Here are some suggestions for writing strong reaction papers:
- Citations: I know I sound like a broken record, but cite any sources. Sometimes students think that because they are writing about a reading assigned for class, they do not need to provide a citation. You still do. You need to attribute the source, and you need to start good habits of citing other people’s ideas, even if you aren’t quoting word for word.
- Stick to the page/word limit: Most reaction papers have word limits. Instructors do not only place word limits because they don’t want to read too much (though let’s be honest, that could be part of the motivation). If there’s a word limit, it means the instructor thinks you can achieve the task in that many words or pages. The rest of your career will be filled with word limits, for journals, grant applications, tenure narratives, etc. Practice sticking to them.
- Avoid repetition: How do you stick to the page/word limit? Get to the point quickly, and avoid repetition. Just about any time I have graded a paper that is too long it is quickly obvious to me that there are redundancies that could be cut. Or…
- Avoid irrelevant details: there are irrelevant details that do not need to be in the paper. Rarely does a reaction paper need to include specific details about the sample, such as the sample size or how the sample was recruited. Of course, there are exceptions if relevant to a point you are making, but make sure that what you write responds to the prompt or moves your arguments along.
- Be clear, don’t be vague: Be specific about what you say, and avoid being vague. Vague language does nothing to forward your argument.
- Make connections: I’ve previously discussed the importance of integrating across multiple studies in journal article introductions. Integration and making connections are also important in reaction papers. Instructors do not want you to simply summarize the readings. They know the papers – they assigned them. Instructors want you to demonstrate your own critical thinking. To do so, you need to integrate across the readings, and make connections between them.
- Limitations/future directions: Another way to demonstrate your own critical thinking is to describe limitations of prior theories/research, and suggest future directions in this area. I’ve previously written about how, in an article introduction, you shouldn’t focus on others’ weaknesses but instead should write about your strengths. A reaction paper is a bit different in that you aren’t presenting your own data/analyses, so you have to spend more time critiquing prior work. Prior work often has flaws, and it’s fine to critique it. However, do remember that just because someone didn’t ask a specific research question in their work, doesn’t mean their study was flawed. It just means they asked a different question. You can discuss new directions/next steps without calling it a flaw in prior work. One pet peeve of mine is when writers (not just students) suggest future work without explaining why. An easy go to is, future work should consider samples that are X. E.g., this sample was all White and middle class, and future work should consider more diverse populations. That’s probably true, but explain why. What differences might you predict? Perhaps families from lower economic status have fewer resources and thus time spent supervising homework might be more challenging for that sample, and less indicative of poorer parenting quality. Explain why considering these other groups may be important.
- Know your instructor: I would never suggest catering to your professors. But paying attention to your instructors and the kinds of arguments they may can be useful in thinking about the kinds of arguments they may find compelling. It can also be useful in the details. In grad school, we had an instructor who often used the expression “on the one hand… on the other hand” during lecture. I made sure that every reaction paper used those phrases, and the instructor consistently wrote “good point!” next to those points in particular. Other instructors might prefer a more one sided perspective. You can get a sense of the instructor, and write accordingly.
- Outlines: When you are working to improve your writing, I recommend two outlines. First, write an outline before you start writing, to help organize your writing. I imagine everyone knows about that outline already. But I also recommend writing a second outline of your paper after you finish writing, based on your actual paper. This second outline helps demonstrate the logical flow (or lack thereof) of your paper, can point out repetition to you, and generally helps you see your paper in another way.
- Don’t write the first sentence first: Students often get stuck on first sentences. Jump in, and return to it later.
- Timing: Do not start your paper the day before. There is no way you can fully proofread your paper if you write it all in one day. Write it at least 2 days before, so you can reread it the day before. I even save drafts of every blog post I write and read them 24+ hours later before posting them. I still have errors, as I don’t spend as much time rewriting them as I would more formal writing, but I definitely notice and fix errors and find ways to make my points more clearly.
- Read aloud: If you’re struggling with awkward writing, try reading your paper aloud. It can make a huge difference in noticing when your writing is awkward or unclear.
- Talk to your professor: If you want to improve your reaction papers, and aren’t sure how, go talk to your professor about one you’ve already written and received feedback on. Don’t go in asking to get a better grade on that paper. Go in asking to understand how to improve in the future. Professors want their students to do well, and are generally happy when students reach out to try to improve. They just don’t like grade grubbing.
“How to Write Strong Papers in Grad School first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on September 6, 2018.”