On Writing Concise Critical/Creative Response Essays
As you know, you must write two 1-3 page critical response essays in this section of Novels and Tales, one due the Monday after October break and the other due the Monday after Thanksgiving break (although you are of course welcome to turn each in before their due dates). What follows here are the requirements for your critical response essays and more general advice on writing short analytical/persuasive essays of this kind. Feel free to contact me directly if you have any questions.
One last introductory note: you may substitute a creative response essay (or, more simply put, a short story that responds to one or more of the stories we've read) for one of these papers. If you choose the creative response option, you must get approval from and meet with me--more on this option a little lower on the page.
1. At the most general level, in your critical response essays you must present an argument about or offer an interpretation of at least one of the texts we've read in class. You should have a central question that you are trying to answer in your essay, and you should be working to persuade your audience that your answer is plausible by offering whatever evidence seems most relevant to your argument and audience.
2. When considering which question(s) to write on, keep in mind that your critical response essays should center on at least one of the following two subjects:
The best essays most likely will be those in which these two central subjects are linked in some way. Note that you don't have to answer all or even any of these questions in your paper. They are intended to get you started thinking about possible topics and approaches within the general subject of "ghosts" and "narrative." With my permission, you may choose another subject for your essay than these.
3. Because the paper length is so short, compression and conciseness are key. You should try to pack as much into this small space as possible. But don't bite off more than you can chew--it should be possible for you to answer the question you choose within the page limits of the assignment. This means that you have to choose your question particularly carefully, as well as rank the evidence for your argument so that you focus on the most telling moments in the text. Finally, you must be particularly ruthless about syntax and diction--make every word count, and cut or revise any words or phrases that aren't doing important work for your argument.
Note: I've numbered the paragraphs in this section to correspond to the numbering in the previous section.
1. The best way to make sure you are making an argument or offering an interpretation is to generate questions that you have about the texts we've read, choose one, and set out to answer it for yourself. You should choose a question that's interesting to you and that you believe you can show to be interesting to your classmates (the audience you should imagine for your essay). Moreover, you should choose a question that's truly debate-able, a question to which you can imagine several possible answers. Your job is to sort through the possibilities and convince your audience that your answer is the most plausible.
Much of this sorting process will take place before you ever sit down at a keyboard or desk to compose your answer. You should reread the story(-ies) you're writing on, mark significant passages, write questions or observations in the margins, take notes, brainstorm, make up lists or charts, doodle, try to produce an outline, free write--whatever "pre-writing" process works best for you at getting your interpretive juices flowing.
When you move on to the drafting and rewriting stages, remember that a key part of persuading your audience that your answer is plausible and your evidence is relevant is anticipating how they might react to your answer and evidence. By imagining possible objections or counter-examples and then either explicitly or implicitly forestalling them in the written essay, you show your audience that you are taking them seriously and that you have thought carefully about the question. It's much more persuasive to deal with a major objection or counter-example to your argument than to pretend it doesn't exist. In fact, one of the best ways to make your own thesis stronger is to try advancing a thesis that contradicts yours. Some people find this process of imagining counter-evidence and counter-arguments more helpful to do early in the pre-writing stage, others when revising their first draft. Find out what works best for you by trying out different approaches this semester.
You will most likely find that you need to write a first draft of much longer than three pages in order to a) figure out precisely what your main argument is and b) figure out how best to convince your readers of the plausibility of your argument. Therefore, it is in your best interest to give yourself time to not only write that longer first draft but also to go through a serious re-vision process--to select, prioritize, reorder, condense, and cut in light of putting your ideas as clearly, concisely, precisely, and persuasively as you possibly can. The upshot of this is that you should never, ever, decide not to pursue a line of thought in writing because doing so will take you over the page length. Follow the idea where it takes you. Most experienced writers don't write their first drafts with a set blueprint in mind--they generally discover what they mean or change their minds while writing. Worry about page lengths only after you've thought through the issue in writing to your satisfaction.
2. You should choose a subject on which you have a number of observations that you can string together or distill into a coherent argument or interpretation. Above all, choose something that interests you and on which you feel you have a perspective that's distinctive. Try to bring to our attention something that you've noticed about the story to which you feel that the group as a whole hasn't paid sufficient attention.
Whatever question you choose, you should be able to say why it is important. The more you think about this, the more effective your introduction and conclusion will be--you will be able to answer the "so what?" or "why should we care?" question with which most readers approach every piece of writing.
3. One consequence of the need for conciseness is that you may find that you need to rethink the "five-paragraph" essay structure you were probably taught in high school. (You know: the kind where you have a "funnel"-style introduction in which you move from a general observation to your specific, three-part thesis statement; a body consisting of three paragraphs of "evidence" for each of the three parts of your thesis, complete with topic sentences that restate each part of the thesis and a transition into the next paragraph's topic sentence; and a "reverse-funnel"-style conclusion that restates the thesis and takes it from the specific to the general.)
Although you should definitely hang onto the key elements of the five-paragraph essay--an introduction, body, and conclusion; a main argument; some kind of topic sentences and transitions; a sense of structure; and a consideration of evidence--you should definitely avoid the "funnel" and "reverse-funnel" styles of introduction and conclusion and absolutely avoid needless repetition. Cut to the chase. Develop your own personal voice and style of analysis and persuasion. The only thing your introduction must do is "hook" your readers and make them want to read the rest of the essay (this is usually done by giving them some sense of where the rest of the essay is going or what the point of the essay is). The only thing your body must attempt is to persuade your readers of the plausibility of your answer to your central question. The only thing your conclusion can't do is restate the thesis or move from the specific back to the general. Your conclusion should "shift gears" in some way, approach your answer from another angle or discuss what follows from it. Above all, be aware of the form and structure of your own writing: think about what points you want to make in what order--about the most effective way of ordering your essay so that it helps you persuade your audience of your point's validity.
In general, then, think of the critical response essay as a more formal reading response, in which you don't just make an observation or two and come up with some questions, but instead choose a specific question to focus on in some depth and think carefully about how you're going to go about answering it and persuading your audience of your answer's plausibility. I will be grading the critical response essay in terms of how well you make your case for your argument or interpretation of a story or stories.
The Creative Response Paper Option
The format, due date, subject, and process of writing the creative response paper are almost exactly the same as the critical response essay--the only difference is that rather than responding to a given text in an essay you do so in a fiction of your own. You may write more than three pages if you choose with this option, but you should go through the same process of generating possible questions, choosing one or more to focus on, and figuring out your answers to it or them. The difference here is in how you raise the question and present your answer to your readers. It all has to be done fairly implicitly. But you should have the same kind of point to make about the story you're responding to as when you write a critical essay. As with the critical response essay, you should be responding above all to the original story's treatment of the ghost in your story. Your goal should be to produce a meaningful distortion of the original text in your story.
Here are some possible ways to approach the creative response/short story option:
For instance, in the collection Haunted, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a story called "The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly," a direct response to Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. The story was largely told from Miss Jessel's and Peter Quint's point of view--as ghosts. There's much more to say about what Oates was trying to accomplish by doing this--what kind of implicit commentary she was making on James's approach to the ghost story--but I think just knowing her most basic move is enough to give you a sense of what one kind of "creative response" project would look like. Another example of such an approach can be found in The Woman Warrior, in the way Maxine retells her mother's "talk-stories" and legends from China (like the Fa Mu Lan story) in order to relate them to her own life.
As you can see, the creative response option is more difficult and riskier--harder to pull off successfully--than a typical critical response essay. On the other hand, it may also be more fun to write and will probably teach you more about the story you're responding to in the long run than any other approach.
I will be grading your story in terms of how well you imply what story you're responding to; how you choose to imitate, revise or otherwise respond to the original story; and how well you convey your larger implicit point(s) about that story or about ghost stories in general.
EN 209: Novels and Tales, Fall 1998
Last modified: 11/30/98, 11:59 pm