Paper 1 Commentary Writing Step by Step Guide


Step1: (5 mins)

Read through both extracts (usually one prose and one poetry)

Decide which one you would prefer to do your commentary on

Often this will be decided by a gut reaction but you should consider not only which text you think you understand best but, importantly, which one you will be able to write about for one and a half to two hours. It’s no use writing about a text that you understand if you haven’t got much to say.


Step2: (5 mins)

Read through the chosen extract again 2 or 3 times

At Standard Level use the guiding questions to direct you to areas of the poem that might be interesting

Jot down your initial impressions of what is going on in the text: the persona, story and O.P.s

In poetry the purpose will often be to convey a certain theme, message or idea

In prose however, because you don’t have a whole prose work, just an extract, a clear ‘message’ is not always obvious. As such the purpose might be to create a certain mood or atmosphere; evoke an emotion; create an impression of a character, relationship or setting or create tension. You may, of course, still be able to identify messages and themes in the text these can be the purpose too

Remember, things like characters and relationships may develop and change through the extract and that a good analysis will be sensitive to these subtleties

Be specific – exactly what mood is being created, exactly which message


Step 3: (5 mins)

Come up with at least one (perhaps two or three) Organising Principle

An O.P. is something that sums up one of the things that the author was trying to do in the text

It’s the answer to the question – ‘What’s this extract about?’

Texts are often subtle and complex and your OPs should reflect this – they may need to be quite long

This will help you structure your commentary and give you something to focus on

You might like to identify a key image, motif or quotation that sums up your Organising Principle(s)

You might use this in the opening line of your essay to start with a bang


Step 4: (15 mins)

Track the passage – highlighting the language choices made by the author to achieve the purpose

As you work on the poem your O.P. may change – allow it to develop and become richer

Things you could attempt to track:

Structure: linear / circular, repetition, progress, internal contrasts, steps / stages, foregrounding

Setting: is this significant? How does it relate to the mood / atmosphere

Narrator: whose point of view do we have, what is their tone of voice, attitude, who do they favour?

Pace: fast or slow, rushed or calm, is there a definite rhythm

Literary Features: imagery, pronouns, types of verb, sentence type and length, slang, jargon, word complexity (simple / complex / Latinate) passive voice, modality, punctuation, rhyme, verb tense, concrete or abstract nouns, directions, motifs, enjambment, simile, metaphor, allusions, humour, symbols, sound effects, irony, syntax, hyperbole, personification, etc

Paralinguistic Features – entrances, exits, relative position, stance, movement. etc

Changes – in narrator, perspective, tense, pace – what effect do these have?

The Title!


Step 5: (5 mins)

Plan your essay – there are a number of different ways to structure it

You can plan paragraphs based on the different O.P.’s, themes or ideas in the poem

If you only have one O.P. you may base paragraphs on the different techniques used to create that O.P.

You can work through the poem a stanza at a time and discuss the impression created in each stanza

There should be a clear development or progression of ideas from paragraph to paragraph

Whichever method you choose make sure that your essay is not just a list of different literary features

Instead, you must always be talking about the effect those features have on the reader


Step 6: (~ 1 / 1.5 hours)


Remember – good essays tend to be made up of a small number of large, detailed paragraphs

Each paragraph should show how lots of features are working together to create an effect

Try to use a variety of kinds of literary feature (e.g. sounds, connotation and rhythm) in each paragraph

Perhaps start with a short and powerful introduction – perhaps use a quotation as a way in

Conclude with a short and powerful summary of your O.P, a quotation or an interesting question