How to Write a Response Paper

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Most of the time when you are tasked with an essay about a book or article you've read for a class, you will be expected to write in a professional and impersonal voice. But the regular rules change a bit when you write a response paper.

A response (or reaction) paper differs from the formal review primarily in that it is written in the first person. Unlike in more formal writing, the use of phrases like "I thought" and "I believe" is encouraged in a response paper. 

You'll still have a thesis and will need to back up your opinion with evidence from the work, but this type of paper spotlights your individual reaction as a reader or viewer.

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Read and Respond

© Grace Fleming

For a response paper, you still need to write a formal assessment of the work you're observing (this could be anything created, such as a film, a work of art, a piece of music, a speech, a marketing campaign, or a written work), but you will also add your own personal reaction and impressions to the report.

The steps for completing a reaction or response paper are:

  • Observe or read the piece for an initial understanding.
  • Mark interesting pages with a sticky flag or take notes on the piece to capture your first impressions.
  • Reread the marked pieces and your notes and stop to reflect often.
  • Record your thoughts.
  • Develop a thesis.
  • Write an outline.
  • Construct your essay.

It may be helpful to imagine yourself watching a movie review as you're preparing your outline. You will use the same framework for your response paper: a summary of the work with several of your own thoughts and assessments mixed in.

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The First Paragraph

© Grace Fleming

After you have established an outline for your paper, you need to craft the first draft of the essay using all the basic elements found in any strong paper, including a strong introductory sentence.

In the case of a reaction essay, the first sentence should contain both the title of the work to which you are responding and the name of the author.

The last sentence of your introductory paragraph should contain a thesis statement. That statement will make your overall opinion very clear.

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Stating Your Opinion

© Grace Fleming

There's no need to feel shy about expressing your own opinion in a position paper, even though it may seem strange to write "I feel" or "I believe" in an essay. 

In the sample here, the writer analyzes and compares the plays but also manages to express personal reactions. There's a balance struck between discussing and critiquing the work (and its successful or unsuccessful execution) and expressing a reaction to it.

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Sample Statements

When writing a response essay, you can include statements like the following:

  • I felt that
  • In my opinion
  • The reader can conclude that
  • The author seems to
  • I did not like
  • This aspect didn't work for me because
  • The images seemed to
  • The author was [was not] successful in making me feel
  • I was especially moved by
  • I didn't understand the connection between
  • It was clear that the artist was trying to
  • The soundtrack seemed too
  • My favorite part was...because

Tip: A common mistake in personal essays it to resort to insulting comments with no clear explanation or analysis. It's OK to critique the work you are responding to, but you still need to back up your feelings, thoughts, opinions, and reactions with concrete evidence and examples from the work. What prompted the reaction in you, how, and why? What didn't reach you and why?