Response To Literature Essay Format

The Response-to-Literature Essay

by Owen Fourie

~ Part Two ~

In Part One of this article, we considered the difference between the summary essay and the response essay, your choice of a focal point, and the questions that you need to ask in order to develop support for your thesis. In this second part, we’ll look at what is needed in the introduction, the body, and the conclusion of your essay. There is a point about paragraphing at the end of this post.

Write the Introduction

In the introduction, you need to do five things:

  1. In a complete sentence, state the title, the author, the publisher, and the date of publication.
  2. In a brief statement (one sentence, if possible) tell what is the gist of the work. (Examples of points 1 and 2 are given in “How Do I Write a Summary Essay?”)
  3. Briefly describe what you have chosen to critique, for example, the background issues that prompted the writing;
  4. State your thesis;
  5. Enumerate the points through which you will develop your critique. (In the correct procedure, you will have completed an outlinewhere your major points are listed.)

Compose the body

As you proceed to the body paragraphs, you develop your critique using the points on your outline. If you have four major points that make up your critique, you should devote at least one paragraph to each one.

Let’s say that you have an assignment to respond to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and you have chosen to deal with the background issues that prompted the writing and the author’s purpose.

Perhaps your thesis would state that Dickens succeeded in using the situation in France in the mid to late eighteenth century to awaken the minds of his readers to the conditions in England seventy years after the French Revolution. This is a valid thesis even though such a revolution did not occur in England as Dickens and others feared it might.

(The suggestion of this thesis is simply for the purpose of illustration in this article. Ideally, you should always take as your thesis statement something that is far less obvious, something that has escaped the attention of others.)

In the body of your essay, you would devote one paragraph to the historical issues, another to the economic conditions, the third to the politics, and the last to the social situation. You would be looking at these four categories as they occurred earlier in France and as they were found in the author’s time and place in England seventy years or so later. You would also be careful to provide supporting evidence for each claim that you make. In this way and by your research, you would set out to prove your thesis, which is your opinion and your response to this particular piece of literature.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Wrap it up

Unlike the summary essay where you do not have a conclusion apart from the resolution of the plot you have described, a response essay requires your conclusion. Be sure to do the following:

  • Refer to your outline to check that you have covered all the points in your writing;
  • Reduce the substance of your major points to a brief summary for your conclusion;
  • Restate your thesis and affirm that you have succeeded in proving it by the points you have made;
  • Give your overall impression of the work;
  • Try to tie the whole essay together in a final sentence that could perhaps state the relevance of the novel’s message and your thesis to our time.

Consider paragraphing

I would like to conclude this post with a brief consideration of paragraphing. This concerns all your academic writing, so its relevance is not confined to the response essay.

If you observe carefully, you will note the difference between the older type of literature and writing today particularly as you find it on the Internet and especially in blogs. It is the difference in the length and structure of paragraphs.

In the older literature, you will see that the paragraphs are generally longer and correctly formed with an opening topic sentence followed by supporting sentences and concluding with a transitional sentence to the substance of the next paragraph. Each paragraph develops a particular point.

The way paragraphing is done now is not necessarily correct. Paragraphs tend to be short and sometimes contain only one sentence. This is done quite deliberately to make the task of reading easier with plenty of white space. This serves to encourage the reader to get through the text. Longer paragraphs seem to make reading a hard task.

For your academic writing, however, you are expected to write longer paragraphs that focus on a point–a topic–that is developed logically to a conclusion that leads into the next point in a new paragraph. Do not take the present trend in paragraphing as a guide for your academic writing.


What is your experience with writing response-to-literature essays? Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? What is the level of prescribed reading that must be completed in your institution before a student is required to write a response-to-literature essay? Which form of paragraphing do you find easier to read–the older literary style or the shorter form that you see in blogs? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

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

Copyright © 2010 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.

Copyright © 2010 by English Essay Writing Tips

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