Friendly guidelines for writing a short response
February 5, 2009

There has been a lot of variety in the quality of the responses, so in the interest of your learning from the good work of your peers, I thought that I would put together some thoughts on the anatomy of a 200-word response. 

In this class, we are looking for you to understand arguments about different aspects of “information.” Ideally your responses will demonstrate some sort of comprehension of these arguments.  For the purposes of this class, doing these responses should help you prepare for the exams both by practicing writing short answer questions, and by learning the material that will be covered.  In life, learning to write concise arguments is a crucial skill for almost any profession, but one that most people lack. 

For many people, writing short responses is more difficult than long ones.  This is true for me and most of my colleagues.  With that in mind, here are some guidelines for the responses based on what we have seen so far.  These are meant to be helpful suggestions and not rules.

  1. Briefly respond to the question. Start by stating your response to the question in a sentence avoiding “I think…” and “I believe” statements.  Many of the questions have a “pick a side” format, in which case start by picking a side.  Assume that the readers (the instructors) have done the readings and read the question.  There is no need to summarize the readings or the question.  Use the space to offer evidence to support the side that you have taken.
  1. Offer evidence to support your response.
    1. The evidence you use to support your side comes from the readings.  It is better to misuse a piece of evidence from the text or misunderstand a set of arguments than to avoid these completely.  It takes a lot of discipline to stick to the text we are working with when you support your argument, but it is really the point of this kind of intellectual work – to state your understanding of the arguments and opinions of others clearly and concisely.
    2. If it is a question that asks you to take sides, make sure to acknowledge both sides.  If you are rejecting one author in favor of another, please say a little bit about where the rejected author fell short.
      1. Evidence can be in the form of:
        1. Paraphrasing parts of the readings that support your argument. If you are paraphrasing the readings, be very careful about the words that you choose.  Make sure that you are not editorializing about what the author is trying to say without making it clear that you are doing so.  For the purposes of the class it is crucial that you are able to summarize the texts, but because of limited space in your responses, avoid summarizing what you don't need for your argument.  Limit yourself to what best supports your argument

          2.      Very brief quotes from the readings that directly support your argument.  Be selective about what you quote because length is such an issue.  Don’t be afraid to use quotes around the author’s terminology where appropriate.  Use ellipses (...)  if necessary.

      2. Evidence should not come from personal anecdotes or opinion but from the readings themselves.    
  2. Proofread a few times.  The idea is to write something concise  and comprehensible to an audience that has read the texts you are commenting on.  Sloppiness is even more distracting and counterproductive towards the goal of communicating your point in a short answer.