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Writing a good creative reading commentary

At Level 2 (HE5) and 3 (HE6), Creative Writing students are asked to research an author, writing movement or individual work(s) of literature that they’ve been reading during that unit, and that has resonated with them as a writer.

Here are some suggestions for how to approach the CRC. However, if you have a particular idea that differs in some way from the guidelines below, don’t discount it. Discuss your thoughts with your tutor and they may give you the go-ahead.

Choosing your topic:

  • Your choice should also be relevant to the particular form you’re writing in, so if you’re studying ‘Writing Short Fiction’, you should choose a short story writer or book of stories; if you’re studying ‘Poetry: Form & Experience’ you should choose a poet or book of poems, etc. 
  • Your chosen writer/text/movement must be contemporary, which the OCA defines, the purposes of the CRC, as being published after 1950. However, if you have a strong case for choosing an earlier author(s) or work(s), discuss this with your tutor. You may be permitted to focus on this earlier topic with your tutor’s agreement. (Ensure you check with your tutor before writing your CRC though!).
  • Choose something that’s had an impact on your own writing. Think about elements of the work that you particularly admire and how the writer has crafted it. If you’ve chosen a particular poet, do you admire their use of rhyme or rhythm? Do their poems employ particular techniques to create sound and atmosphere? Think about what this poet has taught you.

Read to be influenced:

If you are writing, it should go without saying that you are reading too, because it’s a crucial way of understanding the art form and developing your writing skills. There’s no reason to fear that you will be ‘too influenced’ by another writer – in fact, you should read in order to be influenced. Many writers learn their craft by immersing themselves in the work of other writers, and this deep immersion can be a crucial stage of a writer’s apprenticeship. 

This doesn’t mean that you should try to write just like they do. If you notice that you are writing in a very similar way to another writer and can’t seem to find your own style, read more widely. Reading lots will ensure you don’t come too much under the sway of one writer’s voice.

All stories, poems, novels, memoirs, plays etc. are in conversation with all the other poems etc. that a writer has ever read. So the more you’ve read, the broader the conversation will be. You can’t read everything, of course, but the more you read the better. Read what’s current and fashionable, but read off the beaten track too. It’s essential to read contemporary work but it’s good to read older work too, as new work is often responding to, and engaging with, what’s gone before.

Plagiarism alert: Learning from other writers is different from plagiarism. Studying how another writer uses form and handles subject manner, and putting that learning into practice, is very different from plagiarism. Plagiarism means passing off the work or ideas of someone else as your own (and it can be intentional or intentional), and it is to be actively avoided.

Reading diary: 

Try keeping a reading diary (this could be as part of your writing diary). Keep a record of what you’ve read, what you thought about it, what you learnt, and any aspects that stood out – for example, particular lines or sentences that resonate with you, a particular way of handling character or dialogue or using structure. Re-reading will also help you to get under the skin of a particular text.

Common mistakes:

  • Don’t leave choosing your writer/book/literary movement for your CRC to last the minute. You should be writing on something that’s had a genuine influence on your own writing, so be alert to this from the very start of the unit.
  • Don’t choose something published pre-1950 unless you already have your tutor’s agreement to do so.
  • Don’t choose a huge topic – you have a limited word count so can’t analyse all of Stephen King’s novels, or all the poems by Kathleen Jamie. Choose one or two novels, or one or two collections – at most.
  • Do check with your tutor that your topic is suitable and feel free to ask them for advice. 

Discussing Writing Techniques:

When you write your CRC, the main focus should be your chosen writer’s/writers’ techniques. Keep your summary of the text(s) to a minimum. Sometimes students spend too long on this aspect and not enough on deep analysis of techniques.

Do focus on a few techniques used in the work (you can’t cover everything), so choose a few that are particularly pertinent and explore why they work.

What techniques could you discuss? Look back at my blog on ‘How to Write a Good Reflective Commentary’ for a suggested list of potential writing techniques.

You should also discuss some of the ways your topic has been an influence on your own ideas about writing: try to give some specific examples from your assignments.

Word counts:

Level 2: 2000 words

Level 3: 2,500-3000 words

Include a bibliography at end of your CRC, listing all the  sources referred to in your CRC (but don’t include anything you’ve not directly referred to), using the Harvard Referencing Style. The Bibliography will not form part of your word count.

Secondary material: 

Make sure you use some secondary sources and refer to them in your CRC. Secondary materials might include interviews with your chosen author(s), reviews of their books, interviews with them, filmed Q&As/readings at book festivals, articles about them and also books about the craft of writing.

Include short quotations to demonstrate your point.

Here are some exercises that will help you build up your Creative Reading Commentary:

1) Close Reading

Take an excerpt by your chosen writer and look at it in depth. Examine all the techniques used by the writer in that short extract and make some notes (even if these aren’t all included in your final CRC). Take a look at my blog on ‘Close Reading’ for some tips on how to close read.

2) Read Reviews

Find and read some review of your chosen writer/work online. Make a note of the things that the reviewer comments on. Do you agree with the reviewer? Do they omit anything you consider important?

3) Make a List/Mind Map/Other Representation of Your Ideas

Make a list, mind map or some other kind of representation of all the things you’d like your commentary to include about your chosen  writer/work/movement. 

Do these fall neatly into particular categories? Consider in what order you’d like to tackle these points. What sort of structure would be most appropriate for  your commentary?

There’s more advice on the Creative Reading Commentary in the Creative Writing Student Guide. This includes a detailed suggested structure, breaking the CRC down paragraph by paragraph. It’s not essential you use this structure, but you may wish to use it as a guideline if you’re struggling with this aspect of writing the CRC. Ensure you read Creative Writing Student Guide thoroughly as well as consulting your tutor about your topic.

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Posted by author: Vicky MacKenzie
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