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What is the point of a Reflective Commentary

A good many students look upon the Reflective Commentary as a nasty trap set by module writers and tutors to catch writing students unawares. And unless students understand the purpose of a reflective commentary it can indeed become a trap, or something that trips the student writer up. But its purpose has always been to actually help students improve their writing, so that what may have started out as exploration and intuition becomes establishment and understanding.
I think I have written before about there being basically two kinds of writers: the planners and the explorers, though many writers may consider themselves somewhere on a spectrum between these two extremes. The planners have an idea and work out how they are going to structure their story, script or plot, and then their writing follows this outline. The explorers might have an idea and then they start writing and the story, poem or script develops as they write. I have also referred before to Frank Smith’s Writing and the Writer (Routledge 1994) where he offers a useful diagram which suggests most writers are on a spectrum between planning and exploring. Writers begin with specifications but as they write new ideas pop up and change the original specification, and this then becomes an on-going process. He suggests that writers can try and keep tabs on themselves as they write by stopping their story/script/poem every so often and commenting on it on a separate piece of paper or window. This, however, may well inhibit your writing and even change the direction or style. However, it may illuminate writing processes you have been using without your being conscious of them until that point.
In my January blog I cautioned students against being too hung with creativity and innovation and offered the idea of control instead. And it is an analysis of how redrafting enables you to gain control over your writing that should be in the Reflective Commentary.
Some seventeen years ago (2000) four writers and tutors, members of the National Association of Writers in Education (https://www.nawe.co.uk/) got together to work out a set of criteria that could be used by all writers and tutors regardless of genre or the demands of specific syllabuses. We discussed all sorts of criteria including ones like imagination, creativity, innovation and experimentation, and promptly discarded them as too subjective. Eventually we came up with the idea of control as the central most important criterion for all writers; planners may have more control over their initial drafts while explorers might only achieve control on later drafts of their work. We then asked ourselves, how student writers could gain control over their writing: the answer was that by inspecting their drafts they might begin to see what changes they had made. We then decided that only by writing their commentaries could students understand themselves the reasons they had for making those changes. At the same time the commentary would then prove to tutors and assessors that students had indeed understood.
Our next task was to come up with four very basic aspects of writing which we wanted our students to be able to control: 1. Structure 2. Point of view 3. Language and 4. Observed or imagined detail. We decided that if students showed through their drafts and commentaries that they had thought about these four aspects, then the techniques and strategies they used in their writing would be part of the kind of control which in turn would allow them to be creative or innovative. Below is an adapted version of the chart we designed to help student writers, teachers and assessors. And of course, it is not just a tool for assessing and teaching , but is a vital tool in students learning to know what is important in their writing.

Aspect of WritingDefinition
StructureControl over the organisation of text with the needs of genre, reader, content and economy.  In prose this will refer to storyline and plot; in poetry to metric and free verse and line endings; in script-writing to storyline and scene sequences.
Point of viewControl of narrative voice, dialogue, register and tone.  Control over the way characters are used in the text.
LanguageControl of language – especially economy with adjectives, adverbs and clichés. Control of the use of metaphor and use of dialect
Observed detailControl of details which render situations vivid to the reader; the principle of ‘showing-not-telling’ with reference to place and character.
Commentary / AnalysisThe students’ own exploration of their writing process with reference to the above assessment criteria, analysing how and why changes have been made from one draft to another.

So what should be in that commentary? There should be a brief reference to the genesis of the writing, but you should avoid the sort of commentary that is merely an explication of what you have written or that refers to the number of mugs of coffee you drank while redrafting, two pitfalls that often prevent students from getting to grips with an analysis of the writing process itself.
It should be clear from this chart that you need to redraft your work or at least you need to consider the possibility of changing what you have written, based on your own ideas and/or tutor suggestions. You may make changes and then return to your original draft or you may make no changes, but you should refer to these possibilities in your commentary. You should then use your background reading of both primary and secondary sources to back up the decisions you made, and only the sources mentioned in the commentary should appear in the bibliography.
Of course your individual assignment commentaries of 500 words will not allow you to write a very detailed commentary: the details will come in your final commentary of 1500 words.
Image Credit: OCA student Mark Graham.


Posted by author: Liz Cashdan
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5 thoughts on “What is the point of a Reflective Commentary

  • Really useful – thanks Liz. I agree that this should be a resource that students can access more widely.

  • This is actually quite useful to students of fine art too. My students all have to come to terms with the requirement to keep a learning log and find a way to make that process useful to them as practitioners. This blog post may well help some of them to see a route to making written reflection a more potent live tool, rather than a hurried afterthought!

  • This is excellent advice, Liz. I will definitely use it for my reflective commentaries. I wondered if a similar article could be done, advising students on the structure of a Creative Reading Commentary. I think this would be extremely helpful.

  • This goes right to the heart of writing -great advice for writers to follow during the action of writing as well as when reflecting for their commentries. Control is all…it’s why writers often tell students ‘what happens on that page is in your hands’. And when I read a student’s work I can tell instantly if they have control of their work. Thanks; I’ll be recommending this to all students, especially level 2 and 3.

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