Last minute hints: Commentary

Right about this time for the May session, I always make such a list for the particular group of students with whom I’ve spent the year. The following is a sample, based on both examining Paper 1 and my own students’ performance. What I note are recurrent misconceptions and poor practices.  I’ve included a sample of just one below, and I find that the approaching examination date seems to clear their heads a bit, and they are ready for good hints about what might work for them.  I share this sample with you and encourage you to use it, adapt it or simply ignore it.  Some points may seem a bit harsh, so it’s important as Lawrence Sterne writes, to ‘temper the wind to the shorn lamb.’

Last minute hints for writing a good commentary—some large matters and some small ones:

1.Your job is not just to assert or imply that ‘it’s a good piece of writing’ (examiners do not choose bad examples of writing, but you may not ‘like’ the selection—that’s a matter of taste, not value). Your task is to show ‘why’ and ‘how’ the writing is ‘good’ and how that is achieved.

2. Watch for undertones, also known as ‘subtexts; almost all poems or extracts include these important contributors to the complexity of literary art. Discussing them can really boost your analysis.

3. ‘This’ without a reference is obscure, not matter how you cut it.

4. Don’t spend half of your time dithering over: ‘does it mean this, does it mean that?’
Make some decisions and get on to planning and writing. That doesn’t mean you cannot
use ‘perhaps’ or ‘seems’ if you need to.

5. When you use ‘obtuse’ you often mean ‘oblique.’ Look these up and use them correctly.

6. Observing or worrying about whether the speaker (voice) and the writer are the same is pointless; we seldom know and 95% of the time it doesn’t matter.

7. ‘White’ does not always imply ‘pure’; sometimes it stands for death, absence, vacancy or something else. The same is true for red, yellow, black, blue, green, etc. Colors carry different connotations in different cultures and time periods. Don’t make easy assumptions.

8. Don’t make much if anything of the name of the source work or the name of a collection of poems….this will get you nowhere, though the date can occasionally be significant.

9. Don’t refer to mothers and fathers as ‘mum/mom’ or ‘dad.’ This reveals you as an amateur without a sense of the academic situation in which you are writing.

10. “Magnificent,’ ‘exquisite,’ ‘famous’ and ‘blatant’ are all words that tend to be over the top. Again, amateur practice, usually.

11. “abstract image’ is an oxymoron, and somewhat moronic.

12. Don’t use ‘theme,’ which implies a recurrent idea or view, when you mean the subject, content, or material of the poem or extract.

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