A Response Essay is quite different from ordinary scholarly writing. In fact, in many ways, it is the opposite of the traditional essay, in that, here, one is expected to speak very subjectively, offering personal opinions as opposed to reasoned argument. You may of course wish to incorporate reasoning into your work; but this is not the primary objective. Rather, your personal “response” is what is in order.
So, the Response Essay is a very liberating kind of composition. It gives you the opportunity to voice your own sentiment on a topic; to say what you feel and why.
Typically your tutor will want you to “respond” to some kind of text or artefact which deals in emotion, a book, film, song, speech, painting, et cetera; which is to say, an item which is likely to incite an emotional reaction.
In conveying your response, you will need to employ some order of evaluative thought. This is not merely a platform to spew vitriol or heap praise, at least, not without qualification. Here is the important part. You need to exercise judicious thinking. This means you are perfectly allowed to be scathing just as long as you can substantiate this negativity in reasonable manner. Consider your response to exist on a set of scales. The more heavily you detract from a work, then the more justification you have to give for so doing – until the scales balance.
Consider that it would not do to denounce a film as “the worst movie ever made” on the justification that “the set design was lacking in one scene”. There is a disproportion between the claim and the reason behind the claim. The scales are totally out balance. Similarly, we could not credibly assert that a film was the “best ever made” because it “had a wonderful credit sequence”. These factors may perhaps factor in to the judgement, but they cannot be the whole judgement.
A key part of a Response Essay is reflexive; it redounds back to you, the author. Do not hesitate to voice your opinion and so strongly. On this occasion, you are invited to say “I think”, “I feel”, “I believe”: phrases which would be utterly out of place in most other scholarly writings.
However, you always want to be transparent. Tell the reader why you think, feel or believe what you do. This is where self-analysis comes in. Oftentimes an emotional response comes to you as a reflex. That is, it simply happens on the instant; you do not necessarily know why. Maybe a particular painting is especially pleasing to you. But you are unable to determine the exact reason for this. This is very common. Emotions are abstract and elusive phenomena. Yet they are not completely out of our analytical reach. You need to try and isolate what you feel and then try to unpack that feeling, working out its component parts. This is a staple of analysis, pulling something apart so to identify the individual pieces and how they relate together. If you can deconstruct your own emotions you will be better positioned to figure out the cause and effect processes behind them. Discovering the cause (in the artwork) which had the effect (of the emotion) will provide a critical vantage point.
You cannot offer an assessment of any kind without comparative judgement. Something can only be deemed “good” in comparison to what is “not good”. Bear this in mind when writing up your response. If you find the item in question to be somehow lacking, think of a comparable text which is superior. Now try and distinguish the deciding factors which make the one a success and the other a failure. Using this comparative standard, you will find, offers an easy inroad to analytical writing. This will be a good methodological prop on which to place your emotional reactions. Intertwine your analyses and emotional response, so that the two play off one another.
As a final point, be yourself! Do not try and play to the crowd, writing what you presume your teacher wants. Expressing your genuine feeling will enliven the text. Candour and integrity tend to shine through in prose. Also, a unique opinion is far more interesting to the reader than a paint-by-numbers affair.
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