My struggles with commentary

Before I began English 376, my idea of commentary was the traditional directive teacher comments. After a little more than two months of reading tutoring and composition theory, I have a better understanding of what commentary should do. I have had a chance to practice writing commentary on five papers, yet I still feel challenged in some areas. In reviewing my progress and obstacles in writing commentary, I developed six questions:

More directive vs. More facilitative
As I wrote commentary for different types of papers, I found my style changing. With my first commentary exercise I was rather directive, mainly because I did not know any better. But with my second and third paper I became more facilitative, asking many open-ended questions and telling the reader where I became confused and what my expectations were after reading certain passages. When I began working of English as a Second Language papers, however, I quickly became more directive. I asked no more than two questions in my entire commentary. I defined words and suggested phrases. I started many sentences with the phrase "Please explain", and even though that phrase was in some ways facilitative, it was still in the imperative, an order of sorts.

After writing commentary closely in keeping with both styles, I decided a mix of both is the most helpful. I am having problems, however, finding that middle ground in my commentary. I agonize over every word, phrase, and sentence I write in commentary, wondering if I'm being too controlling or way too vague. There are also times when one style is much more effective than the other (for example, writing commentary on ESL papers); yet, those times are often very unclear. Is there a measure of too directive or too facilitative?

A Letter or On the paper
Where to write my comments has also become an issue for me. In my personal experience I have always responded better to comments on the paper. It shows me where the problem areas are so that when I begin to correct/retype my paper, I know exactly where the problems were.

I have discovered, however, that with papers that need a lot of work, or have extremely small margins writing on the paper is not possible. I have, in those cases, resorted to writing a letter to the student with my comments. The letter is attached to the paper, yet the letter is a paper in its own right.

There are limitations to both styles. When writing directly on the paper there is a tendency to make more directive comments. There can also be a problem with the amount of space you have to write in. If you need to write three sentences or questions about one sentence in the paper, there may not be room to write it all. This also can cause a commentator to not write comments in complete sentences, which will confuse the reader. On the other hand, when writing a letter, there is a tendency to be too general. While a letter forces you to deal with global issues, it might allow you to paint your advice a little too broadly. I have attempted to get around this by giving advice in my letter paragraph by paragraph (see example), so that the reader knows where I am. The letter is also separate from the paper, meaning the advice won't be anywhere near the problem area, another issue which the commentator must try to address.

I have, to the best of my ability, attempted to combine the two styles. When I write a letter, I tend to quote the sentence that I am referring to and I tend to attack a paper by paragraph. What I mean by "attacking by paragraph" is that I will write about the issues in paragraph one (if there are any issues) and label that paragraph of comments in my letter "Paragraph 1", so that the writer knows where I am in the paper. Yet, I am still struggling with which style to use. When a paper has a lot of problems I end up writing a one to two page letter and not marking a single thing on the paper. The student part of me is not happy with the idea of the letter with no marks on the paper. I may try marking the paper with numbers and writing the corresponding comment at the end, a "comment by number" style.

Am I being understood?
One major concern I have is how I come across to the writer. As I mentioned before, I agonize over every sentence and word I write in commentary; a drawback of commentary is that commentary is all on paper. Without a conference I can't explain what I meant by a comment. I worry that I may not be clear.

This concern really moves to the forefront when I am writing commentary for ESL papers. The student is speaking a different language and coming from a different culture. Do they understand what I mean? Do I make references they wouldn't understand? I remember when I wrote compositions in French for my Elementary and Intermediate French classes during my first year at the University of Richmond. I remember struggling with how to say what I meant. My professors took great pains with me to help me understand. They had the time; everyone in the class was a French as a Second Language student. Professors in other departments at University of Richmond don't always have the time to take. As a Writing Fellow I may be one of the few people who has the time to give that my French professors gave to me. It therefore becomes important that I am clear with my advice. Only through practice and evaluation can I perfect my clarity.

Am I being too controlling?
I am a writer myself, with my own style and preferences. There is a tendency, especially in papers that need a lot of work, to become controlling. We do it out of the best of intentions. We want the student to do well on the paper or lab report. The minute we cross that line and take control of the paper, we have done the writer a disservice and we are walking on shaky ethical ground.

Where is that line? It is hard to tell at points. Sometimes I have to take a step back from my commentary and make sure that I am not trying to write the paper as Renee would. Instead, it is my job, through commentary, to help the student write his or her paper as he or she would so that it is understood by Renee and any other reader. It is not easy. I often have to re-read a paper many times, with the pen or pencil as far away from me as possible.

Am I writing too much?
Commentary can backfire if you throw too much information at the student. If the paper needs only minimal revision, writing too much is usually not a concern. On the other hand, if a paper needs major revision, it is possible to write pages of commentary. When I first wrote two pages of commentary on a paper, I panicked. I worried that I was overloading the writer. I even asked a friend of mine, "Which is more intimidating: getting a one-page letter of commentary single-spaced with little print, or getting two pages of double-spaced commentary?". Her reply was that typed commentary was already a little intimidating, so it would be better to send the double-spaced commentary; at least the writer would be able to read the commentary.

Commentary can become massive. The best way that I have found to limit commentary is to deal with global issues first and foremost. Yes, a student can lose points for faulty grammar and misspellings, but the student could fail if there is no thesis or the paper has major organization problems. Focusing on the major issues will help keep commentary from becoming too much for the student to take in.

How can I (if I should) cut down on the time it takes me to effectively address one paper?
Time can be an issue with commentary. There are deadlines. Students must receive their papers back in time to make changes. Writing good commentary also takes time. The commentary must take time to read and re-read before writing or marking anything. Yet the issue of time has always cause me to worry.

The time issue really became a factor for me as I was writing commentary on "An Offensive Paper". As I communicated to fellow members of my English 376 class, "This was the hardest paper for me to comment on. First, it literally took me 3 days [to] begin to take the paper seriously. Second, after taking the paper seriously I had trouble developing an approach on how to deal with the paper" (Newsgroup 10/5/97). Three days on one paper is one thing in class, where we comment on one paper at a time. As a Writing Fellow I may have as many as 15 papers and the turn-around time of one week. Time then becomes an issue and a struggle that I will continue to deal with.

After reflecting on my commentary style, I think I summed it up when I told my fellow classmates, "My main approachwas to raise questions. There are good [aspects of any paper] that I did not want to see lost, yet [any] paper does need revision. I hope that through my questions the reader can tailor a new paper with a voice that still grabs you but that more closely follow[s] the assignment, use[s] more proof" (Newsgroup 10/5/97).

Commentary Techniques

Directive Commentary

Facilitative Commentary

End Comments

Reflections on Commentary

Examples of Commentary

What is Commentary?