature, you may be arguing why or how your interpretation of a text is valid and insightful, and how it may differ from another common interpretation or analysis.
  • Expository-  Expository essays are intended to persuade an audience of a particular position by addressing one side of a debatable issue. In order to write an expository essay you must have a strong, debatable thesis statement (an argument or a claim), evidence to support your thesis, and a logical organization of your materials. Usually, expository essays only deal with one side of an argument without addressing the opposition.
  • Descriptive-  The purpose of a descriptive essay is to persuade the reader of a particular position or belief through the use of rich descriptive detail. Descriptive essays are often paired with narrative arguments because effective stories contain evocative descriptions of people, places, and events. Descriptive writing does not just tell readers what to think, but instead shows readers why one way of looking at the world is better than another. These kinds of essays should contain specific details that bring a picture to life for the audience. It focuses on showing rather than telling. This may be less common when you are asked to write about literature, but may be a useful practice when looking to incorporate more creativity and description into your academic writing style.
  • Cause and effect- The cause and effect essay traces the relationship between reasons and results. It asks why something happened, and what the consequence was. This may be less common when you are writing about literature, but is useful for things like illuminating patterns in society and underlining the consequences if trends are not reversed.
  • Research-  A research essay can take the form of any of the above essay methods, but must always include credible, scholarly research that supports the claim(s) you are making.
  • Review literary terms
  • Identify themes

Many English essays analyze how formal elements of a literary text work together to create meaning or affect the reader. E very word, action, place, thought and object described in a literary text is deliberate.  Analyzing how an author uses different literary devices can help you identify themes and understand how the author is constructing meaning through their text. 

1. Plot- Plot refers to the elements that govern the unfolding of the actions, including the conflict and its development in a story or play. Probably the single most revealing question you can ask about a work of literature is, "What conflict does it dramatize?" Often, analyzing the conflict can point to the meaning or theme of the story.

1. Characters-  In literature, all actions, interactions, speeches, and observations are deliberate. In a story or play, you may expect that each action or speech, no matter how small, is a presentation of the complex inner and outer worlds that constitute a human being. Examining the actions, descriptions, statements and thoughts can give you insight into what the author is trying to say about a particular person with particular experiences.

3. Point of View - Point of view is the speaker, narrator, persona or voice created by the author to tell stories, make observations, present arguments, and express personal attitudes and judgments. There are four common point of views:

  • Omniscient point of view- In this point of view, the author, not one of the characters, tells the story, and the author assumes complete knowledge of the characters' actions and thoughts.
  • Limited omniscient point of view- When this method is used, the author still narrates the story but restricts (limits) his or her revelation—and therefore our knowledge—of the thoughts of all but one character. One name for this character is "central consciousness." A device of plot and characterization that often accompanies this point of view is the character's gradual discovery of himself or herself until the story climaxes in an epiphany. 
  • First person point of view- In the first person position, the author is even more restricted: one of the characters tells the story, eliminating the author as narrator. Here, the narrator is restricted to what one character says he or she observes. The narrator can therefore be unreliable (subject to their own thoughts, experiences, maturity level, etc.) or reliable (a credible source of information).
  • Objective (dramatic) point of view- Objective point of view is the most restricting of all. Though the author is the narrator, he or she refuses to enter the minds of any of the characters. The writer sees them (and lets us see them) as we would in real life. In this method, we learn about the characters from what they say and do, how they look, and what other characters say about them. We don't learn what they think unless they tell us. This is sometimes called "dramatic" point of view, because we learn about characters in the same way we would in a play. 

4. Tone - Tone also has a great deal to do with the narrator. Tone is the narrator's predominant attitude toward the subject, whether that subject be a particular setting, event, character or idea. The narrator conveys tone through the way devices are handled, including word choice, which may be directly stated or indirectly implied. 

4. Structure- A structure is anything made with a clear organizational pattern. Every literary work has a structure of some sort. Sometimes the structure is new and original; often, it follows a known, set format, like that of a sonnet or a haiku. Certain structures have certain meanings attached to them. For example, a sonnet is traditionally used for love poetry. If a poet is writing a love poem following only certain rules of the sonnet structure, that may reveal elements of traditional notions of love that they accept and reject. Analyzing the structure or form of a story or poem can help reveal certain layers of meaning the author may be referencing.

5. Setting - Setting refers to where and when the plot occurs and the environment in which the characters are described as living. This environment includes the natural environment, the material environment, and the social environment. After determining basic questions such as, "Where does the story take place?" and " What sensuous qualities does the author give to the setting?" you can move on to other questions like, "What relationship does place have to characterization and theme?"

6. Imagery - Imagery is a term used for descriptive language that evokes the senses such as sights, sounds, smells, tastes and other physical sensations. The word "imagery" is also used for other kinds of figurative language, such as metaphor and simile.

7. Figurative language - Figurative language is something that is described in terms of something else, usually taking the form of a metaphor or simile.

  • Metaphor- A metaphor compares something to something else without using "like" or "as" or other comparative terms. For example, "Your words are music to my ears." We know that words are not music, but by making this comparison, we ascribe a musical, pleasing quality to these words.
  • Simile- A simile shows similarities between things that are different, using words like "like" or "as". For example: "My love is like a red, red rose" (Burns). What we know about a red rose helps us to understand what the beloved is like.

8. Denotation and Connotation- Denotation and connotation both deal with word meaning.

  • Denotation- means the explicit meaning or dictionary definition of a word.
  • Connotation- refers to the implications, feelings and cultural associations a word has collected through its use over time, for example, the association of red roses with romantic love.

9. Symbolism-  A symbol is a thing that represents another thing which is usually larger and more abstract. For example, a cross is a symbol of Christianity, or a heart is a symbol of love. In literature, words, characters, setting, events and situations can all be symbolic.

10. Rhythm-  Rhythm is the stresses that come at regular intervals to create effect. Poetry is built on a rhythmic pattern, called metre, which also contributes to effect and meaning. A metrical pattern is made up of a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables.

11. Rhyme- Rhyme is a sound device in which identical or very similar sounds are repeated, often at the ends of lines in poems or songs.

12. Irony- Irony plays with the differences between appearances and reality, or between meaning and the words used to convey that meaning. An example of verbal irony occurs when a character says or does something without the knowledge that other characters and the readers/ viewers share.

13. Diction- Diction refers to the words and grammatical constructions a writer selects and which may reveal, among other things, the nationality and level of education of the writer or of the literary character given those words by the writer. A writer's diction will affect the "tone" of the text and its meaning.

14. Allusion- Allusion is a reference inside a work to something outside it, such as a person, place, event or other work. A writer making an allusion often presupposes that the reader knows something about the external reference and will understand how it adds to the work.

15. Genre- Genre has its roots in French, meaning "type" or "kind." Literature is divided up into genres or types, which share conventions or similar features. The major literary genres are drama, poetry, and fiction, which can be further subdivided by type. Knowing more about the conventions that are specific to certain genres can help in your analysis and understanding of the text.

Adapted from Writing About Literature by Edgar V. Roberts and Writing the English Essay by Mary Ann Armstrong

purpose of response to literature essay

Once you have reviewed some of the formal elements of a text, you can start to draw some conclusions about what message the author is trying to convey. 

Literature and poetry usually tell us more than just a story. The story can often be representative of some aspect of what it means to be alive, to be human, to connect or to not connect with others, etc. These are what we call themes.  A theme is a main idea or an underlying meaning of a literary work that may be stated directly or indirectly.

They can be things like

  • Dreams and disillusionment
  • The beauty of simplicity
  • The illusion of power, etc.

Identifying what some of the themes of the story are, and how the author expresses these themes, is a good place to start when deciding what you want to write on.

You can ask yourself questions like

  • Aside from the basic elements of plot, setting, and character development, what is the story really about? Then, how do other literary elements contribute to the development of this theme?
  • What symbols and metaphors does the author use and what might these represent? How do these further enhance an overall theme or message of the story/poem?
  • If there are several themes/messages, how might these be working together? What is the result of the author exploring these issues side-by-side?
  • How might the historical context during which the story/poem was written influence the way the author portrays certain elements of these themes?

Often, your instructor will provide you with a list of questions specific to the text to help you start thinking about it in these terms.

purpose of response to literature essay

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This handout provides examples and description about writing papers in literature. It discusses research topics, how to begin to research, how to use information, and formatting.

What Makes a Good Literature Paper?

An argument.

When you write an extended literary essay, often one requiring research, you are essentially making an argument. You are arguing that your perspective-an interpretation, an evaluative judgment, or a critical evaluation-is a valid one.

A debatable thesis statement

Like any argument paper you have ever written for a first-year composition course, you must have a specific, detailed thesis statement that reveals your perspective, and, like any good argument, your perspective must be one which is debatable.

You would not want to make an argument of this sort:

Shakespeare's Hamlet is a play about a young man who seeks revenge. That doesn't say anything-it's basically just a summary and is hardly debatable.

A better thesis would be this:

Hamlet experiences internal conflict because he is in love with his mother. That is debatable, controversial even. The rest of a paper with this argument as its thesis will be an attempt to show, using specific examples from the text and evidence from scholars, (1) how Hamlet is in love with his mother, (2) why he's in love with her, and (3) what implications there are for reading the play in this manner.

You also want to avoid a thesis statement like this:

Spirituality means different things to different people. King Lear , The Book of Romans , and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance each view the spirit differently. Again, that says nothing that's not already self-evident. Why bother writing a paper about that? You're not writing an essay to list works that have nothing in common other than a general topic like "spirituality." You want to find certain works or authors that, while they may have several differences, do have some specific, unifying point. That point is your thesis.
Lear , Romans , and Zen each view the soul as the center of human personality. Then you prove it, using examples from the texts that show that the soul is the center of personality.

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  • Knowledge Base
  • How to write a literary analysis essay | A step-by-step guide

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay | A Step-by-Step Guide

Published on January 30, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on August 14, 2023.

Literary analysis means closely studying a text, interpreting its meanings, and exploring why the author made certain choices. It can be applied to novels, short stories, plays, poems, or any other form of literary writing.

A literary analysis essay is not a rhetorical analysis , nor is it just a summary of the plot or a book review. Instead, it is a type of argumentative essay where you need to analyze elements such as the language, perspective, and structure of the text, and explain how the author uses literary devices to create effects and convey ideas.

Before beginning a literary analysis essay, it’s essential to carefully read the text and c ome up with a thesis statement to keep your essay focused. As you write, follow the standard structure of an academic essay :

  • An introduction that tells the reader what your essay will focus on.
  • A main body, divided into paragraphs , that builds an argument using evidence from the text.
  • A conclusion that clearly states the main point that you have shown with your analysis.

Table of contents

Step 1: reading the text and identifying literary devices, step 2: coming up with a thesis, step 3: writing a title and introduction, step 4: writing the body of the essay, step 5: writing a conclusion, other interesting articles.

The first step is to carefully read the text(s) and take initial notes. As you read, pay attention to the things that are most intriguing, surprising, or even confusing in the writing—these are things you can dig into in your analysis.

Your goal in literary analysis is not simply to explain the events described in the text, but to analyze the writing itself and discuss how the text works on a deeper level. Primarily, you’re looking out for literary devices —textual elements that writers use to convey meaning and create effects. If you’re comparing and contrasting multiple texts, you can also look for connections between different texts.

To get started with your analysis, there are several key areas that you can focus on. As you analyze each aspect of the text, try to think about how they all relate to each other. You can use highlights or notes to keep track of important passages and quotes.

Language choices

Consider what style of language the author uses. Are the sentences short and simple or more complex and poetic?

What word choices stand out as interesting or unusual? Are words used figuratively to mean something other than their literal definition? Figurative language includes things like metaphor (e.g. “her eyes were oceans”) and simile (e.g. “her eyes were like oceans”).

Also keep an eye out for imagery in the text—recurring images that create a certain atmosphere or symbolize something important. Remember that language is used in literary texts to say more than it means on the surface.

Narrative voice

Ask yourself:

  • Who is telling the story?
  • How are they telling it?

Is it a first-person narrator (“I”) who is personally involved in the story, or a third-person narrator who tells us about the characters from a distance?

Consider the narrator’s perspective . Is the narrator omniscient (where they know everything about all the characters and events), or do they only have partial knowledge? Are they an unreliable narrator who we are not supposed to take at face value? Authors often hint that their narrator might be giving us a distorted or dishonest version of events.

The tone of the text is also worth considering. Is the story intended to be comic, tragic, or something else? Are usually serious topics treated as funny, or vice versa ? Is the story realistic or fantastical (or somewhere in between)?

Consider how the text is structured, and how the structure relates to the story being told.

  • Novels are often divided into chapters and parts.
  • Poems are divided into lines, stanzas, and sometime cantos.
  • Plays are divided into scenes and acts.

Think about why the author chose to divide the different parts of the text in the way they did.

There are also less formal structural elements to take into account. Does the story unfold in chronological order, or does it jump back and forth in time? Does it begin in medias res —in the middle of the action? Does the plot advance towards a clearly defined climax?

With poetry, consider how the rhyme and meter shape your understanding of the text and your impression of the tone. Try reading the poem aloud to get a sense of this.

In a play, you might consider how relationships between characters are built up through different scenes, and how the setting relates to the action. Watch out for  dramatic irony , where the audience knows some detail that the characters don’t, creating a double meaning in their words, thoughts, or actions.

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Your thesis in a literary analysis essay is the point you want to make about the text. It’s the core argument that gives your essay direction and prevents it from just being a collection of random observations about a text.

If you’re given a prompt for your essay, your thesis must answer or relate to the prompt. For example:

Essay question example

Is Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” a religious parable?

Your thesis statement should be an answer to this question—not a simple yes or no, but a statement of why this is or isn’t the case:

Thesis statement example

Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” is not a religious parable, but a story about bureaucratic alienation.

Sometimes you’ll be given freedom to choose your own topic; in this case, you’ll have to come up with an original thesis. Consider what stood out to you in the text; ask yourself questions about the elements that interested you, and consider how you might answer them.

Your thesis should be something arguable—that is, something that you think is true about the text, but which is not a simple matter of fact. It must be complex enough to develop through evidence and arguments across the course of your essay.

Say you’re analyzing the novel Frankenstein . You could start by asking yourself:

Your initial answer might be a surface-level description:

The character Frankenstein is portrayed negatively in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein .

However, this statement is too simple to be an interesting thesis. After reading the text and analyzing its narrative voice and structure, you can develop the answer into a more nuanced and arguable thesis statement:

Mary Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as.

Remember that you can revise your thesis statement throughout the writing process , so it doesn’t need to be perfectly formulated at this stage. The aim is to keep you focused as you analyze the text.

Finding textual evidence

To support your thesis statement, your essay will build an argument using textual evidence —specific parts of the text that demonstrate your point. This evidence is quoted and analyzed throughout your essay to explain your argument to the reader.

It can be useful to comb through the text in search of relevant quotations before you start writing. You might not end up using everything you find, and you may have to return to the text for more evidence as you write, but collecting textual evidence from the beginning will help you to structure your arguments and assess whether they’re convincing.

To start your literary analysis paper, you’ll need two things: a good title, and an introduction.

Your title should clearly indicate what your analysis will focus on. It usually contains the name of the author and text(s) you’re analyzing. Keep it as concise and engaging as possible.

A common approach to the title is to use a relevant quote from the text, followed by a colon and then the rest of your title.

If you struggle to come up with a good title at first, don’t worry—this will be easier once you’ve begun writing the essay and have a better sense of your arguments.

“Fearful symmetry” : The violence of creation in William Blake’s “The Tyger”

The introduction

The essay introduction provides a quick overview of where your argument is going. It should include your thesis statement and a summary of the essay’s structure.

A typical structure for an introduction is to begin with a general statement about the text and author, using this to lead into your thesis statement. You might refer to a commonly held idea about the text and show how your thesis will contradict it, or zoom in on a particular device you intend to focus on.

Then you can end with a brief indication of what’s coming up in the main body of the essay. This is called signposting. It will be more elaborate in longer essays, but in a short five-paragraph essay structure, it shouldn’t be more than one sentence.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often read as a crude cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific advancement unrestrained by ethical considerations. In this reading, protagonist Victor Frankenstein is a stable representation of the callous ambition of modern science throughout the novel. This essay, however, argues that far from providing a stable image of the character, Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as. This essay begins by exploring the positive portrayal of Frankenstein in the first volume, then moves on to the creature’s perception of him, and finally discusses the third volume’s narrative shift toward viewing Frankenstein as the creature views him.

Some students prefer to write the introduction later in the process, and it’s not a bad idea. After all, you’ll have a clearer idea of the overall shape of your arguments once you’ve begun writing them!

If you do write the introduction first, you should still return to it later to make sure it lines up with what you ended up writing, and edit as necessary.

The body of your essay is everything between the introduction and conclusion. It contains your arguments and the textual evidence that supports them.

Paragraph structure

A typical structure for a high school literary analysis essay consists of five paragraphs : the three paragraphs of the body, plus the introduction and conclusion.

Each paragraph in the main body should focus on one topic. In the five-paragraph model, try to divide your argument into three main areas of analysis, all linked to your thesis. Don’t try to include everything you can think of to say about the text—only analysis that drives your argument.

In longer essays, the same principle applies on a broader scale. For example, you might have two or three sections in your main body, each with multiple paragraphs. Within these sections, you still want to begin new paragraphs at logical moments—a turn in the argument or the introduction of a new idea.

Robert’s first encounter with Gil-Martin suggests something of his sinister power. Robert feels “a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him.” He identifies the moment of their meeting as “the beginning of a series of adventures which has puzzled myself, and will puzzle the world when I am no more in it” (p. 89). Gil-Martin’s “invisible power” seems to be at work even at this distance from the moment described; before continuing the story, Robert feels compelled to anticipate at length what readers will make of his narrative after his approaching death. With this interjection, Hogg emphasizes the fatal influence Gil-Martin exercises from his first appearance.

Topic sentences

To keep your points focused, it’s important to use a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph.

A good topic sentence allows a reader to see at a glance what the paragraph is about. It can introduce a new line of argument and connect or contrast it with the previous paragraph. Transition words like “however” or “moreover” are useful for creating smooth transitions:

… The story’s focus, therefore, is not upon the divine revelation that may be waiting beyond the door, but upon the mundane process of aging undergone by the man as he waits.

Nevertheless, the “radiance” that appears to stream from the door is typically treated as religious symbolism.

This topic sentence signals that the paragraph will address the question of religious symbolism, while the linking word “nevertheless” points out a contrast with the previous paragraph’s conclusion.

Using textual evidence

A key part of literary analysis is backing up your arguments with relevant evidence from the text. This involves introducing quotes from the text and explaining their significance to your point.

It’s important to contextualize quotes and explain why you’re using them; they should be properly introduced and analyzed, not treated as self-explanatory:

It isn’t always necessary to use a quote. Quoting is useful when you’re discussing the author’s language, but sometimes you’ll have to refer to plot points or structural elements that can’t be captured in a short quote.

In these cases, it’s more appropriate to paraphrase or summarize parts of the text—that is, to describe the relevant part in your own words:

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The conclusion of your analysis shouldn’t introduce any new quotations or arguments. Instead, it’s about wrapping up the essay. Here, you summarize your key points and try to emphasize their significance to the reader.

A good way to approach this is to briefly summarize your key arguments, and then stress the conclusion they’ve led you to, highlighting the new perspective your thesis provides on the text as a whole:

If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

  • Ad hominem fallacy
  • Post hoc fallacy
  • Appeal to authority fallacy
  • False cause fallacy
  • Sunk cost fallacy

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By tracing the depiction of Frankenstein through the novel’s three volumes, I have demonstrated how the narrative structure shifts our perception of the character. While the Frankenstein of the first volume is depicted as having innocent intentions, the second and third volumes—first in the creature’s accusatory voice, and then in his own voice—increasingly undermine him, causing him to appear alternately ridiculous and vindictive. Far from the one-dimensional villain he is often taken to be, the character of Frankenstein is compelling because of the dynamic narrative frame in which he is placed. In this frame, Frankenstein’s narrative self-presentation responds to the images of him we see from others’ perspectives. This conclusion sheds new light on the novel, foregrounding Shelley’s unique layering of narrative perspectives and its importance for the depiction of character.

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7 Writing the Critical Response Essay (CRE)

The Critical Response Essay is a multi-paragraph, multi-page essay that requires you to take one of your Critical Response Paragraphs and revise it to create a more complex and stronger argument. You should choose your best CRP or the one that most interests you. Focus on making it not only a longer argument, but also a better argument, using what you’ve learned since writing the original piece to improve the argument and the writing itself (argument form, paragraph form, and grammar). Also use what you’ve learned from my feedback and from our discussions in class and individual conferences. You must include confutation.


CREs require that you use classical argument form. The parts of this kind of argument are as follow:

Key Takeaways

  • Introduction Paragraph , ending with claim
  • [ Confutation as first argument paragraph ?]
  • Argument Paragraphs (two or three): Begin with a subclaim , then support it by providing textual evidence and analysis of evidence [including confutation within?]
  • [ Confutation as final argument paragraph ?]
  • Conclusion [confutation as conclusion?]
  • Works Cited

Your title may not be simply the title of the story or the assignment. It must be a title that is specific to your argument.


  • Introduce the story and the author about which you are writing. If you’re writing about a film, identify the director.
  • Call attention to the features of the story on which you will base your argument. This is the ONLY part of the essay in which you may summarize parts of the story.
  • END the introduction with your CLAIM.
  • If you have no claim, you have no argument, and therefore you may earn a disappointing grade.
  • Likewise, if your claim does not appear in the introduction, your reader has no way of knowing what your subclaims and evidence are attempting to prove.
  • It’s not like a joke where you save the punchline until last.
  • It’s not mystery-writing, where you don’t identify the murderer until the end.
  • It’s an argument. So for your reader to understand what is the point of all the evidence and analysis you’re working so hard to create, you must tell her, in the introduction, what you’re trying to argue and prove.

Writing an Arguable Claim

  • Think in terms of theme .
  • Theme cannot be expressed with just a word or even a short phrase, like sibling rivalry or fear of marriage. Those are interesting topics, but they are not yet themes.
  • To turn a topic into a theme, you must be able to say what the story shows us about the topic , that relates to real life beyond the story.

“Beauty and the Beast” illustrates sibling rivalry.

This is an insufficient claim about theme because it doesn’t give me even a hint of what you think the story says about sibling rivalry. Unless you plan to tell me that in the next sentence, there’s a problem with your claim. By the way, a claim can be more than one sentence.

Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast” illustrates how sibling rivalry can be caused by unnecessary competition for mates, particularly in the case of sisters.

Now that’s an arguable claim because it includes author, title, a topic, and what the story says about the topic and how it relates to real life.

You can make this claim even stronger (and give yourself greater confidence that your argument will be persuasive) by including the main textual evidence you will cite.

Or you could revise this idea to discuss how cultural expectations play a role in this kind of rivalry and unhealthy competition. See the CRP Example for something like that.

If it helps, you can think of these components as part of a formula.

Let X be the story and some particular feature of it.

Let Y be the theme you are arguing.

Instead of an equal sign, we insert a verb that expresses the relationship between X and Y:

(=) illustrates, shows, portrays, dramatizes, suggests (etc.)

In this example:

Let X be the elder sisters’ resentment toward Beauty.

Let Y be how sibling rivalry can be caused by competition for mates.

Notice in the example below how this process creates an arguable claim.

(X) The elder sisters’ resentment toward Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast”

(Y) how sibling rivalry can be caused by competition for mates.


  • Support the claim with argument paragraphs.
  • How many you need is up to you, but generally at least two, in some cases three or four.
  • Begin EVERY argument paragraph with a TOPIC SENTENCE
  • The topic sentence is like a mini-claim, the paragraph’s claim
  • Tells me what you’ll argue in this paragraph
  • And tells or shows how this point supports the main claim.
  • Support the topic sentence with textual evidence and analysis
  • Quotations and your analysis of them.
  • See the Quotation Sandwich document for guidance.
  • Vary the verbs you use to incorporate quotations into your sentences. DO NOT use the words “says,” “states,” or “writes” (or any forms of these verbs). See the document titled “Effective Verbs for Introducing Quotations in Canvas for many possible verbs that you may use.
  • Use transitional terms—also called “signposts”—to show the relationships from one point to the next and from one paragraph to the next. The internet is full of lists of transitional terms. Here’s one good source: Transition Words.


Confutation makes an argument stronger by dealing with opposing points and evidence.

  • Confutation includes the following parts:
  • Presenting opposition fairly (opposing claims or ideas)

Remember that the opposition must not be a “straw man.” That is, you must engage with something that a careful reader would actually argue, not a simplistic, obviously erroneous reading.

Some readers might argue that the sisters are not abusive toward Beauty.

This example is a straw man statement. No one would seriously argue this point because the sisters actually plot to get Beauty killed, and what could be more abusive than that?

  • Refuting the opposition: showing how it is incorrect or at least as correct as your reading.
  • Directly after the introduction
  • o Directly before the conclusion
  • o As part of the conclusion
  • o Within paragraphs, to deal with possible alternative interpretations of your textual evidence.

Consider a confutation involving the fairy who appears at the end of “Beauty and the Beast” and what she does to Beauty’s sisters. That is, she punishes the two sisters for their bad behavior. Some readers see this as fair because those mean girls get what’s coming to them. But others see it as a missed opportunity to promote sisterhood among all three of the girls. Here are examples of how to write these points as a complete confutation.

State the opposition, as fairly as possible: When the fairy punishes the two sisters for their bad behavior, some readers see this extreme punishment as fair because those mean girls finally get what is coming to them.

Refute the opposition: But by imposing this punishment, the fairy misses a chance to promote sisterhood among all three of the girls. But if she has such powerful magic, that she can turn young women to stone, shouldn’t she be able to teach them to love each other instead?

This refutation includes a rhetorical question; it is not meant for you to answer, but to leave the reader thinking about your ideas. You are not required to pose your refutation as a question; this is just one way to write your refutation.

What do you do with a conclusion? Do not just restate your claim, even if you change some of the wording. That’s not worth your reader’s time. So what is worth your reader’s time?

  • A kind of wrap-up: What’s the point of this argument? What has been learned here and why does it matter? What do you want you and your reader to have learned or created together?
  • And why is this important? Does it apply to real life now? How?
  • Certainly the spirit of your claim will be here. But not just your claim reworded.
  • o Because you’ve just been feeding it and exercising it,
  • o So now it’s bigger and more interesting.
  • o So you should be able to talk it about it with greater complexity and authority. Don’t go crazy and add new ideas—remember you’re wrapping things up.
  • Confutation as Conclusion: You may be able to write a conclusion that includes confutation. Why might this be a useful strategy? Why might it be problematic?

Understanding the difference between claim and conclusion

  • the conclusion is similar to the claim
  • and yet more detailed and complete in meaning.
  • Notice the relationship between the CLAIM and the Conclusion in this example:

The story of “The Frog King, or Iron Henry” illustrates and even promotes the importance of consent in relationships.

In this way, the story highlights the importance of understanding and respecting the value of consent. This tale teaches readers to stand up for themselves and refuse to give in to situations that will clearly cause discomfort or danger.

Keep this guidance and these examples handy as you draft your essay, and remember that I’m happy to answer questions and review drafts within the time constraints announced in class.

Introduction to Literature Copyright © by Judy Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Literary Journal

How to Write A Response to Literature Essay

How to Write A Response to Literature Essay

posted on September 19, 2023

Writing a response to literature essay can be a challenging task, especially if you are not familiar with the assigned literary work or if you are not confident in your writing skills. However, with practice and guidance, you can learn to write effective response to literature essays that demonstrate your understanding of the work and your ability to think critically about it. 

Table of Contents

So, yes, we would be giving you the proper guidance but first, let’s briefly introduce you to the concept of response-to-literature essay. 

If you are a student of literature, you have probably come across the term “response to literature essay.” This type of essay requires you to read a piece of literature and then write an essay that responds to it. The response can be in the form of an analysis, interpretation, evaluation, or critique of the literary work.

A response to literature essay is a common assignment given to students in literature classes. It is designed to help you develop critical thinking skills and to deepen your understanding of any given literary work. The essay requires you to read the literary work carefully, pay attention to its themes, characters, plot, and other literary elements. You then need to analyze these elements and write a thoughtful response that demonstrates your understanding of the work.

Tips for writing a response to literature essay

Introduction done, we shall now explore some tips and strategies for writing a successful response to literature essay.

How to Write A Response to Literature Essay

  • Understanding the Literature

When it comes to writing a response to literature essay, it is crucial to have a deep understanding of the literary work you are analyzing. This section will cover some key aspects of understanding literature that will help you write a more effective essay.

  • Identifying Themes

One of the most important aspects of understanding literature is identifying its themes. Themes are the underlying messages or ideas that the author is trying to convey through the story. To identify the themes of a literary work, you need to pay close attention to the characters, plot, and setting, and look for patterns and recurring motifs.

Once you have identified the themes of a literary work, you can use them to guide your analysis. You can explore how the author develops and conveys these themes, and how they relate to the larger context of the work.

  •  Character Analysis  

Another important aspect of understanding literature is analyzing the characters. Characters are the people or entities that drive the story forward, and their actions and motivations are often central to the themes of the work.

To analyze characters, you need to pay close attention to their personalities, motivations, and relationships with other characters. You can also look at how the author uses character development to advance the plot and convey themes.

  • Setting Exploration  

Finally, understanding the setting of a literary work is crucial to writing an effective response to literature essay. The setting is the time and place in which the story takes place, and it can have a significant impact on the themes and characters of the work.

To explore the setting of a literary work, you need to pay attention to the details that the author provides about the physical environment, the social and cultural context, and the historical period in which the story takes place. You can use this information to analyze how the setting shapes the characters and themes of the work.

By understanding the themes, characters, and setting of a literary work, you can write an insightful and engaging response to literature essay. 

  • Formulating a Thesis Statement  

When writing a response to literature essay, it is important to have a clear and concise thesis statement. Your thesis statement is the main idea or argument that you will be making in your essay. It should be specific and focused, and it should reflect your interpretation of the text.

To formulate a strong thesis statement, you should consider following these steps:

  • Read the prompt carefully : 

Make sure you understand what the prompt is asking you to do. Identify the key words and phrases that will guide your analysis.

  • Choose a topic : 

Identify a topic that you want to write about. This could be a theme, a character, a symbol, or any other aspect of the text that interests you.

  • Brainstorm : 

Think about your topic and generate ideas. Write down everything that comes to mind, even if it seems unrelated or unimportant.

  • Narrow your focus : 

Review your brainstorming notes and identify the most important and relevant ideas. Narrow your focus to one or two key points that you want to make in your essay.

  • Write your thesis statement:  

Use your narrowed focus to write a clear and concise thesis statement. Your thesis statement should be a single sentence that states your main argument or point of view.

Remember that your thesis statement should be arguable and supported by evidence from the text. Your thesis statement should also be specific and focused, rather than broad and general. By following these steps, you can formulate a strong thesis statement that will guide your response to literature essay.

Creating a response to literature essay outline

How to Write A Response to Literature Essay 

When writing a response to literature essay, creating an outline can help you organize your thoughts and ensure that you include all the necessary elements. An outline is a plan for your essay that includes the main points and supporting details.

  • Introduction Outline

The introduction is the first paragraph of your essay and should include a thesis statement that clearly states your argument or interpretation of the literary work. Here is an example outline for an introduction:

  • Background Information
  • Thesis Statement

The hook is a sentence or two that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to keep reading. Background information provides context for the literary work and helps the reader understand your argument. The thesis statement is the main point of your essay and should be clear and concise.

  • Body Paragraphs Outline

The body paragraphs of your essay should provide evidence to support your thesis statement. Each paragraph should focus on a specific point and include evidence from the literary work. Here is an example outline for a body paragraph:

  • Topic Sentence

The topic sentence is the main point of the paragraph and should relate to your thesis statement. Evidence can be a quote or paraphrase from the literary work that supports your argument. Analysis explains how the evidence supports your argument and should include your own interpretation. The transition sentence connects the paragraph to the next one.

  • Conclusion Outline

The conclusion is the last paragraph of your essay and should summarize your main points and restate your thesis statement. Here is an example outline for a conclusion:

  • Restate Thesis
  • Summarize Main Points

Final Thoughts

Restate your thesis statement in a different way than you did in the introduction. Summarize your main points briefly and explain how they support your thesis statement. Final thoughts can include a call to action or a broader implication of your argument.

By creating an outline for your response to literature essay, you can ensure that you include all the necessary elements and organize your thoughts in a clear and concise manner.

How to write a response to literature essay

Now that we have our outline or response to literature essay format, we should be concerned with writing the essay. What does this process entail? 

How to Write A Response to Literature Essay

When writing a response to literature essay, there are three main parts that you need to focus on: Introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. Each part has its own purpose and structure, and it is important to understand how they work together to create a cohesive and effective essay. 

This section of our composition shall not only examine the three major parts but also the sequential approaches. So, for instance, you would get to know what should follow after writing the content. 

  • Introduction Writing

What do you suppose introduction writing is, as the name implies? 

Well, it is the opening part of your essay, and it serves to introduce the reader to the literary work you are analyzing and provide some context for your analysis. Start with a hook that grabs the reader’s attention and briefly introduces the literary work you will be analyzing. Then, provide some background information about the work, such as the author, the title, and the genre.

After you have introduced the work, provide a thesis statement that outlines the main argument of your essay. Your thesis should be clear, concise, and specific, and it should provide a roadmap for the rest of your essay.

This part of a response-to-literature essay doesn’t usually take the same place for different writers, while it is the first thing on some papers, it comes after the writer’s details (such as name and class) on other papers. Whether one would be following the latter or former hinges on the writer’s choice or nature of assignment. 

  • Body Paragraphs Writing

A lot goes into this part of your essay. The body paragraphs are the meat of your essay, and they should support your thesis with evidence from the literary work. Each body paragraph should focus on a specific point that supports your thesis, and it should include evidence from the text to back up your argument.

Start each body paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces the point you will be making. Then, provide evidence from the text to support your argument, and analyze that evidence to show how it supports your thesis. Be sure to use quotes from the text to support your analysis, and make sure to explain how each quote relates to your argument.

Further, you can decide to do a kind of comparison and juxtapose the effects of the work you’re responding to with that of a similar work. For instance, if one is asked to discuss Elsie’s Night, one can decide to do some comparison of the work with Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Little Girl. Why? Both works have relatively similar psychological settings. 

Making reference to some parts of the work you’re responding to and comparing it to another work can help solidify and accentuate your argument. Take note. 

You might also discuss the significance of the work, its relevance to contemporary issues, or its impact on literature as a whole.

For a better understanding of this context, I would recommend that you read our article on the main purpose of a response-to-literature essay . Remember that to avoid abuse of a thing, its purpose must be known. 

  • Conclusion Writing

The conclusion is the final part of your essay, and it serves to wrap up your argument and provide some final thoughts on the literary work. You can start by restating your thesis in a new way, and then summarize the main points you made in your body paragraphs.

Finally, provide some final thoughts on the literary work and your analysis. Be sure to end your essay on a strong note that leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

  • Revising and Editing

When it comes to response to literature essays, revising and editing are crucial steps to ensure that your essay is well-written and error-free. 

Review. Before submitting your response to literature essay, you should always review your work. Review is more or less like proofreading. 

You want to start this process with a self-review, first. It is a process where you read your essay and make changes to improve its quality. The act of reviewing may include asking someone else to read your essay and provide feedback on the lapses they think you should work on. 

Here are some other tips for self-review:

  • Go through the work again to check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.
  • You may want to read your essay aloud to catch errors that you may not notice when reading silently.
  • Ensure that your essay has a clear and concise thesis statement that reflects the main idea of your essay.
  • Make sure that your essay has a logical structure and that your paragraphs are well-organized.
  • Check that your essay has a conclusion that summarizes your main points and restates your thesis statement.

Having ensured this, do not hesitate to make the necessary corrections in your work if they are things you can do yourself. 

On a final note, you should appreciate everyone that has taken their time to be involved in the reviewing of your work. 

If you need to see what our format will eventually produce when carefully followed, we’d recommend you look up some examples of well-written response to literature essays . Prose is a free genre. Unlike poetry, you’d see yourself how writers wrote the examples we linked to in diversified ways. 

A response-to-literature essay is not something complex to write as you might have thought. It just has to be a well-written, logical argument to support what you think about a literary work.  

Writing a response to literature essay can be a rewarding experience that allows you to explore the deeper meanings and themes of a literary work. Throughout the essay, you have analyzed the text and provided your own interpretation and evaluation of it.

As you wrap up your essay, it is important to remember to restate your thesis statement and summarize your main points. Doing this helps to actuate your argument and leave a lasting final impression on your reader.

More so, it is important to review your essay carefully to ensure that it is free of errors and flows smoothly. 

Conclusively, writing a response to literature essay requires critical thinking, analysis, and strong writing skills. By following the guidelines and tips outlined in this article, you can compose a compelling and effective essay that showcases your understanding and appreciation of a literary work. Protection Status

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purpose of response to literature essay

Response to Literature: Purpose

Contributor: Delaine Thomas. Lesson ID: 12328

You've decided to write a response to literature paper (or were assigned one!). Either way, there's a purpose: to persuade someone to either read the book or run from it. Learn how!

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Have you ever been so caught up in a book that you felt you were one of the characters?
  • Wouldn't it be fun to write your own book review to share with others?

Sometimes, when you read a really good book, you feel like you become part of the action — maybe to the point of sensing that you become one of the characters.

These interactions with literature are priceless, and the book that generated those emotions should be shared with others in hope that they have the same experience. One of the best ways to convince someone to read (or not read) a piece of literature is to share a written response to literature.

Before continuing, if you missed or need to review the previous Response to Literature   Related Lessons , you can find them in the right-hand sidebar.

Sometimes, you may need a little push to get your thoughts about a book moving, even if you really did enjoy the book. Here are a few ideas that may help you focus:

  • Think about the characters in the story and if any of the characters have changed over the course of the book.
  • Compare yourself, someone you know, or a famous historical figure, to the main character.
  • You might even think about the characters' names and why the author decided to name them as he or she did. Do you think there is some significance or purpose?
  • What about setting? Does the setting remind you of somewhere you've been?
  • Maybe you'd rather think about the title, and whether the book should be named something else.
  • You can also discuss the theme of the book, and how it is develops through the characters' actions. Your topic can be as simple as, "I think the book teaches us about ... "
  • Or you can go deeper and try to predict what may have happened prior to the start, or after the ending, of the book, and why.

Whatever you choose as your purpose for writing your response, you need to stay on topic to produce a well-written paper.

Generally, every response to writing includes a summary of the book, a description of the characters, what happened in the plot, and whether you liked it or not. The answer to your overall response question, which will be your topic sentence, must be supported by text-based evidence. Your response is strengthened when you summarize passages and include direct quotations from the text. This text evidence is used to support the topic or response you selected.

There are three basic sections in a response to literature essay: introduction, body, and conclusion.

In the introduction , provide the title of the book, the author’s name, and a brief summary of the book. In your summary, briefly lay out the main events of the story and discuss the traits of the main characters. Then, state your topic to let your reader know what aspect of the book you will discuss in your paper. State three reasons that support your opinion.

In the body , you will begin addressing your opinion, starting with your first reason and using evidence from the text to back it up.

Start a new paragraph for each of your three reasons. Use personal connections to the book, such as your own experiences and what you already know, as well as your text evidence, to build a strong argument to support your opinion.

End your paper with a concluding paragraph that summarizes your argument and tells your reader if they should read the book and why. As always, do not introduce any new information in the closure because this new information may have an unwanted effect on the point you are attempting to make.

In short, a response to literature paper follows a basic essay format, and can best be described as a combination of a persuasive essay (you are trying to convince your reader to see your point of view on the novel), and a research paper (you are investigating the text for factual information to support your claims).

Before continuing to the Got It? section, discuss the answers to the following questions with your teacher or parent:

  • What is a response to literature?
  • What is included in a response to literature introduction?
  • What is included in the body?
  • Why do you need to include text evidence?
  • How is evidence presented in the paper?

Remember, when writing a response to literature, you want to use a book that left you with a strong impression.

Continue on to the Got It? section to examine a sample essay.

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Related Lessons

  • Response to Literature: Introduction Part I
  • Response to Literature: Introduction Part II
  • Response to Literature: Expressing Ideas
  • Response to Literature: Citation

Additional Resources

  • Writing a Response Paper  (Mometrix Academy)

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How to Write a Response to Literature Essay

Soheila battaglia.

Even if youare writing an essay in response to fairy tales like

In most English courses you will be required to read literature -- and then you will have to write about it. In order to successfully write an essay in response to a text, you must have a clear point, and you must read and analyze the characters, themes and language for support and evidence.

Explore this article

  • Thesis Statement
  • Figurative Language

1 Thesis Statement

While you should evaluate various elements of a literary text to write an essay, you ultimately need to be making a single point. Your point can address the story's themes, the author's intentions, the relationship between the text and the world today or specific aspects of the story, play or poem. This point is encapsulated in a single sentence, in the form of a thesis statement, and included in the introductory paragraph of the essay. The function of the rest of the essay is to explain and prove this statement.

2 Characters

In the case of fiction and drama, the role of characters is a key source of information. You can reflect on how the characters change throughout the text, what important decisions they make and how their decisions reveal their values. You can also address the conflicts they face -- within themselves, with other people and with forces such as nature or God. For example, in an essay on Kate Chopin's novel "The Awakening," you could write about the protagonist's conflict with Victorian society and the limitations placed on women.

Theme must be addressed in all literary essays. It can expressed in literature in various ways, usually implicitly, and can be identified through inference and interpretation. For example, you may be given a specific theme such as "loss of innocence," and asked to compare how the theme is manifested in two different texts. Or you may be asked to identify major themes in Langston Hughes' poetry. Make certain to provide the reader with evidence, in the form of specific quotations, to support your analysis and evaluation of theme.

4 Figurative Language

Figurative language is particularly important in analyzing poetry. Examples of figurative language include metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole and personification. University of North Carolina at Pembroke states that it "usually involves a comparison between two things that may not, at first, seem to relate to one another." Figurative language allows the author to express abstract ideas and to communicate emotion by creating new relationships or evoking commonly held beliefs.

  • 1 Purdue Writing Lab: Writing About Poetry
  • 2 University of North Carolina at Pembroke: All American - Glossary of Literary Terms

About the Author

Soheila Battaglia is a published and award-winning author and filmmaker. She holds an MA in literary cultures from New York University and a BA in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. She is a college professor of literature and composition.

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English Essay Writing

How Do I Write a Research Report? Part Two

How Do I Write a Response-to-Literature Essay? Part Two

How Do I Write a Response-to-Literature Essay?

  • By English Essay Writing Tips

The Response-to-Literature Essay

by Owen Fourie

~ Part One ~

Whenever I have given this exercise to students, I have found that some have difficulty in distinguishing between a response-to-literature essay and a summary essay.

Know the difference

Let’s say that you have finished reading a novel. You are given two assignments on that one novel–it’s a bad dream, so don’t worry. In the first assignment, you are required to give a summary; in the second, you have to write a response.

For the first exercise, you will summarize the plot in your own words.

If you go to the post “ How Do I Write a Summary Essay? ” you will see what you need to do. 

For the second exercise, you are offering a critique–your criticism–of the novel.

This does not mean that the response essay is entirely without a synopsis of the work. It should give a brief summary, particularly where it provides the background to the point or the idea that is the focus of your response.

Although some instructors prefer it, such summarizing need not stand as a distinct part of the essay. It can be woven into your analysis to appear as needed for the background to a specific point that you are making as you develop your critique.

While a summary essay will show your comprehension of the novel and its plot, the response essay should demonstrate your critical analysis of the literary work.

Be a prepared student

Whether you are writing a summary essay or a response essay, the prepared student is one who is in the habit of making notes while reading literature. Use webs, charts, diagrams, maps, and tables for your notes. If you do this, you will find it a lot easier to handle your assignment.

If you do this as part of your routine, even if no assignment is given at the end of the reading, you will build up a valuable personal-development resource. You will be enhancing your study skills and equipping yourself to handle projects in any area of life.

Choose your focal point

In a response essay, there are several areas that could receive your attention. Some that you could write about are

  • the author’s style;
  • the author’s purpose in writing this particular work;
  • the background issues that prompted the writing: historical, social, economic, and political issues;
  • the characterization;
  • the symbolism used by the author;
  • the effectiveness of any foreshadowing in the story;
  • the figurative devices used by the author to tell the story and to bring out its deeper meaning: simile, metaphor, alliteration, hyperbole, and so forth;
  • a comparison between this novel and other novels by the same author;
  • a comparison between this novel and other novels by other authors in the same genre.

It is wise to choose only one of these aspects and to focus on that point by creating a thesis statement and supporting it thoroughly throughout your essay.

If you are reviewing a non-fiction work that is dealing with a practical issue, you may wish to consider whether the author’s thesis has contributed usefully to the debate and to the resolution of the problem.

Ask questions

In the particular area that you have chosen to be your focal point, you must ask certain questions:

  • In this matter, let’s say the background issues that prompted the writing, has the author succeeded or failed?
  • Are there weaknesses or strengths in the the author’s treatment of these issues?
  • Is there clarity or is it lacking?
  • Does it bring enlightenment about similar issues today?
  • Could the author have handled the matter more effectively?
  • Are there other works of the author where this particular point receives better (or worse) treatment?
  • Are there other writers in the same genre who have perhaps handled this point in a better way?

By asking such questions and doing whatever research is necessary to get the answers, you will be able to develop a critical response to literature. Obviously, you can do this only if you have read the work with attention to its detail and as you have grasped its message. The more you are able to read of the author’s other works and also of publications in the same genre by other authors, the better equipped you should be to give an acceptable, intellectual response.

Your response is not meant to be merely a description of how you feel about the novel. You can include that element, of course, but it forms only a small part of your overall response.

In my opinion, the response-to-literature essay is not a beginner’s exercise. It is for students who have had exposure to the writings of several authors in various genres and more than one work of each of those authors.

Response essays do not deal only with literature. Assignments may also be given to respond to plays and movies, but in this post and its sequel we are concerned only with literature.

In Part Two of this article, we’ll give attention to the introduction, the body, and the conclusion of the response-to-literature essay, and we’ll also consider a point about paragraphing.


What is your experience with writing response-to-literature essays? Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? How has the difference between summary essays and response essays been explained to you? At what point in your academic career were you first required to write a response-to-literature essay? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

Here are more articles to help you with English words , grammar , and essay writing .

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  • critical response essay , essay writing , how can i write an essay , how do you write an essay , how to write an academic essay , response to literature essay , write an essay , writing an essay , writing essay

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  • John Jones on March 5, 2012 at 22:45

i have a California writing test tomorrow. i couldn’t really understand the gist and critique. please help

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  • English Essay Writing Tips on March 6, 2012 at 08:12 Author

John Jones: I trust that you will see this response before the beginning of school today.

Have you read Part Two?

You’ll find a link to “gist” there. “It is something that lies in the center of a matter. It is the heart of the matter or the argument. It is the essence, the core, the essential point of an idea, a speech, a literary work.” You must be aware of the author’s main focus, the focal point of the book or short story or article.

Please read again Parts One & Two of “How Do I Write a Response-to-Literature Essay?” The critique is your critical analysis of the assigned literature. These articles guide you to focus on a particular point that you choose to critique or, to put it another way, that you choose to review, discuss, and analyze in relation to other parts of the same book, or to other books by the same author, depending on your grade level.

I sincerely hope this will help you. Good luck with your test!

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  • fatima gomez on March 5, 2012 at 21:12

i am in seven grade and tomorw is going to be my california seventh grade writing test.I was so worried but this hepled me alot.I recomd this website to alot of my classmates.

  • English Essay Writing Tips on March 5, 2012 at 22:00 Author

Fatima: Thank you for commenting. I am pleased that you have found this helpful. Your recommendation is appreciated. Good luck with your test tomorrow.

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  • jessie on December 12, 2011 at 11:07

i am a middle school student and i neeed help trying 2 rite my rtl what is a commentary and concreet detail

  • English Essay Writing Tips on December 12, 2011 at 12:00 Author

Jessie: Good question. If your rtl assignment specifically states that you must give a commentary and concrete detail, this is what you should understand by those terms:


Whatever portion of the assigned literature you choose to focus on, you should comment on it and explain it.

What is happening in this part? What do you understand about it? How does it relate to the plot? How vital is it to the plot? What does it reveal of the characters in the story? How would you interpret their actions and/or words?

Deal with questions like these and you’ll be giving a commentary.

Concrete detail:

In your commentary, you are referring to specific details in the story, even quoting relevant phrases, clauses, or sentences to give substance to the points you are making. In other words, you are not being vague or making irrelevant or meaningless comments.

I hope this will help you. Ask, if you need more clarification.

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purpose of response to literature essay

What is a Response To Literature?

  • Teaching Strategies, Tactics, and Methods

purpose of response to literature essay

A response to literature is, in many ways, the same as a response to a statement.

Think of a conversation or a discussion. One person says something, puts forward an argument or states a position, and the other responds by stating their position, opinion, or counterargument.

A response inherently draws from something else – it doesn’t and cannot stand alone. A response to literature, likewise, relies on a piece of literature to prop it up, to which it can act as a companion. It is drawn from this, and while it may not necessarily agree with the original text, without prior knowledge of the piece of literature it is removed from, it won’t make much sense to the reader.

In response to a literature essay, you give your opinion on a text through a reasoned argument.

What is the purpose of a response to a literature essay?

A response to a literature essay is to provide context on and criticism of the original text. You do this by proposing a theory about the original text your essay sets out to prove or disprove. You then detail why you believe this theory, using textual elements as evidence. If you’ve done it right, your argument should be proved or disproved at the end, just as you proposed.

Writing a response to a literature essay allows you to dive deeply into the original novel or poem. You can get to grips with the plot and characters, analyze the settings, and think about what messages the author wanted to convey; this helps you to gain a much better understanding of the text. It can also help others who read your essay because they should understand the text better.

Essentially, when you write a response to literature, you’re acting as a literary critic. You don’t have to like or dislike the text – you have to write about it in a way that demonstrates your understanding to the point where you can prove your theory.

What are the features of a response to a literature essay?

A response to a literature essay typically follows a particular structure like this:

You should start your response to the literature essay with a thesis statement, explaining the elements of the text you want to concentrate on and the points you wish to make about it; this may be a theory you want to prove or disprove based on the evidence provided in the text by the author.

There are numerous different elements you can choose from when you’re deciding what to concentrate on. These include:

  • Themes or morals
  • Background to the novel, such as contemporary social or political issues
  • The author’s writing style

A good statement will propose a question or theory about one of these elements – or a different element of your choosing. It should simply explain what point you’re setting out to prove. Keep your statement short, as you’ll go on to present evidence and prove your point.

In this section of your response to the literature essay, you should talk about the elements of the original text that sparked your question or theory. For example, the characters and settings and how they relate to your view. What evidence do these elements provide that strengthens your case?

It is where you demonstrate your thorough understanding of the text by delving into the characters and settings. Explain why and how you believe the author has portrayed them in a certain way. These things all provide essential background information and give context to your argument.

Concrete Details

Concrete details are facts about the text that can’t be argued with or interpreted differently. These are the actual events within the text and any background information the author has provided about social, economic, or political conditions at the time.

You should use these inarguable details as evidence to prove your argument. For example, suppose you’re arguing that a female character doesn’t deserve fate. In that case, you can use the way other characters treat her as evidence and any information the author has given you about what social conditions were like for women at the time.

Literary Styles and Devices

In this section, you should show how the author’s purpose coincides with your theory. Give examples of the way the text is written, and point out any literary devices the author has used which would back up your original argument. You can also demonstrate how the evidence you have already provided in your essay connects with what you believe to be the author’s intent. It would help if you used the author’s stylistic decisions to prove your point.

Your conclusion section is where you consolidate everything you’ve written so far. You should summarise precisely how each of your areas provides support for your argument and explain why you have reached the conclusion you have. Finally, tell your reader why the evidence you’ve supplied proves or disproves your initial theory about the novel, and wrap up satisfactorily.

How to write a response to literature

Writing a response to literature takes several steps:

Firstly, read the text. It’s impossible to respond appropriately to a piece of literature without understanding it. So ensure you pay close attention to what the writer is trying to say, the mechanics of how they do that, and what techniques and tricks they use. While you read, ask yourself why the writer might be trying to say something or using a particular image repeatedly. The writer may even be using a specific idea or technique for multiple purposes, all working to deepen the meaning behind the text.

For example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the image of nature is repeatedly evoked throughout the text. Shelley uses the character for various reasons, not only to underscore the unnatural nature of Victor’s monstrous creation but also to bring focus to the order and perfection of the natural world. The symbolic use of nature in the text also acts as a foreshadowing of something dreadful that is about to happen, which is an invocation in itself of classic Gothic writing.

The second step in writing a response to literature is to consider what you want to say. Just as the writer is free to write what they wish when they write a text, when you are writing a response, you are free to write whatever you like about it. Response to literature is about your opinion on that text, what you find interesting, or what you disagree with. You can discuss whatever you choose if you explain why you feel that way or hold that opinion.

The third and final part is to write your response. Again, be sure to draw plenty of examples from the text to support your arguments and to add weight to what you are trying to say.


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How to Write a Response Paper: Outline, Steps & Examples

response paper

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Response essays are a frequent assignment in many academic courses. Professors often ask students to share their thoughts and feelings about a variety of materials, such as books, articles, films, songs, or poems. To write an effective response paper, you should follow a specific structure to ensure that your ideas are well-organized and presented in a logical manner.

In this blog post, we will explore how to write a good outline and how it is used to develop a quality reaction essay. You will also come across a response paper example to help you better understand steps involved in writing a response essay.  Continue reading to explore writing tips from professional paper writers that you can use to improve your skills.

What Is a Response Paper?

It is vital to understand the meaning of a response essay before you start writing. Often, learners confuse this type of academic work with reviews of books, articles, events, or movies, which is not correct, although they seem similar.  A response paper gives you a platform to express your point of view, feelings, and understanding of a given subject or idea through writing. Unlike other review works, you are also required to give your idea, vision, and values contained in literal materials. In other words, while a response paper is written in a subjective way, a review paper is written in a more objective manner.  A good reaction paper links the idea in discussion with your personal opinion or experience. Response essays are written to express your deep reflections on materials, what you have understood, and how the author's work has impacted you.

Response Paper Definition

Purpose of a Response Essay

Understanding reasons for writing a reaction paper will help you prepare better work. The purpose of a response essay will be:

  • To summarize author's primary ideas and opinions: you need to give a summary of materials and messages the author wants you to understand.
  • Providing a reflection on the subject: as a writer, you also need to express how you relate to authors' ideas and positions.
  • To express how the subject affects your personal life: when writing a response paper, you are also required to provide your personal outcome and lesson learned from interacting with the material.

Response Essay Outline

You should adhere to a specific response paper outline when working on an essay. Following a recommended format ensures that you have a smooth flow of ideas. A good response paper template will make it easier for a reader to separate your point of view from author's opinion. The essay is often divided into these sections: introduction, body, and conclusion paragraphs.  Below is an example of a response essay outline template:

  • Briefly introduce the topic of the response paper
  • State your thesis statement or main argument
  • Provide a brief summary of the source material you are responding to
  • Include key details or arguments from the source
  • Analyze the source material and identify strengths and weaknesses
  • Evaluate the author's arguments and evidence
  • Provide your own perspective on the source material
  • Respond to the source material and critique its arguments
  • Offer your own ideas and counterarguments
  • Support your response with evidence and examples
  • Summarize your main points and restate your thesis
  • Provide final thoughts on the source material and its implications
  • Offer suggestions for further research or inquiry

Example of an outline for a response paper on the movie

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Response Paper Introduction

The success of response papers is partly dependent on how well you write the introductory paragraph. As with any academic paper, the introduction paragraph welcomes targeted readers and states the primary idea.  Below is a guideline on how to start a response essay:

  • Provide a compelling hook to capture the attention of your target audience.
  • Provide background information about the material, including the name and author of the work.
  • Provide a brief summary of main points to bring readers who are unfamiliar with the work up to task and enable them to follow up on your subsequent analysis.
  • Write a thesis statement at the end of your introductory paragraph to inform readers about the purpose and argument you are trying to relay.

Response Essay Thesis Statement

A thesis statement summarizes a paper's content within a sentence or two. A response essay thesis statement is not any different! The final sentence of the introductory paragraph of a reaction paper should give readers an idea of the message that will be discussed in your paper.  Do you know how to write a thesis statement for a response essay? If you follow the steps below, you should be able to write one:

  • Review the material you are responding to, and pinpoint main points expressed by authors.
  • Determine points of view or opinions you are going to discuss in the essay.
  • Develop your thesis statement. It should express a summary of what will be covered in your reaction. The sentence should also consider logical flow of ideas in your writing.
  • Thesis statement should be easy to spot. You should preferably place it at the end of your introductory paragraph.

Response Paper Body Paragraph

In most instances, the body section has between 1 and 3 paragraphs or more. You should first provide a summary of the article, book, or any other literature work you are responding to.  To write a response essay body paragraph that will capture the attention of readers, you must begin by providing key ideas presented in the story from the authors' point of view. In the subsequent paragraph, you should tell your audience whether you agree or disagree with these ideas as presented in the text. In the final section, you should provide an in-depth explanation of your stand and discuss various impacts of the material.

Response Paper Conclusion

In this section of a response paper, you should provide a summary of your ideas. You may provide key takeaways from your thoughts and pinpoint meaningful parts of the response. Like any other academic work, you wind up your response essay writing by giving a summary of what was discussed throughout the paper.  You should avoid introducing new evidence, ideas, or repeat contents that are included in body paragraphs in the conclusion section. After stating your final points, lessons learned, and how the work inspires you, you can wrap it up with your thesis statement.

How to Write a Response Paper?

In this section, we will provide you with tips on how to write a good response paper. To prepare a powerful reaction essay, you need to consider a two-step approach. First, you must read and analyze original sources properly. Subsequently, you also need to organize and plan the essay writing part effectively to be able to produce good reaction work. Various steps are outlined and discussed below to help you better understand how to write a response essay.

How to Write a Response Paper in 7 Steps?

1. Pick a Topic for Your Response Essay

Picking a topic for response essay topics can be affected either by the scope of your assignment as provided by your college professor or by your preference. Irrespective of your reason, the guideline below should help you brainstorm topic ideas for your reaction:

  • Start from your paper's end goal: consider what outcomes you wish to attain from writing your reaction.
  • Prepare a list of all potential ideas that can help you attain your preferred result.
  • Sort out topics that interest you from your list.
  • Critique your final list and settle on a topic that will be comfortable to work on.

Below are some examples of good topics for response essay to get you started:

  • Analyzing ideas in an article about effects of body shaming on mental health .
  • Reaction paper on new theories in today's business environment.
  • Movies I can watch again and again.
  • A response essay on a documentary.
  • Did the 9/11 terror attacks contribute to issues of religious intolerance?

2. Plan Your Thoughts and Reactions

To better plan your thoughts and reactions, you need to read the original material thoroughly to understand messages contained therein. You must understand author's line of thinking, beliefs, and values to be able to react to their content. Next, note down ideas and aspects that are important and draw any strong reactions.  Think through these ideas and record potential sequences they will take in your response paper. You should also support your opinions and reactions with quotes and texts from credible sources. This will help you write a response essay for the college level that will stand out.

3. Write a Detailed Response Paper Outline

Preparing a detailed response paper outline will exponentially improve the outcome of your writing. An essay outline will act as a benchmark that will guide you when working on each section of the paper. Sorting your ideas into sections will not only help you attain a better flow of communication in your responsive essay but also simplify your writing process.  You are encouraged to adopt the standard response essay outline provided in the sample above. By splitting your paper into introduction, body, and conclusion paragraphs, you will be able to effectively introduce your readers to ideas that will be discussed and separate your thoughts from authors' messages.

4. Write a Material Summary

For your audience to understand your reaction to certain materials, you should at first provide a brief summary of authors' points of view. This short overview should include author's name and work title.  When writing a response essay, you should dedicate a section to give an informative summary that clearly details primary points and vital supporting arguments. You must thoroughly understand the literature to be able to complete this section.  For important ideas, you can add direct quotes from the original sources in question. Writers may sometimes make a mistake of summarizing general ideas by providing detailed information about every single aspect of the material. Instead of addressing all ideas in detail, focus on key aspects.  Although you rely on your personal opinion and experience to write a response paper, you must remain objective and factual in this section. Your subjective opinion will take center stage in the personal reaction part of the essay.

Example of a Response Summary

Below is a sample summary response essays example to help you better understand how to write one. A Summary of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The classic film The Adventure of Robin Hood (1938), as directed by Michael Curtis and William Keighley, stars an infamous outlaw, Robin Hood, who "robbed from the rich and gave to the poor''. The charismatic and charming Saxon lord, Robin Hood (Flynn), becomes an outlaw and seeks justice for poor people by fighting Sir Guy of Gisborne (Rathbone), Sheriff of Nottingham (Copper), and Prince John (Rains), who were oppressing people. After assembling an outlaw group, Robin defies the excessive taxes imposed on poor people by stealing from wealthy individuals and redistributing wealth to the destitute in society. Robin Hood is eventually lured into an archery tournament and gets arrested, but survives an execution. He later helps King Richard to regain his lost throne and banish Prince John.

5. Share Your Reaction

After summarizing the original material, the second part of a response paper involves writing your opinion about author’s point of view. After a thorough review of the material, you should be able to express your perspective on the subject.  In this section, you are expected to detail how the material made you feel and how it relates to your personal life, experience, and values. Within the short response essay, you may also be required to state whether you agree or disagree with author's line of thinking. How does the material relate to current issues, or in what way does it impact your understanding of a given subject? Does it change your opinion on the subject in any way? Your reaction should answer these questions.  In addition, you may also be required to outline potential advantages and shortcomings of the material in your reaction. Finally, you should also indicate whether or not you would endorse the literal work to others.

Reaction in Response Body Paragraph Example

Below is a reaction in a response essay body paragraph sample to help you improve your skills in writing the response body paragraph: Reaction Paragraph Example

My main takeaway from watching The Adventure of Robin Hood (1938) is that society should prioritize good and justice over laws if the set rules oppress people. Prince John, Sir Guy, and Sheriff Cooper were cruel and petty and used existing laws to oppress and exploit poor people. In response, Robin Hood employed unorthodox means and tried to help oppressed people in society. I agree with his way of thinking. Laws are made to protect people in society and ensure justice is served. Therefore, when legislation fails to serve its purpose, it becomes redundant. Even in current society, we have seen democratic governments funding coups when presidents start oppressing their people. Such coups are supported despite the fact that presidency is protected by law. Although Robin Hood's actions might encourage unlawfulness if taken out of context, I would still recommend this film because its main message is advocating for justice in the community.

6. Conclude Your Response Essay

Do you know how to write a response paper conclusion? It should be the icing on the cake. Irrespective of how good previous sections were, your reaction essay will not be considered to be exceptional if you fail to provide a sum up of your reaction, ideas, and arguments in the right manner.  When writing a response essay conclusion , you should strive to summarize the outcome of your thoughts. After stating your final point, tell readers what you have learned and how that material inspired or impacted you. You can also explain how your perspective and the author's point of view intertwine with each other.  Never introduce new ideas in the conclusion paragraph. Presenting new points will not only disrupt the flow of ideas in the paper but also confuse your readers because you may be unable to explain them comprehensively.  You are also expected to link up your discussions with the thesis statement. In other words, concluding comments and observations need to incorporate the reaffirmation of the thesis statement.

Example of Response Paper Conclusion

You can use the responsive essay conclusion sample below as a benchmark to guide you in writing your concluding remarks: Conclusion Example

There are a lot of similarities between the film's message and my opinion, values, and beliefs. Based on my personal principles, I believe the actions of the main character, Robin Hood, are justifiable and acceptable. Several people in modern society would also agree with my perspective. The movie has provided me with multiple lessons and inspirations. The main lesson acquired is that laws are not ultimate and that we should analyze how they affect people rather than adhere to them blindly. Unless legislation protects people and serves justices, it should be considered irrelevant. Also, morality outweighs legislation. From the movie, I gathered that morality should be the foundation for all laws, and at any time, morality and greater good should be prioritized above laws. The main inspiration relates to being brave in going against some legislation since the end justifies the means sometimes. My point of view and that of the movie creators intertwine. We both advocate for human decency and justice. The argument discussed supports the idea that good and justice is greater than law.

Proofread Your Response Paper

It is important to proofread your response paper before submitting it for examination. Has your essay met all instructional requirements? Have you corrected every grammatical error in your paper? These are common questions you should be asking yourself.  Proofreading your work will ensure that you have eliminated mistakes made when working on your academic work. Besides, you also get the opportunity to improve your logical flow of ideas in your paper by proofreading.  If you review your work thoroughly before submitting it for marking, you are more likely to score more marks! Use our Paper Rater , it is a tool that can help you pinpoint errors, which makes going through your work even simpler.

Response Essay Examples

If you have never written this type of academic paper before, responsive essay examples should help you grasp the primary concepts better. These response paper samples not only help you to familiarize yourself with paper's features but also help you to get an idea of how you should tackle such an assignment. Review at least one written response essay example from the compilation below to give you the confidence to tackle a reaction paper. Response essay example: Book


Response paper example: Poem

Response paper sample: Movie

Example of a response paper: Article

Sample response essay: Issue

Response Paper Format

It is important to follow a recommended response essay format in order to adhere to academic writing standards needed for your assignment. Formats depend on your institution or the discipline.  A reaction paper can be written in many different academic writing styles, including APA, MLA, and Chicago, with each demanding a slightly different format.  The outlook of the paper and referencing varies from one writing style to another. Despite the format for a response paper, you must include introduction, body, and conclusion paragraphs.

Response Essay Writing Tips

Below are some of the best tips you can use to improve your response papers writing skills:

  • Review your assignment instructions and clarify any inquiries before you start a response paper.
  • Once you have selected topics for response essay, reviewed your original materials, and came up with your thesis statement, use topic sentences to facilitate logical flow in your paper.
  • Always ensure that you format your work as per the standard structure to ensure that you adhere to set academic requirements. Depending on the academic writing style you will be using, ensure that you have done your in-text citation as per the paper format.
  • If you have never worked on this kind of academic paper, you should review examples and samples to help you familiarize yourself with this type of work. You should, however, never plagiarize your work.
  • You can use a first-person perspective to better stress your opinion or feelings about a subject. This tip is particularly crucial for reaction part of your work.
  • Finally, before submitting your work, proofread your work.

Bottom Line on Response Paper Writing

As discussed in this blog post, preparing a response paper follows a two-step approach. To successfully work on these sections, you need to plan properly to ensure a smooth transition from the reading and analyzing the original material to writing your reaction. In addition, you can review previous works to improve your writing skills.  So, what is a response essay that will immediately capture the attention of your instructor? Well, it should have a captivating introduction, evidence backed reaction, and a powerful conclusion. If you follow various tips outlined above and sum up your work with thorough proofreading, there is no chance that you can fail this type of assignment.


Order a response essay from our academic writing platform! Send us a ‘ write my college paper ’ message and our experienced writers will provide you with a top-notch essay according to your instructions. 

FAQ About Response Paper

1. how long is a short response essay.

The length of a short response essay varies depending on topic and your familiarity with the subject. Depending on how long original sources are and how many responsive points you have, your reaction paper can range from a single paragraph of 150-400 words to multiple paragraphs of 250-500 words.

2. How to start a response body paragraph?

Use an argumentative topic sentence to start your responsive paper paragraph. Failing to begin a paragraph with an elaborate topic sentence will confuse your readers. Topic sentences give readers an idea of what is being discussed in the section. Write a responsive body paragraph for every new idea you add.

3. Is reaction paper similar to a response paper?

Yes. Reaction papers and response essays are used interchangeably. Responsive essays analyze author's point of view and compare them with your personal perspective. This type of academic writing gives you freedom to share your feelings and opinion about an idea. People also discuss how ideas, concepts, and literature material influence them in a response paper.


Daniel Howard is an Essay Writing guru. He helps students create essays that will strike a chord with the readers.

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How to Write a Literary Analysis

Literary Analysis

Reader-response criticism.

We have examined many schools of literary criticism. Here you will find an in-depth look at one of them: Reader-Response.

The Purpose of Reader-Response

  • why you like or dislike the text;
  • explain whether you agree or disagree with the author;
  • identify the text’s purpose; and
  • critique the text.

Write as a Scholar

Criticize with examples.

  • Is the text racist?
  • Does the text unreasonably puts down things, such as religion, or groups of people, such as women or adolescents, conservatives or democrats, etc?
  • Does the text include factual errors or outright lies? It is too dark and despairing? Is it falsely positive?
  • Is the text poorly written?
  • Does it contain too much verbal “fat”?
  • Is it too emotional or too childish?
  • Does it have too many facts and figures?
  • Are there typos or other errors in the text?
  • Do the ideas wander around without making a point?

In each of these cases, do not simply criticize, but give examples. As a beginning scholar, be cautious of criticizing any text as “confusing” or “crazy,” since readers might simply conclude that  you  are too ignorant or slow to understand and appreciate it.

The Structure of a Reader-Response Essay

  • title of the work to which you are responding;
  • the author; and
  • the main thesis of the text.
  • What does the text have to do with you, personally, and with your life (past, present or future)? It is not acceptable to write that the text has NOTHING to do with you, since just about everything humans can write has to do in some way with every other human.
  • How much does the text agree or clash with your view of the world, and what you consider right and wrong?  Use several quotes as examples of how it agrees with and supports what you think about the world, about right and wrong, and about what you think it is to be human.   Use quotes and examples to discuss how the text disagrees with what you think about the world and about right and wrong.
  • What did you learn, and how much were your views and opinions challenged or changed by this text, if at all?   Did the text communicate with you? Why or why not?   Give examples of how your views might have changed or been strengthened (or perhaps, of why the text failed to convince you, the way it is). Please do not write “I agree with everything the author wrote,” since everybody disagrees about something, even if it is a tiny point. Use quotes to illustrate your points of challenge, or where you were persuaded, or where it left you cold.
  • How well does the text address things that you, personally, care about and consider important to the world?   How does it address things that are important to your family, your community, your ethnic group, to people of your economic or social class or background, or your faith tradition?  If not, who does or did the text serve? Did it pass the “Who cares?” test?   Use quotes from the text to illustrate.
  • What can you praise about the text? What problems did you have with it?  Reading and writing “critically” does not mean the same thing as “criticizing,” in everyday language (complaining or griping, fault-finding, nit-picking). Your “critique” can and should be positive and praise the text if possible, as well as pointing out problems, disagreements and shortcomings.
  • How well did you enjoy the text (or not) as entertainment or as a work of art?  Use quotes or examples to illustrate the quality of the text as art or entertainment. Of course, be aware that some texts are not meant to be entertainment or art: a news report or textbook, for instance, may be neither entertaining or artistic, but may still be important and successful.
  • your overall reaction to the text;
  • whether you would read something else like this in the future;
  • whether you would read something else by this author; and
  • if would you recommend read this text to someone else and why.

Key Takeaways

  • In reader-response, the reader is essential to the meaning of a text for they bring the text to life.
  • The purpose of a reading response is examining, explaining, and defending your personal reaction to a text.
  • When writing a reader-response, write as an educated adult addressing other adults or fellow scholars.
  • As a beginning scholar, be cautious of criticizing any text as “boring,” “crazy,” or “dull.”  If you do criticize, base your criticism on the principles and form of the text itself.
  • The challenge of a reader-response is to show how you connected with the text.

Reader-Response Essay Example

To Misread or to Rebel: A Woman’s Reading of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

At its simplest, reading is “an activity that is guided by the text; this must be processed by the reader who is then, in turn, affected by what he has processed” (Iser 63). The text is the compass and map, the reader is the explorer. However, the explorer cannot disregard those unexpected boulders in the path which he or she encounters along the journey that are not written on the map. Likewise, the woman reader does not come to the text without outside influences. She comes with her experiences as a woman—a professional woman, a divorcée, a single mother. Her reading, then, is influenced by her experiences. So when she reads a piece of literature like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber, which paints a highly negative picture of Mitty’s wife, the woman reader is forced to either misread the story and accept Mrs. Mitty as a domineering, mothering wife, or rebel against that picture and become angry at the society which sees her that way.

Due to pre-existing sociosexual standards, women see characters, family structures, even societal structures from the bottom as an oppressed group rather than from a powerful position on the top, as men do. As Louise Rosenblatt states: a reader’s “tendency toward identification [with characters or events] will certainly be guided by our preoccupations at the time we read. Our problems and needs may lead us to focus on those characters and situations through which we may achieve the satisfactions, the balanced vision, or perhaps merely the unequivocal motives unattained in our own lives” (38). A woman reader who feels chained by her role as a housewife is more likely to identify with an individual who is oppressed or feels trapped than the reader’s executive husband is. Likewise, a woman who is unable to have children might respond to a story of a child’s death more emotionally than a woman who does not want children. However, if the perspective of a woman does not match that of the male author whose work she is reading, a woman reader who has been shaped by a male-dominated society is forced to misread the text, reacting to the “words on the page in one way rather than another because she operates according to the same set of rules that the author used to generate them” (Tompkins xvii). By accepting the author’s perspective and reading the text as he intended, the woman reader is forced to disregard her own, female perspective. This, in turn, leads to a concept called “asymmetrical contingency,” described by Iser as that which occurs “when Partner A gives up trying to implement his own behavioral plan and without resistance follows that of Partner B. He adapts himself to and is absorbed by the behavioral strategy of B” (164). Using this argument, it becomes clear that a woman reader (Partner A) when faced with a text written by a man (Partner B) will most likely succumb to the perspective of the writer and she is thus forced to misread the text. Or, she could rebel against the text and raise an angry, feminist voice in protest.

James Thurber, in the eyes of most literary critics, is one of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century, and his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is believed to have “ushered in a major [literary] period … where the individual can maintain his self … an appropriate way of assaulting rigid forms” (Elias 432). The rigid form in Thurber’s story is Mrs. Mitty, the main character’s wife. She is portrayed by Walter Mitty as a horrible, mothering nag. As a way of escaping her constant griping, he imagines fantastic daydreams which carry him away from Mrs. Mitty’s voice. Yet she repeatedly interrupts his reveries and Mitty responds to her as though she is “grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in the crowd” (286). Not only is his wife annoying to him, but she is also distant and removed from what he cares about, like a stranger. When she does speak to him, it seems reflective of the way a mother would speak to a child. For example, Mrs. Mitty asks, “‘Why don’t you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?’ Walter Mitty reached in a pocket and brought out the gloves. He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again” (286). Mrs. Mitty’s care for her husband’s health is seen as nagging to Walter Mitty, and the audience is amused that he responds like a child and does the opposite of what Mrs. Mitty asked of him. Finally, the clearest way in which Mrs. Mitty is portrayed as a burdensome wife is at the end of the piece when Walter, waiting for his wife to exit the store, imagines that he is facing “the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last” (289). Not only is Mrs. Mitty portrayed as a mothering, bothersome hen, but she is ultimately described as that which will be the death of Walter Mitty.

Mrs. Mitty is a direct literary descendant of the first woman to be stereotyped as a nagging wife, Dame Van Winkle, the creation of the American writer, Washington Irving. Likewise, Walter Mitty is a reflection of his dreaming predecessor, Rip Van Winkle, who falls into a deep sleep for a hundred years and awakes to the relief of finding out that his nagging wife has died. Judith Fetterley explains in her book, The Resisting Reader, how such a portrayal of women forces a woman who reads “Rip Van Winkle” and other such stories “to find herself excluded from the experience of the story” so that she “cannot read the story without being assaulted by the negative images of women it presents” (10). The result, it seems, is for a woman reader of a story like “Rip Van Winkle” or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to either be excluded from the text, or accept the negative images of women the story puts forth. As Fetterley points out, “The consequence for the female reader is a divided self. She is asked to identify with Rip and against herself, to scorn the amiable sex and act just like it, to laugh at Dame Van Winkle and accept that she represents ‘woman,’ to be at once both repressor and repressed, and ultimately to realize that she is neither” (11). Thus, a woman is forced to misread the text and accept “woman as villain.” as Fetterley names it, or rebel against both the story and its message.

So how does a woman reader respond to this portrayal of Mrs. Mitty? If she were to follow Iser’s claim, she would defer to the male point of view presented by the author. She would sympathize with Mitty, as Thurber wants us to do, and see domineering women in her own life that resemble Mrs. Mitty. She may see her mother and remember all the times that she nagged her about zipping up her coat against the bitter winter wind. Or the female reader might identify Mrs. Mitty with her controlling mother-in-law and chuckle at Mitty’s attempts to escape her control, just as her husband tries to escape the criticism and control of his own mother. Iser’s ideal female reader would undoubtedly look at her own position as mother and wife and would vow to never become such a domineering person. This reader would probably also agree with a critic who says that “Mitty has a wife who embodies the authority of a society in which the husband cannot function” (Lindner 440). She could see the faults in a relationship that is too controlled by a woman and recognize that a man needs to feel important and dominant in his relationship with his wife. It could be said that the female reader would agree completely with Thurber’s portrayal of the domineering wife. The female reader could simply misread the text.

Or, the female reader could rebel against the text. She could see Mrs. Mitty as a woman who is trying to do her best to keep her husband well and cared for. She could see Walter as a man with a fleeting grip on reality who daydreams that he is a fighter pilot, a brilliant surgeon, a gun expert, or a military hero, when he actually is a poor driver with a slow reaction time to a green traffic light. The female reader could read critics of Thurber who say that by allowing his wife to dominate him, Mitty becomes a “non-hero in a civilization in which women are winning the battle of the sexes” (Hasley 533) and become angry that a woman’s fight for equality is seen merely as a battle between the sexes. She could read Walter’s daydreams as his attempt to dominate his wife, since all of his fantasies center on him in traditional roles of power. This, for most women, would cause anger at Mitty (and indirectly Thurber) for creating and promoting a society which believes that women need to stay subservient to men. From a male point of view, it becomes a battle of the sexes. In a woman’s eyes, her reading is simply a struggle for equality within the text and in the world outside that the text reflects.

It is certain that women misread “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” I did. I found myself initially wishing that Mrs. Mitty would just let Walter daydream in peace. But after reading the story again and paying attention to the portrayal of Mrs. Mitty, I realized that it is imperative that women rebel against the texts that would oppress them. By misreading a text, the woman reader understands it in a way that is conventional and acceptable to the literary world. But in so doing, she is also distancing herself from the text, not fully embracing it or its meaning in her life. By rebelling against the text, the female reader not only has to understand the point of view of the author and the male audience, but she also has to formulate her own opinions and create a sort of dialogue between the text and herself. Rebelling against the text and the stereotypes encourages an active dialogue between the woman and the text which, in turn, guarantees an active and (most likely) angry reader response. I became a resisting reader.

Works Cited

Elias, Robert H. “James Thurber: The Primitive, the Innocent, and the Individual.”  Contemporary Literary Criticism . Vol. 5. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. 431–32. Print.

Fetterley, Judith.  The Resisting Reader . Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978. Print.

Hasley, Louis. “James Thurber: Artist in Humor.”  Contemporary Literary Criticism . Vol. 11. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. 532–34. Print.

Iser, Wolfgang.  The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981. Print.

Lindner, Carl M. “Thurber’s Walter Mitty—The Underground American Hero.”  Contemporary Literary Criticism . Vol. 5. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. 440–41. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise M.  Literature as Exploration . New York: MLA, 1976. Print.

Thurber, James. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”  Literature: An Introduction to Critical Reading . Ed. William Vesterman. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1993. 286–89. Print.

Tompkins, Jane P. “An Introduction to Reader-Response Criticism.”  Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism . Ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. ix-xxvi. Print.

  • Putting It Together: Defining Characteristics of Romantic Literature. Authored by : Anne Eidenmuller & Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution


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