How to Approach a Commentary, adapted from Commentary Writing
for Use with the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, by Michael Woolman,
Two Structural Principles
Equally clear are the two structural principles which underpin a good commentary.
1. It is planned around the central meaning of the text and
2. presents a coherent argument relating to this central meaning and/or how it is presented.
Six Practical Guidelines
1. A good commentary begins with a forceful introduction which sets out the central meaning and the coherent argument relating to it.
2. It explores and justifies the coherent argument in the body of the commentary in a continuous and structured manner.
3. It is written/organized in manageable, related paragraphs.
4. Transitions between the sections of argument are evident.
5. Statements are supported by close references to the text.
6. Its conclusion brings a sense of completion and closure to the central argument.
Planning your Commentary in Four Steps
Step One: Identify the thoughts and feelings and the central idea.
Begin your planning by writing down what you think is the central idea of the piece. Read the piece several times and sort out any parts of it which present difficulties. As you work through this process you should become increasingly aware of the main literary features and their effect.
Step Two: Identify the key literary features.
The second stage of the planning is examining the literary features of the passage and how they create and reinforce the central idea. It is helpful to use a mental checklist:
Checklist Prose & Poetry Prose (cont.) Poetry (cont.)
Ambiguities Plot Layout
Diction Narrative p.o.v. Stanzas
Imagery Characterization Meter
Tone Chronology Sound (Rhyme)
Step Three: Decide on your argument.
As well as stating the central idea of your text, your introduction should indicate your central argument (thesis) around which you will explore the piece.
Step Four: Plan the structure to your argument.
This is the tough bit. You will need an introduction which states your purpose and argument; and a conclusion which restates your purpose and argument, as well as a personal response. The body of the commentary may be organized in a variety of ways:
The Structure of the Text Plan
Use the structure of the prose/poem to provide the framework for the commentary. The text is explored line by line, or paragraph by paragraph, or section by section.
The Elements of the Commentary Plan
In this plan the elements of the commentary itself shape the structure. It could start with a description of the thoughts and feelings, then consider the diction, imagery, tone and mood or narrative point of view. Selected and relevant items from the preceding check list could each be the subject of a paragraph. A strong consolidating conclusion will bring it all together.
The Unifying Principle Plan
The central idea of the text and the central idea of the argument is defined in the introduction and used as the unifying principle. The elements of the principle (themes) are then explored in the core of the commentary. This is probably the most effective way to develop a commentary, but it also the most difficult, and requires careful planning.
Special note for the Oral Commentary:
The oral commentary consists of a close detailed analysis of the content of the extract with a view to:
-explore aspects such as the presentation and role of characters, relationships, themes,use of language, significance of the extract to the development of the plot as a larger work, the effects of structure, style and technique
-situate the extract as precisely as possible in the context of the work from which it has been taken, relate it to the work as a whole where relevant
-comment on the effectiveness of the writer’s techniques, including stylistic devices and their effects
-identifying and discussing relevant matters of literary significance in the particular extract, such as subject matter, themes, character…
-considering how elements such as language, style and technique work together to convey the writer’s purpose in the extract, and where appropriate, their significance in the work as a whole
-delivering an oral response that is well developed, carefully structured, appropriately illustrated, and in a register suitable for formal literary discussion
Two guided questions will be provided with each poem or passage, that may be used to formulate a starting point for the oral commentary.