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Creative writing commentaries: don't know where to start?

 The first commentary on any creative writing that I had to write - or read - was the 30,000 word commentary I wrote for my PhD in Creative Writing. I didn't find it easy. The next I tangled with were the 300 word commentaries that my Open University students have to write for their course. They don't - most of them - find it easy either.

Of course, most writers take some kind of notice of what happened along the road of writing a piece, if only to try to abate the agony a bit next time; some even keep a parallel journal of the whole process. But turning that notice-taking into a formal, organised exposition is a different thing altogether.

Writing's a mixture of conscious and unconscious creative thinking - intuition and craft - and it feels very unnatural to analyse it any kind of systematic way, and until you have to pass a course, you probably never have. But writing a commentary isn't just the thing that makes a writing course academic; it does feed your development - your learning - as a writer. So even if you don't, at the moment, have to write one in order to pass a course, it might be worth thinking about how it might be useful to you. And if you're interested in writing professionally in any way in the future, then conscious, technical awareness is essential for learning to write what's wanted, to length and deadline. What's more, you might well find yourself talking about how how you wrote your novel on a festival platform or in an interview. It's good to have had some practice.

So, what do you do? Check the course requirements, of course, but I'll bet that somewhere in the rubric will be at least one of the following terms, so have a think about what that means they're asking for:

  • reflective: looking back with hindsight, to put what happened in a wider context of both your writing, and writing in general as a creative act that takes place in a particular culture.
  • analytical: reflecting, but then also digging into the simple account of "what happened" to understand more: how things came about as they did, and why they happened that way.
  • critical:  reflecting and analysing, but then also showing that you don't take any one experience, or any one statement (your own, or anyone else's) as the only possible way things might be, the only possible truth.

I would say that these are the basics that should be in pretty much any commentary:

  1. where you found the materials for the piece (notebook, observation, research, imagination).
  2. analysis of your creative process (how you drew these materials together to make a single piece, using both intuition and conscious craft).
  3. technical decisions and why you decided as you did (e.g. your choices about form, narrators and point-of-view, psychic distance, tense, structure, imagery, language, voice and the like).
  4. what changed as you worked and how you coped with those changes.
  5. what problems you encountered and how you overcame them.
  6. what you did in redrafting, revising and editing, and why.

A good way to remember these basics is to think  "aims and outcomes, choices and changes". So far, so good. But the context in which you're writing is very much part of your reflection. So these wider reflections are also important, though in a short commentary you may have to choose between writing more about fewer points, or less about more points:

  1. what drew you to the material and why you felt it had potential.
  2. what you aimed to achieve, and how that relates to how the piece came out.
  3. what wider reading has informed or influenced how and what you wrote, in both content and technique? This could include other creative texts, but also writing-about-writing, whether that's a textbook or how-to-write book, or an author on their own work, or a literary critic.
  4. how your piece fits in the wider context of form, genre, culture, society, history.
  5. what you've learnt as writer and reader, from your work on this piece.
  6. what you've learnt about your writerly self from the work.
  7. how you might develop this piece in the future, or what other pieces it might inspire.

It really helps if, as you work on the creative piece, you keep a journal, or at least a few notes about your experience of writing it: just enough to remind you when you come to the commentary. In particular, look up and use the right term if you're noting a technical point. And if you're doing this for a grade, don't forget that points mean prizes. In a 300 word commentary you can make 20-25 solid, well-expressed, properly evidenced points. If you can do that and do so in a way which is also makes a  graceful, mini-essay in itself, yay for you. But that's extremely difficult to do, and you should never sacrifice the quality and substance of the main dish, just so it's more elegantly presented. In other words, don't sacrifice substance for style.

So what gets a commentary a good 18/20 from a teacher like me?

  1. It analyses the process of making the story or poem, it doesn't just describe or even analyse the finished result: there's no point in saying what's in the piece unless you're saying something about the whys and hows of how it got like that.
  2. It's dense with material: every sentence makes a solid, clear point about what your aim was and how you tried to fulfil it.
  3. It draws in thinking about the wider context - other writing, your writerly self, the genre, the world, even the industry.
  4. It's clearly structured to tell the "story" of the writing of the piece, and the series of choices and changes that you made, and it isn't diverted into anecdote or irrelevance.
  5. Every general point is backed up with evidence: words, phrases, references to specific parts of the text.
  6. Technical terms are used often and accurately.
  7. It's clearly and naturally written in reasonably formal academic language: no purple prose, no waffle hiding behind jargon, no zombie nouns or office-speak, few passive constructions. And above all, no laborious avoiding of "I": you're writing about your creative act, so claim it.
  8. Presentation is immaculate. That's not just to please teacher: getting into the habit of fulfilling the requirements of your profession in punctuation, spelling, layout and so on, is something to start practising early. And besides, one day you might want to find again that book that explained or inspired something so well, and it's maddening to find you didn't reference it properly.

And that's it. Remember again: aims and outcomes, choices and changes. Honestly, it's not as difficult as it seems, and I've seen, year after year, just how much the necessary act of writing commentaries has drawn my students on to learn further and faster than they ever would just on their work and my feedback alone. And yes, you can refer to This Itch of Writing: just make sure you reference it properly.* Good luck!


* You should do the reference in whatever form your course requires, but it will probably include the title of the blog, the title of the post, the author, the date the post was published, the full URL, and the date you accessed it.