How to write a reader response paper
Prof. Margaret O’Mara
What a reader response paper is:
A critical essay that tells the reader what a historical monograph (book) means to you. It
reflects a close reading of the work, contains specific examples drawn from the work
(documented parenthetically with page numbers), and provides your well-considered opinion of
the work’s strengths and/or shortcomings. The essay demonstrates that you have read the
book, internalized and contextualized its arguments, and can articulate and substantiate your
reactions to it.
What a reader response paper is not:
A descriptive summary of the book or of the historical events it describes. Assume your reader
has read the book and has a familiarity with the era under consideration.
A research paper. You may consult additional sources (other studies of the same subject; other
critiques of the book) if you like, but you are not required to do so. Use parenthetical
documentation rather than footnotes.
A classic “thesis” paper, in which you state a thesis argument at the front end and use the book
to support this thesis, reiterating the argument in the conclusion. The essay must have an
organizing argument (see below) but it should be more analytic than descriptive. Its intent goes
beyond proving a certain point of fact.
An opportunity for general opinionating (“I thought it was really good,” or “I thought it was
terrible”) nor an opportunity to make statements of opinion that are not supported by evidence
drawn from the text.
A test of whether you had the “right” interpretation of the book. This is a venue for you to tell
us what the book means to you. It should display thoughtful evaluation of the text and express
of how it may have contributed (or not contributed) to your understanding of a particular
period, and why.
Ask yourself the following questions as you prepare to write a reader response paper. You don’t need to
include the answers to these questions in your paper, but they can help you organize your thoughts and
decide what you’d like to write about in your response.
What were the main arguments of the book (hint: historians often put these in the
introduction, the conclusion, or both)? Did the author, in your opinion, do a decent job of
following through on those arguments? Why or why not?
How is the book “talking” to other parts of the historical literature? Is the author styling him or
herself as a particular type of historian (women’s historian, social historian, political historian,
etc.)? Who are their subjects? What is their purpose in writing this book?
What parts of the book did you like the most, and why?
How does this book relate to what interests you about American history? What did you learn
from it? If you didn’t learn much, why was that?