Writing a good reflective commentary
I recently a ran an online workshop on what a good RC might include, so for those of students who were unable to attend (and for those who did attend, but would like a refresher), here’s a summary of my suggestions.
First of all, I think it’s helpful to remember the differences between notebooks, your writing diary and a Reflective Commentary:
Notebooks are where you start writing creatively, whether in the form of ideas and notes or sketches and early drafts. Notebook writing can form the basis of the projects and creative writing assignments that you will send to your tutor. You may find yourself starting numerous notebooks for different areas of interest.
No one will read your notebooks except you. Privacy is important because the thought of anyone reading your writing may inhibit you. Notebooks can be paper or electronic (many people use their phones for jotting down ideas), or a combination of both – it’s totally up to you.
Your writing diary is where you record your thoughts on your writing and your developing writing skills. You can discuss and reflect on concepts related to the writing craft here and reflect on what you feel your own strengths and weaknesses are. What are you good at? What do you need to work on? How can you improve these skills? Which writers can you learn from? What have you been reading?
When you are generating new writing material, you’ll be partly learning on an intuitive level. A writing diary will help you to be more conscious of your learning process and more aware of the different skills you’re developing. If you add to your diary regularly, it will form a record of your writing journey.
Like your notebooks, your writing diary is for you alone and you can keep it in whatever format you prefer.
You can use your writing diary to help you write your Reflective Commentaries, but they aren’t the same thing.
A Reflective Commentary is either a short piece of reflective writing (500 words for Levels 1, 2 and 3; or 350 words at Foundation Level) considering the particular assignment it accompanies, or it’s a longer piece of reflective writing which you submit at the end of the unit in which you reflect on your learning over the unit as a whole, with reference to particular assignments (especially the final assignment).
A few dos and don’ts:
Don’t discuss how you came up with your idea.
Don’t discuss pieces you started and discarded.
Don’t summarise the story, poem, script etc. – your tutor has just read it..
Do focus on the creative work you’ve just submitted to your tutor.
Do focus on a few writing techniques you’ve used in the work. You can’t cover everything, so choose those that are particularly pertinent.
Do say what writing techniques you used and why they were effective.
So, don’t say: “I wrote my story in first person” and leave it at that. Instead say: “I wrote my story in first person because I wanted the feeling of intimacy of the narrator talking directly to the reader about the events. This was important for my story because….”
Discussing Writing Techniques:
The term ‘writing techniques’ may seem rather abstract, but all it means is those techniques you used to write your creative piece. Here’s a selection of writing techniques you could consider:
Techniques in fiction:
Descriptive writing, metaphors and similes, setting, character, use of dialogue, structure, narrative pacing, point of view, tense (usually past or present), use of flashback (or, occasionally, flashforward), voice, word choice, register (formal or casual), information reveal (what do you tell the reader and when), psychic distance, use of free indirect discourse, sentence structure (e.g. a short sentence at the end of a paragraph for impact).
Techniques in poetry:
Use of stanzas, use of punctuation, imagery, word choice, tone, structure, point of view, use of sound (e.g. rhyme, or assonance, alliteration), rhythm.
These are just a few of the techniques you could discuss – there may be others that are more relevant to your particular piece of creative work.
The tone of the RC:
The reflective commentary is not an academic essay, so you don’t need to use academic jargon. Use first person, because it’s a personal reflection on your work.
However, don’t be too colloquial and chatty either – your tone needs to be moderate and considered. Don’t say “I tried to do X but it was rubbish”. Instead, say you thought it wasn’t successful as a technique and explain why.
Similarly, when discussing your reading, don’t just say “I loved this book” or “It was fab”. Instead, explain what you thought was good about it and why. Give your opinion, but support it with careful analysis.
Reflecting on your reading:
In the assessment criteria, a proportion of marks are allocated for Contextual Knowledge. Your final RC is your opportunity to demonstrate that you’ve read other writers and engaged with them seriously, not just as a reader, but as another writer.
In your final RC you should refer to both primary materials (e.g. novels, poems, stories, plays, films, memoirs, poetry performances, etc – depending on what form you’re writing in) and secondary materials (e.g. books, articles, blogs, videos, etc. about the craft of writing).
Get into good habits early on by referring to some primary and some secondary materials in your short RCs submitted with each assignment.
Think about what you’ve learnt from your reading in terms of craft – this is much more impressive than just saying you were inspired to write about the same subject.
So don’t say, “I enjoyed Vicki Feaver’s poem ‘Ironing’ and decided to write a poem about ironing of my own.” This might be true and you can put this in your writing diary, but in your RC try to think about what you learnt about the craft of writing poetry from your reading.
Include short quotations from your reading to demonstrate your points, but a short phrase or single sentence usually suffices (remember you’ve only 500 words for the short RCs).
The Final RC:
The Final RC is longer and in it you should consider what you’ve learnt from the unit as whole, as well as referring to particular assignments. You will now be close to preparing your work for assessment, so you should discuss your redrafting process – what you’ve changed and why – and also demonstrate your engagement with your tutor’s feedback.
Reflecting on redrafting:
Be precise. Don’t just say “I cut extraneous words” or “I rewrote Assignment 4 a lot”. Give examples of what you changed and why.
Use quotations from your own work when discussing what you’ve changed, but be brief: just a pertinent sentence or phrase.
Don’t just give a quotation from your assignment that shows it before redrafting, and then one after. Discuss the changes made and say why you think it is an improvement.
Reflecting on tutor feedback:
You don’t need to agree with every suggestion or comment from your tutor, but you do need to show you’ve thought about your tutor’s feedback.
Similarly, don’t say you changed something just because your tutor told you to – only change it if you think it’s the right change to make, and say why you think so.
A quirk of the system is that at Level 1 you are likely to write this final reflective commentary before receiving feedback on Assignment Five. You’ll need to redraft your final RC and add comments about your tutor feedback’s on Assignment Five and your redrafting process, before you submit this final RC for assessment.
Submit both your tutor-annotated final RC and a redrafted version at assessment.
Include a bibliography/reference list at end of all sources referred to in your RC (but don’t include anything you’ve not directly referred to), and use the Harvard Referencing Style.
The Bibliography does not form part of your word count.
Why write RCs:
Writing the reflective commentaries is an important part of the creative writing degree and the RCs serve several purposes. They are useful for tutors as they help us to understand students’ aims in a particular piece of writing. They should demonstrate students’ critical engagement with other writers as well as with books, articles, blogs etc. about the craft of writing, which helps us make better reading suggestions and to understand where our students are on their learning journey.
But, and arguably much more importantly, they’re a crucial part of your learning process, as they require a conscious engagement with the writing craft and a reflection on your writing skills, all of which will help you to think ‘like a writer’.