1. Pay close attention to what you're reading.
This may seem too obvious to even say, but we're saying it anyway. You can't put together a solid response to something you've read without actually giving it your full attention. Pore over the text carefully, take your time and complete a close reading of the work. Take notes in the book's margins or on a separate sheet of paper if you think that will help. In fact, beyond just assisting retention, taking notes can help you engage your mind with the reading material early. That makes it easier to craft a response to that material when you're finally called upon to do so.
2. Find an angle to take with your response.
Don't just regurgitate plot points or key developments in whatever you read, or all you're doing is writing a summary. Be critical. Look beneath the surface to try to discover the mechanisms by which the text you're reading operates. You can do this whether you're reading fiction or nonfiction. Ask yourself meta-questions. Why do story elements unfold the way they do, beyond what's stated? Why did the author structure things a certain way? How does what you're reading compare and contrast with other, similar stories? How do the in-text elements of what you've just consumed relate to the real world outside the text? You can find out more about analyzing texts in this step-by-step guide.
3. Craft your angle into an argument.
You've got something unique and interesting to say about what you just read. Now you have to tell your audience why it's unique and interesting. Your argument forms the heart of your paper. Take all the observations you made in step two and forge the ones that most compellingly work together into a pointed claim. Why are your observations correct, and why do they matter? You've got something to prove. This is how the real critics do it.
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4. Draw up an outline.
This is especially helpful if you have trouble actually committing your thoughts to paper and find that your essays tend to meander. Essay organization and outline building can significantly increase clarity and decrease the overall time it takes to write an essay. Create broad plans for your work before you actually start writing. Figure out what you want each paragraph to do. Ensure that every section in your paper has a place and contributes to your overall argument as established in step three. You want to avoid extraneous text in your essay as much as possible; not only does it waste your time, but it risks diverting your readers' attention. A good basic form to adapt (though obviously this has to be modified depending on the parameters of your assignment) is the 5-paragraph response: one introductory paragraph laying out the goal of your argument, three body paragraphs dedicated to evidence supporting your argument (one main idea per paragraph) and one concluding paragraph that sums up your major points and in the end pushes your argument just a bit more forward, perhaps by bringing to light one additional point not discussed in your response's body.
5. Provide relevant textual examples.
If argument forms the backbone of your paper, textual details are the meat. Make sure you can back up any and all of your assertions with textual evidence, either from your primary source or from other writings (if you care to or are made to do additional research). Supporting details are an important part of making an argument. Use expressive language to make your points, favoring action verbs and active voice. At the same time, keep an eye on the economy of your language - much as we discussed in step four, you don't want to inundate readers with too much extra detail. That means curtailing flowery word usage that doesn't really accomplish anything and knowing how much evidence you need to provide to back up your claims.
Again, this one seems obvious, but it bears stating. Have you heard the phrase 'writing is rewriting?' That's what this means. Proofreading is an essential step in the writing process. Read over your paper, making sure everything flows like you intend it to and that you provide sufficient support for the arguments you're making. Check for basic errors like spelling and grammar mistakes as well as more content-based issues like ill-explained terms or flimsy points. Your essay will reap the rewards.
These six steps should give you a simple framework by which to craft great response papers in the future.