Annotated by the author: Writing of readers’ responses

In our Series “Annotated by the author”, we invite New York Times reporters and our student contest winners to comment on their work to help demystify the writing and research process.


Chances are, a teacher has asked you to write a response to a text at some point in your school career, whether it’s a novel, a convincing essay, a historical document or anything else.

But what makes a good reader’s response? How can you make your writing not only clear and engaging, but faithfully reflecting your own thoughts, beliefs and experiences?

Two teenage writers are here to show you off. For this edition of our Annotated by the Author series, we asked two winners of our 2020 summer reading competition, Judy Wang, second year student at Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Mass., and Nina Nzekwe, student at Los Alamos High School in Los Alamos, NM, to mark their winning essays.

In this competition, we invite students to submit short, written responses to a New York Times article, photo, video, graphic, or podcast of their choice each week throughout the summer. Our favorite responses are the ones that go beyond saying “I loved it” or “I hated it” and instead take us on a journey through their experience of the text.

In the videos below, you’ll see how Judy and Nina did just that. They explain how, in their essays, they made personal connections to the pieces they chose, challenged the authors’ arguments, clearly demonstrated their thinking, and wrote with style and spirit.

If you’re inspired by plays by Judy and Nina, you can submit your own reader response to our 12th Annual Summer Reading Contest, which starts June 11 and ends August 20.

Judy won week 6 of our 2020 Summer Reading Contest with her essay on “The Phantom Handbag,” a Style article on the disappearance of handbags from everyday life amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I actually came across the article just scrolling through the New York Times and exploring the different sections,” she told us. “And I was intrigued by the title and more particularly by the word ‘ghost’. And I was like, oh, like a purse is a physical thing, but how could it be ghost at the same time?

First, listen to Judy read her winning essay; you can follow below or in this PDF. As you listen, annotate the text, paying attention to the words and lines that communicate Judy’s thinking about the article and everything that sets you apart.

On ‘The Phantom Handbag’

Even in my most distant memories, Mom always carried this one bag. Covered in black and tan stripes, the Burberry tote looked more like a lunchbox than a purse.

I hated.

For one, it was constantly overflowing – used tissue paper, bandages, hair ties, foundation, random job files. After years of nagging my mom for a lighter, more organized bag, the “leather lunch box”, with its growing belly, stuck.

In “The Phantom Handbag”, Lou Stoppard recalls the days when a fashionable handbag was a necessity, and wonders if it will be relevant after all the suffering. Right now, handbags seem utterly impractical: too small for the grocery store, too dangerous for cycling, too inconvenient to protest. In addition to the fact that new standards often create shifts in buyer trends, the future of shopping bags does not look so bright. As Ms. Hillier said, “there are other things they can spend money on.” Indeed, as people realize that there is more to bags than “a status thing”, sales of bags in department stores may drop, but the items carried in these luxurious containers will endure.

Although my mother’s bag was a pipe dream, I now know that among the countless frivolous objects is my mother’s unreserved love: handkerchiefs for my frequent splashing of water, bandages for cuts and ties for my long hair. Whether the handbags will see their fate no longer matter, because the love that has been worn with the essentials will remain constant.

Then watch the short video above by Judy explaining some of the choices – or, as we like to call them, the “writer’s moves” – she made in her reader response. As you watch, think about what you can learn from Judy’s essay that you might like to try in your own writing.

Nina won week 8 of our 2020 Summer Reading Contest with her essay on ‘Why America Needs a Royal Family’, an opinion essay arguing for separating ceremony and fame from politics.

What drew her to the Opinion section? Nina told us, “Persuasive writing is interesting in that you can analyze how the author is trying to persuade you, even if the premise is more far-fetched or sort of.”

First, listen to Nina read her winning essay; you can follow below or in this PDF. As you listen, annotate the text, paying attention to the words and lines that communicate Nina’s thinking about the article and everything that sets you apart.

On “ Why America Needs a Royal Family ”

The private life of the royal family often intersects with its royal duties. Likewise in America, the extracurricular activities of politicians often overlap with their political affairs as well. Seeing this, writer Jennifer Weiner argues that America needs its own “royal family,” separately elected representatives who can perform ceremonial duties while representing America’s overall values.

Ms. Weiner juxtaposes the personal affairs of the royal family with a soap opera, stating that “The problem with a real-time soap opera … is that very few people are equipped to be its stars.” She appeals to a sense of familiarity by comparing the lives of royals and, largely, politicians to televised melodrama, showing the reader that these questions relate.

I largely disagree with his point and would like to propose one of my own: we need to separate the inauguration and baby kisses from politics and get rid of them altogether. Even now, the personal affairs of politicians are distracting attention from more important political issues, and an American “royal family” would only compound this problem.

What Mrs Weiner asks reminds me of a mascot, like the Nesquik bunny – a hollow symbol of the values ​​of carefree fun that society supposedly has while its parent company, Nestle, commits child trafficking and slavery in Africa. of the West to harvest cocoa. America needs a lot of things, and a mascot isn’t one of them.

Then watch the above video of Nina explaining some of the “writer’s moves” she made in her reader’s response. As you watch, think about what you can learn from Nina’s essay that you might like to try in your own writing.


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