September 17, 2021

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Annotated by the Author: Writing Reader Responses

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In our “Annotated by the Author” series, we invite New York Times journalists and winners of our student contests 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you to write a response to a text at some point in your school career, whether it’s to a novel, a persuasive essay, a historical document or anything else.

But what makes a great reader response? How can you make your writing not only clear and engaging, but a true reflection of your own thoughts, beliefs and experiences?

Two teenage writers are here to show you. For this edition of our Annotated by the Author series, we asked two winners of our 2020 Summer Reading Contest, Judy Wang, a sophomore at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Mass., and Nina Nzekwe, a junior at Los Alamos High School in Los Alamos, N.M., to annotate their winning essays.

In this contest, we invite students to submit short written responses on a New York Times article, photo, video, graph or podcast of their choice each week throughout the summer. Our favorite responses are those that go beyond saying “I liked 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 wit.

If you’re inspired by Judy and Nina’s pieces, you can submit a reader response of your own to our 12th Annual Summer Reading Contest, which begins June 11 and runs through Aug. 20.

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

“I actually stumbled upon the article while just scrolling through The New York Times and exploring the different sections,” she told us. “And I was intrigued by the title and specifically the word ‘phantom.’ And I was like, oh, like a handbag is a physical thing, but how could it be phantom at the same time?”

First, listen to Judy read her winning essay; you can follow along 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 anything else that stands out to you.

On ‘The Phantom Handbag’

Even in my most distant memory, Mama always carried this one bag. Covered in black and tan stripes, the Burberry tote looked more like a lunch box than a handbag.

I hated it.

For one thing, it was constantly overflowing — used tissue paper, bandages, hair ties, foundation, random files from work. After years of nagging my mom to get a lighter, more organized bag, the “leather-lunch box,” with its increasingly fuller belly, stayed.

In “The Phantom Handbag” Lou Stoppard reminisces about the time when a fashionable handbag was a necessity, and questions whether it will be relevant after all the suffering. In today’s time, handbags seem altogether impractical: too tiny for the grocery store, too dangly for cycling, too bothersome for protesting. Coupled with the fact that new normals often create shifts in buyer trends, the future of bag buying doesn’t seem all that promising. Like Ms. Hillier said, “there are other things they can spend money on.” Indeed, as people realize there are more to bags than “a status thing,” high-street bag sales might plummet, but the things carried in these luxurious containers will endure.

Though my mom’s bag was a quixotic choice, I now know that within the countless frivolous objects is the wholehearted love of my mother: tissues for my frequent water spills, bandages for cuts, and ties for my long hair. Whether handbags will see their destiny no longer matters, as the love that was carried with the nitty-gritty will remain constant.

Then, watch the short video above of Judy explaining some of the choices — or, as we like to call them, “writer’s moves” — she made in her reader response. As you watch, consider 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 celebrity 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 kind of out there.”

First, listen to Nina read her winning essay; you can follow along 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 anything else that stands out to you.

On ‘Why America Needs a Royal Family’

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

Ms. Weiner juxtaposes the royal family’s personal affairs 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 the royal family and, in larger part, politicians to television melodrama, showing the reader that these matters relate.

I largely disagree with her argument and would like to propose one of my own: We need to separate the ribbon-cutting and the baby-kissing from politics and remove them entirely. Even now, politicians’ personal affairs distract from more important political matters, and an American “royal family” would only compound this issue.

What Ms. Weiner is asking for reminds me of a mascot, such as the Nesquik bunny — a hollow symbol of the values of carefree fun that the company supposedly has while its parent company, Nestle, commits child-trafficking and slavery in West Africa to harvest cocoa. America needs a lot of things, and a mascot isn’t one of them.

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

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