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Poets & Writers Toolkit: Read and Respond

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read and respond

“Do you have any homework?” I ask my step-sons each night they are with us. Sometimes the answer is no, but more often than not, at least one of them answers, “Just read and respond.”

Read and respond provides a great way for teachers to be sure that students are really reading. If they aren’t reading, how will they write about it? But even more, responding to reading is a way to engage with the ideas and reinforce comprehension. When my 9-year-old son has to describe the point of view of the narrator or suggest an alternate ending, he can do so only if he’s been paying attention while he was reading.

The technique of writing about what we’ve read isn’t just a tool for teachers. Writers often use another’s words to launch their own ideas. Newspaper readers write letters to the editor, responding to yesterday’s headlines; literary critics go beyond the surface-level ideas to write about an author’s deeper intent or personal backstory; and essayists often fill their work with snippets of others’ words, responding to many ideas at once.

Let’s not forget the blogosphere, either, which has become one giant read and respond exercise in many ways. For instance, editor Jane Friedman of The Virginia Quarterly Review recently used her personal blog to respond to a Salon.com article about women over 50 being invisible. In her post, Friedman referenced another blog response to that same article by her friend, Lynne Spreen. By reading and responding, Friedman kept the conversation going, adding her unique perspective.

Heck, even poets use read and response from time to time, taking poetry to the frontlines of social discussion by reading others’ works and responding in verse, as Karen Swallow Prior showed us in “Poetry Classroom: Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.”

How can you use read and respond to enhance or improve your own writing?

First, you have to read. Read about the things you like to write about, but also, if you want to be surprised, read more widely than usual, encountering new ideas or even opinions you disagree with. And don’t just suppose you should be reading nonfiction. Grab a collection of poems or that novel you were saving for the beach.

Then, decide how you will respond. You could respond privately as just an exercise, or you could really develop your thoughts and write a blog post, a letter to the editor, a poem, or an essay. In your writing, answer questions about what you’ve read, like how is the author’s main idea reflected in my life? Or, if I could say one thing to the main character, what would it be? You may just want to ask yourself what emotions the poem evokes or what experience you’ve had that connects you to the author, and start writing there.

So, here’s your homework for the day: Read something (like this post) and respond in the comments. Good news: you will not be graded!

Photo by MacRj, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig.

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Your Comments

9 Comments so far

  1. Lynne Spreen says:

    Good points. That was a fun day. In fact, Jane and I blogged in tandem that day on the same subject (the perceived invisibility of older women, a “truism” that neither of us buy). She blogged from the perspective of a woman under fifty, and I from the over fifty POV. Then we commented on each others’ blogs. It was great fun, but also like catching a ride on a rocket! I had the biggest blogging day of my 4-year career, in terms of visitors, and I felt really honored that she wanted to partner with me. Thanks for the shout-out, and best wishes.

    • Lynne – I love what you and Jane did by reading an article that struck a chord and then taking it to the next level. When I first saw the set of three articles/posts (Laura Barkat is actually the one who pointed them out for a completely different reason than this article), I was struck with what a gift it is to Salon’s readers that the two of you offered more to the story. Thanks for stopping by here, too. It’s great to have you.

  2. L. L. Barkat says:

    I love that, Lynne. Read and respond creates a dialog and connection! :)

    Charity, my favorite part of this is: Read. I know so many writers who don’t do this as part of their writing education. I’d say that at least a good deal of what a writer reads needs to be exemplary writing, to help a writer absorb good language and technique. Of course, that’s not the point of Read and Respond. But it’s still key. (There. I’ve expressed my opinion ;-)

    • And a wonderful opinion it is, too. I don’t think I would be a writer if I hadn’t been a reader all this time. My reading habits fluctuate, though. Recently, during some major life transitions, I’ve read less, and thus found my writing suffering a bit. Both for the reasons you mention, and because of the read and respond principle I write about. I didn’t elaborate too much on my personal habits of read and respond, but I would say at least 75 percent of my writing is prompted by something I’ve read, even if I don’t always reference it directly.

  3. Ah, convicted. I don’t do either one as much as I want to.
    One way I respond is in my “Style’ notebook where I write words, phrases, sentences that I find particularly stunning, inventive, and/or poetic in whatever I’m reading. Then, I go back and deconstruct what I’ve written. Expands me as a reader and a writer.

    Ta-Da!

  4. Christa – It sounds as if your style notebook is a kind of “live and respond,” even if it’s not always a direct result of reading, per se. I have always wanted to have such a notebook where I could neatly compile all of these thoughts and treasures I find. But alas, I am a horrible collector of receipts, napkins, scratch paper, and sticky notes that had another purpose before I scribbled something down on them. In the desk drawer where I sit is a collection of these bits of paper. I suppose they are a system in their own right! Thanks for joining in the conversation – for reading and responding right here!

  5. Donna says:

    What a great tool! Funny I never thought about it as a practice, but I will now. I do use this technique I suppose when something hits me as I read and I want to journal on it, but not as a “rule” or a “practice”. I can see such great potential. For my son who often complains about being “blocked” (which I secretly LOVE hearing about bc it means, to me, that he values this writing thing we do… all writers, and… we he and I… love it). I will suggest this.

    When I taught undergraduates this was one of my all time favorite exercises – not only did it help nudge my students to read, but it helped them take risks they were not used to taking. The most common FAQ I rec’d was “what should I write?” Again, I loved that because it meant this was going to be of great value for them… there was a learning curve and so isn’t that fantastic?! I just wanted them to RSVP! Simple, unless you’re not used to that. Sadly they were NOT used to being asked to respond in writing or out loud. They were used to rigid multiple choice and strictly driven curriculum discussions in order to please the Standardized Test Gods. They had lost touch with their own responses and so… well, then needed me – much as they grumbled in the beginning they always grew in this ability to take the risk… take the plunge… RESPOND! RSVP!!!

  6. Donna – I love your comments, and I imagine you were an amazing professor. I find that my stepsons respond so much better when they are engaged with their reading. I do the same. I can respond to almost anything, but when I love something, my response takes on a life of its own.


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