Guide to Informal Response Writing and Writing in General

PLEASE NOTE: In an effort to supply as much information as possible to help students succeed in this course, the following hints, tips and guidelines may be expanded or changed as needed:    

GENERAL FORMAT FOR NON-FORMAL CLASS WRITING: more specifics on| Introductions | Summary |  Responses | The Two-Part Response |Thesis | Basic Citing. For model of crediting/introducing text material being considered go to Intros. Also consult OWL for more information on close-reading a text.
  1. Titles: All response writing, as reflections, narrations, summaries, analysis, position pieces, answers to questions, etc. must have a thematic title (a phrase or a two-part title, not just a heading or restatement of the assignment) A two-part title is made of topic/idea : opinion/position (separated by a colon) e.g. Running: a Healthy Habit (= topic and comment/opinion).
  2.  When responding to a specific story, article or essay, providing answers to questions, writers should:
    • 2.1- begin by stating the title and author of the piece and the place where the reading was accessed. Example: In the essay, "Mother Tongue," by Amy Tan found in Backpack Writing, by Lester Faigley, Tan reflects on her experiences as a Chinese-American woman. 
    • 2.2 - as a rule, authors should not be referred to by their first name only, but last name only is fine, as is using their first and last. Varying usage is, of course, a good practice. 
    • Include personal/subjective thinking, observations, etc. Do avoid a sort of review or recommendation of the piece.
    • If a summary or other task is part of the requested writing, it is fine to use subheadings that help organize the writing and avoid preparing more than one document.
  3.  When responding to a specific question, in class writing or for an exam:
    • 3.1-- start the answer by restating the question or by including the essence of what is being asked in the opening sentence. For instance, question: What is the meaning of "love?"  An answer might be started this way: "The meaning of love is defined in many ways."  Then the answer would go on to name and give reasons and supports for the ways love might be defined. 
    • 3.2 - Identify and define key ideas and terms as they are used in the question or as they figure in the response
  4. THESIS: Thesis sentence/statement video demo of making a good thesis
    1. Must be (for this class...) a ONE SENTENCE declarative statement,
    2. NOT a question
    3. without citations
    4. without using "I" or pronouns (this, that, which, etc.)
    5. should be able to "stand alone," not depend writing before it, for full clarity.
    6. Must contain the TOPIC, the writer's POSITION and for the persuasion essay, the primary REASON(s).
    7. Should appear somewhere near the "start" of the essay, at end of paragraph 1 or 2, perhaps after any introductory "story element" to show the situation.
    8. will serve as a guide for the paper to the key ideas, reasons and general order of their presentation
    9. should be reflected in the 2-part title
    10. Should be underlined in work for this class in early drafts and in the proofed final version.  
  5.  Writers should AVOID:
    1.  any texting usages and write out acronyms the first time they are used in a piece of writing
    2.  using the second person ("you"-- see below for more)
    3. using absolutes, like "always, never," etc. Instead, use, "often, usually, mostly, almost always," etc.
    4.  using questions in titles or to introduce ideas: e.g. Who was Abraham Lincoln?  Instead, direct statements, like, "Abraham Lincoln was one our greatest American Presidents" is a much stronger, concise and authoritative way to convey information.
    5.  directing or commanding the reader, e.g. "So, shop wisely." Instead, this is a much less confrontational statement, "We should all shop wisely." Only when the writing is set up as a clear "how to" or set of instruction/directions, should writers use imperatives, i.e., commands.
    6.  using "Man or Mankind" to refer to human beings; instead, and more accurately, use "humans," "humankind," or "humanity." 
    7. AVOID passives for this kind of writing--(e.g. passive: "The cow was milked by Jack." --The direct statement: "Jack milked the cow," is better (unless the "actor" is not known). 
  •  INCLUDE dictionary definitions (as many as needed...) of unfamiliar and KEY words from EACH reading--even if they seem known...These can be woven into the writing and included in the student's personal glossary. The only citation needed for these response writings is an in-sentence reference like, " [or encyclopedia...etc.] defines ___________ as "_______." Or if different dictionary or encyc. is used, just state the title and edition. (For more formal writing, or if there are several sources used, a conventional Works Cited page would be included. If our handbook does not give guidance about how to list definitions, the dictionary consulted may, or to check the yourself enter it at, under the 58 other examples tab.)

Writing a Summary-- Always start with a topic/theme related title...not just, "Summary..."

A summary is a condensed version of a larger reading.  A summary is not an opinion-based "review" of the reading. It is not a rewrite of the original piece and does not have to be long nor should it be long.  To write a summary, use your own words to express briefly the main idea and relevant details of the reading. The purpose in writing the summary is to give the basic ideas of the original reading:  What it was about and what the author wanted to communicate. A strict summary does not make a clear value judgment about the writing or even state whether or not the writing succeeded in what it claims to communicate. That more subjective and evaluative information is more in line with what a thoughtful response does.

One way to think about the basic elements of the writing is to take note of what or who is the focus and ask the usual questions that reporters use: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?  Using these questions to examine the reading can help write the summary.

Sometimes, the central idea of the piece is stated in the introduction or first paragraph, and the supporting ideas of this central idea are presented one by one in the following paragraphs. Always read the introductory paragraph thoughtfully and look for a thesis (main idea) statement.  Finding the thesis statement is like finding a key to a locked door.  Frequently, however, the thesis, or central idea, is implied or suggested, which means it will be harder to figure out what the author wants readers to understand. Use any hints that may shed light on the meaning of the piece: pay attention to the title and any headings and to the opening and closing lines of paragraphs.

INTRODUCTIONS--In writing a summary (or ANY material based on a a text): 1) copy out the title (2) author and (3) publishing source or place (i.e. a web location) the piece was found.  This example formula for introducing this information works well:

     In "[title of article, chapter, or book]" from [ publication/ web location, etc.], author [ full name(s) ], shows that: [central idea of the piece].  The author supports the main idea by (using, providing, reflecting, stating, giving...) [ personal experience, factual data, summarizing authorities, etc.]  and showing that [ results/outcome of main state the main idea ]. So, when responding to a specific question or focus, ALWAYS restate the question or focus and briefly state how your thinking addresses it. Then further explain and support with evidence from the text to fully prove your thinking.

Depending on the length of the writing being summarized, a fairly detailed statement like the one above and one or two more sentences may be almost all that's needed. If the "reporter's questions" are addressed (with brief explanation as needed for clarity), the key points of the summary will be present. 

Writing a Response (to literature, essay, video or live presentation)


AS ABOVE, Be sure to include the title and author of the writing to be discussed, i.e. :

 In " [title of reading]" from [place published or accessed], author [full name], shows that: [central idea of the piece].  The author supports the main idea by [using, providing, reflecting, stating, giving...] _____________________ and showing that ______________________________________________________.

1. Key Idea: Response writings are informal, always from the student's point-of-view and require that the student has read and understood information presented. In order to create an effective response, students need to be honest, observant of the material and include evidence from the reading to support their thinking.
  • The response should have a brief opening, which explains main idea of the writing and the student's main reaction to the piece.
  • The body of the response should contain ideas/thinking that supports the student's opinion, including facts, ideas, and theories.
  • The conclusion should state or re-state why the student has responded in the manner they have.

2. To Students: A response writing is generally meant to provide the reader with a better understanding of how you personally feel about a particular subject. As such, when you write a response or reaction essay, you will discuss your personal thoughts and feelings on the subject at hand.

In many cases, a response or reaction essay is written in response to  a reading assignment, a video, or a special event. When you write response or reaction essays, you will discuss your personal feelings on an issue. Therefore, you will write your essay in the first person, which means you will use the word "I" while writing the document.

You, as the writer, will utilize facts that you know, information from your own experience or observations to help support your opinion. For example, if you are writing a response or reaction essay to something you have read, you might say something like "In my opinion, the story was very confusing because the author used too many words that were unfamiliar to me and she changed the point-of-view too often." Although someone else may not have had a problem with the words or with keeping up with the changes in point-of-view, it is a fact that you did not know many of the words and that the author did make frequent changes in the point-of-view of the story. In that case, you, as a student/learner, are required to look up the unfamiliar words and include them in your glossary.

After supporting your main idea (or thesis statement if that is required) with the body of your response, you will then need to write a conclusion. The conclusion is used to summarize what you have said and to once again state your main idea, or opinion. Be sure to state that main idea in a different way than you said it in the introduction, Finally, check over your work, add a thematic title and write your final draft.  (Summary and response notes above are a mix of points from various web sources and specifics supplied by this instructor. jt)

The TWO-PART RESPONSE:  Using the CLASS TEMPLATE, include (1) a thematic title (2) an introduction identifying the reading and author (3) add sub-headings to indentify  the "Summary" part and the "Response" part.

The "Summary" should be only 3-10 sentences (not as a bulleted list...) that restate the events/characters of the reading, without any evaluation or judgement, that is, objective/ impersonal.
The "Response" part should make up the balance of the writing and be the reader's own personal reaction. Specific observations and any exact use of the author's words to support personal reaction or thinking must have a credit to the author--not by first names. Please use a signal phrase to alert a reader that supporting evidence will follow, e.g. 'Smith describes the tree, "...."   Please use the page number (or the paragraph number if there is no page number) to locate any exact quote. More specifics/details below.


Whenever ideas or quotations from a source--beyond personal thinking, or experience--figure into writing, appropriate credit must be included. Certainly, most of us would find it hard to cite the origins of all of our thinking, but  because information from our text materials, or another identifiable source are part of most of these writings, writers should simply make accurate credits. In parenthetical documentation style, this courtesy is very easy. Within the sentence, next to the cited material/idea, writers simply place in parenthesis, the author's plain last name only (no initials, titles, etc.) and the page number of the information being cited, e.g. for an independent source, (Brown 34), or in a collection, e.g. (Brown in Faigley 57)--don't use "page" or "p." in MLA. As in the example here, the period which ends the sentence goes outside the close parenthesis mark--no . Credit can also be given as a grammatical part of the sentence itself, but everyone should get comfortable with giving credit as part of our ethical behavior, as simple consideration, and because it adds to our credibility as writers. Also see: OWL Citing Guide

Citing Paragraphs when no page numbers are present (a web page or other reproductions):

  1. Confirm that the document does not contain page numbers and that its paragraphs are numbered. [For class purposes it is acceptable to count and number the paragraphs yourself. jt]

  2. Format the numbered paragraph reference. Use parentheses, abbreviate "paragraph" or "paragraphs" as "par." or "pars.," followed by the paragraph number, as in (par. 12) or (Daniels, pars. 3-5). For the author inclusion, note the comma insertion that differs from the format for page references.

  3. Insert a short, identifiable version of the work's title in the citation if multiple works by one author are used as references. Place the short, identifiable version of the title between the author's name and the paragraph. An example is: (Trickle, "Bulwarks and Ballasts," par. 9)

Read more:


The primary purpose of this writing is to stimulate thinking and limber the "writing muscle," i.e. honest, individual thinking. The most important part of this writing is that it not be reworked and revised beyond what is needed for correct spelling and basic clarity. If it works to think of this writing as a record of "internal" conversation, or even a journal entry, writers can assume whatever allows a flow of ideas, and the energy of speaking, into words. Writers should delve into questions the reading may pose, or even speculate about issues the reading suggests.   


Though "you" is commonly used in conversation, even in this informal journal-writing style, writers should avoid using "you," especially when "I" or "we" is more accurate. When making a general, non-specific reference to what anyone might do, it is more accurate to use, anyone, people, most everyone, even one, though it may seem a little stuffy these days. For these writings, the use of "I" is fine to make it very clear what each person's own thoughts or experiences are, or by using "we," to be a bit more inclusive, or "a person," or still another general referent to indicate broad human experience. Using "you" risks confronting or, even, accusing the reader. This is not political correctness; it's just a matter of simple truthfulness, courtesy and consideration.  Also, to avoid making broad absolutes like, "Everyone loves puppies," writers should be sure to allow for individual differences by using most, usually, often, with these references--try, " Almost everyone loves puppies." Using "you" only when addressing the reader directly, or when quoting someone else's use of it, will keep things as clear and courteous as possible. 


In these reflective writings, it's very important for each student to use personal experience that seems connected to the topic or the particular train of thought. Studies clearly show that we all seem to make sense of the world by comparing what is new to what we already know. When we allow the nuts and bolts of this process to surface in our thinking, we seem to make better sense and so, make our writing more understandable and convincing. While more formal, less personal writing may not make use of such material directly, these looser, thoughtful pieces help us know ourselves and the grounding of our ideas, still better. The confidence this background data produces, increases the authority and clarity of our writing voice. Most of all, ENJOY this chance to write from the heart as well as the analytic mind!


While these writings are meant to be thoughtful but informal, writers should also be comfortable with what the writing states. These aren't intended as deeply personal confessionals, vents for anger, or soapboxes for one reason or another. Writers should simply be sure that the ideas they put down are both honest and appropriate to be shared with the class and the instructor--or, intended or not--even with the wider world, in this internet age.

Copyright - Jane Thielsen ~ 2011 -  All rights reserved