How to Write a Good Essay: Stop Summarizing, Start Commentating
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Chances are your professor has given you an assignment to write an essay that reflects on a piece of literature, or another body of work like a film or play. Do you know how to write a good essay? One basic way to elevate the quality of your next essay is to stop summarizing and start commentating.

And it’s easier than you may think.

In this post, I’ll explain the difference between summary and commentary. Then, I’ll show you how to put commentary to good use to make your next essay assignment awesome.

How to Write a Good Essay Part 1: Learn the Difference between Commentary and Summary

You need to understand the difference between commentary and summary. While both writing styles can be used to discuss another piece of work (like a play, book, movie, or poem), this is about the sum total of their similarities.

Here are the three main differences between summary and commentary:

  • Summary is a brief account giving the main points of something.
  • Commentary is a series of explanations and interpretations.
  • Summary is surface.
  • Commentary is deep.
  • Summary is regurgitation.
  • Commentary is original.

There is only one way to provide a summary: You read or view a work, and then write down a recap of what the work is all about.

However, there are many ways to provide commentary, including:

 How to Write an Essay: Types of Commentary

Here are some real life examples of summary and commentary:

A summary is something you’d read in a movie description or on the back of a book, like this summary of The Godfather: Part II from IMDb:

Example of Summary

Commentary is what you’d read in a film or book review, like this one from Rotten Tomatoes:

Commentary Example

As you can see, the main difference between these two write-ups of The Godfather, Part II is the IMDb summary includes no opinion or evaluation, while the Rotten Tomatoes review includes the opinion “strong performances” and the evaluation “set(s) new standards for sequels that have yet to be matched or broken.”

How to Write a Good Essay Part 2: Sample Essay

So, now that you hopefully understand the difference between summary and commentary, let’s work on an example. I’m going to give both summary and commentary on a scene from my favorite movie of all time, Shaun of the Dead. This is probably the only movie on Earth that I’ve watched more than a dozen times.

I know you’re supposed to be writing an essay right now, so don’t procrastinate by watching this awesome, comedic zombie movie. But, as soon as you turn this essay in, if you haven’t seen it already, watch it! Seriously, it’s so good.

In the meantime, for our lesson, watch this YouTube clip of one of my favorite scenes from the film. It will serve as the body of work that I’m going to commentate on.

First, let me show you how I would write a summary of this scene:

In this scene from the 2004 movie Shaun of the Dead, Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) wakes up with a hangover and walks to the convenience store to buy a soda and an ice cream. In his hungover condition, he does not notice anything that is going on around him. On his way to the store, he walks by what appears to be zombies roaming the street. There is mayhem all around him. A car window is smashed and the alarm is blaring, a person is running for his life away from zombies, there are bloody handprints on the cooler, and the convenience store clerk is missing. On his way home, Shaun passes even more zombies, including one who he mistakes for a homeless person. When the zombie approaches him, Shaun says, “No, I don’t have any change. I didn’t even have enough for the shop.” He makes it home safely and turns on the TV, ignoring the news reports about the zombie invasion.

While this may be a perfectly good summary of this scene, it doesn’t offer any additional insight into the film. My summary simply regurgitates what happened, play-by-play. There’s really no point in reading this summary; instead, you could just watch the scene and learn everything I just discussed, and you’ll have more fun doing it.

When your professor asks you to provide thoughtful commentary on a piece of work, you can be sure that he or she does not want you to just give a detailed recap of the events. This does not show that you’ve put forth any effort. In fact, writing that summary took me under a minute, with little thought.

how to write a good essay don't rely on summary

The one thing a summary can provide is background for your commentary. You want to give your reader some context on the piece of work, while also providing your insightful and opinionated commentary. Let’s start working on this now.

How to Write a Good Essay: Offer an Opinion

First, I’m going to insert an opinion into my summary. To make it easier for you to follow, I’ll highlight my opinion in green.

In this clever and satirical scene from the 2004 movie Shaun of the Dead, Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) wakes up with a hangover and walks to the convenience store to buy a soda and an ice cream.

how to write a good essay offer opinion

Original image by Adam Groffman

How to Write a Good Essay: Offer an Interpretation

Next, I’ll insert an interpretation.

In his hungover condition, he does not notice anything that is going on around him. This provides insight on how Shaun, like many of us, lives his day-to-day life, almost as a zombie himself, just going through the motions without noticing the world in which he lives.

How to Write a Good Essay: Offer some Insight

Next, I’ll insert some insight.

On his way to the store, he walks by what appears to be zombies roaming the street. There is mayhem all around him, but this mayhem isn’t a far cry from Shaun’s daily reality. A car window is smashed and the alarm is blaring. Today it is from a zombie, but on a normal day, a regular thief could have smashed it. A person is running for his life away from zombies, but on a normal day, it could be a person running to catch the bus.

How to Write a Good Essay: Offer Your Personal Reaction

Next, I’ll insert my personal reaction:

There are bloody handprints on the cooler, and the convenience store clerk is missing, which, along with the creepy music soundtrack, gives a sense of impending doom as the viewer watches Shaun obliviously bumble along.

how to write a good essay personal reaction

Original photo by Fabio Venni

 How to Write a Good Essay: Offer an Evaluation

Finally, I’ll insert my evaluation and a little more opinion and insight.

On his way home, Shaun passes even more zombies, including one who he mistakes for a homeless person. When the zombie approaches him, Shaun says, “No, I don’t have any change. I didn’t even have enough for the shop.” Incidents like these make this film the perfect satirical comedy about what it means to be alive in the 21st century. This is emphasized again when Shaun makes it home safely and turns on the TV, ignoring the news reports about the zombies. This brilliant satire points to the sad fact that a typical person’s life is already so horrible that a zombie apocalypse wouldn’t even mark a change for the worse.

So, how does my final Shaun of the Dead commentary look as a whole? Check it out:

In this clever and satirical scene from the 2004 movie Shaun of the Dead, Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) wakes up with a hangover and walks to the convenience store to buy a soda and an ice cream.

 

In his hungover condition, he does not notice anything that is going on around him. This provides insight on how Shaun, like many of us, lives his day-to-day life, almost as a zombie himself, just going through the motions without noticing the world in which he lives.

 

On his way to the store, he walks by what appears to be zombies roaming the street. There is mayhem all around him, but this mayhem isn’t a far cry from Shaun’s daily reality. A car window is smashed and the alarm is blaring. Today it is from a zombie, but on a normal day, a regular thief could have smashed it. A person is running for his life away from zombies, but on a normal day, it could be a person running to catch the bus.

 

There are bloody handprints on the cooler, and the convenience store clerk is missing, which, along with the creepy music soundtrack, gives a sense of impending doom as the viewer watches Shaun obliviously bumble along.

 

On his way home, Shaun passes even more zombies, including one who he mistakes for a homeless person. When the zombie approaches him, Shaun says, “No, I don’t have any change. I didn’t even have enough for the shop.” Incidents like these make this film the perfect satirical comedy about what it means to be alive in the 21st century. This is emphasized again when Shaun makes it home safely and turns on the TV, ignoring the news reports about the zombies. This brilliant satire points to the sad fact that a typical person’s life is already so horrible that a zombie apocalypse wouldn’t even mark a change for the worse.

How to Write a Good Essay Part 3: Final Rules to Consider

Now that you’ve seen commentary in action, I want to point out a couple more important rules that will help you write a good essay.

Rule One: Avoid Subjective Phrases

Even when giving commentary in the form of an opinion, avoid using subjective phrases like “I hope,” “I believe,” and “I think.” These are just throwaway phrases. As I discussed in my previous post about writing a cover letter, these phrases are redundant (you wrote the essay, so it’s obvious you think, believe, or hope what is written) and they reduce your credibility.

Rule Two: Maintain a 2:1 Ratio of Commentary to Summary

In general, you should provide approximately two points of commentary for every specific detail you offer. While summary is still important for giving your reader context, commentary is critical to writing a good essay.

Rule Three: Follow Your Instructor’s Rules

Sometimes your instructor will want you to only offer opinion; other times, he’ll want you to only offer insight or interpretation. Other times, you’ll have more freedom as to what type of commentary you include in your essay. The important thing to remember is to follow your instructor’s rules for the assignment.

 

If you need more help learning about how to write a better essay, I recommend reading this post about how one teacher used movie reviews to help students improve writing, and check out this cool slideshow about commentary.  And of course, don’t forget the final step for writing a good essay: editing! Have your essay edited by a Kibin editor, a peer, or a parent.

How about you? Have you struggled with using too much summary in your essays? Or, do you find writing commentary to be fun? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Charles

    Pretty long, but I grabbed what I came for. Thank you Naomi

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      Charles (Guest):

      Pretty long, but I grabbed what I came for. Thank you Naomi

      5:52 p.m., Sunday March 30

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    • Naomi Tepper

      You’re welcome! Glad you found what you were looking for!

  • Becky

    Thank you so much!!! This was way more help compared to the tips my teachers give me!

    • Naomi Tepper

      Hi Becky, aww thanks! I’m so happy that you found this post helpful. Cheers! Naomi

  • Holly Lecakes-Jones

    Thank you, Naomi!

    • Naomi Tepper

      You’re so welcome!

  • Pingback: It's Easy to Write Good Transition Sentences. We'll Show You How!()

  • herobegin

    I love Shaun of Dead and end of movie clip got me good. The hand come out the no where scary crap out me. T.T Good luck with your book, hope good well for you. Thank you very much!!!

    • Naomi Tepper

      Haha. I agree that movie is crazy good, and that scene just makes me shiver!

  • Eve

    its the same format for news article :-)?

    • Naomi Tepper

      Hi Eve, good question! Yes, the same principles apply to commentating on a news article. Thanks for reading!

  • Knowmad

    Wow, thank you for this very detailed information.. it seems you can apply it to any sort of satire or as an opinionated response to any form of literature. I also struggle with this sort of thing.. and yes.. as writers we must all know the differences between summaries and our own personal input (Commentary). But as its been shown here, its all about the presentation.. I have to work on that.

    • Naomi Tepper

      Hi! Thanks for reading! I’m pleased the information has helped. Yes, writing effective commentary is always about presentation. Good luck!

  • Scarlett

    does it all apply the same for an entire book instead of just an scene, like you did?Would I need more paragraphs because it’s a whole book or do I just pick the main scenes and have the same amount of paragraphs as you did?

    • Naomi Tepper

      Hi Scarlett,

      Great question! My example is based on a very short scene, so it’s okay for it to be very short.

      Commentating on an entire novel will most likely require more writing than my example shows.

      I would suggest you choose a specific aspect of the novel to evaluate (perhaps based on the requirements of your assignment) and then pick and choose scenes throughout the book that support your evaluation.

      Write commentary similar to my example for EACH scene from the novel that you chose. Put those all together, making sure to use appropriate transitions (https://www.kibin.com/blog/how-comedians-teach-you-to-write-good-transition-sentences/). Don’t forget to write an introduction with a thesis in the beginning and a conclusion at the end. Here’s one possible outline you can follow to help: https://www.kibin.com/blog/write-5-paragraph-essay-outline/

      Good luck!

      Naomi

  • Great tips. Nice article.

  • Tim
  • Mia Vance Mia Vance

    this is great article

    I would suggest you choose a specific aspect of the novel to evaluate
    (perhaps based on the requirements of your assignment) and then pick and
    choose scenes throughout the book that support your evaluation.

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  • You post is really useful. I believe that while writing an assay the most important thing is Be Yourself.

  • Robert Nelson

    Nice post. I was
    really looking for some useful >essay writing tips and
    must say, these are the best ones I’ve stumbled upon!

  • I’m sure that there are no bad advice. I also agree that if you define a style of writing commentary or summary.
    It will be easier to approach the writing of the text. It is important to write in the first person. If you want, you can use over college paper writing service

  • butdis

    The best article on writing commentary essays. Thank you for sharing your step-by-step guides.

    • You’re welcome. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  • Janice Aneritha

    That was great, what an inspiration that would be!
    Thank you so much for your tips.

    • Hi Janice– thanks for the comment. Super happy to help out.

      Cheers!

  • Daniella

    Woow this article was awesome and very clear! Thank you!! But I wonder, does this apply also to academic essays??

  • This guide helps me a lot, definitely will share this essay writing help to my friends. Heading off to tweet this awesome guide.

    • Awesome! Glad we could help, Carlos. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  • hayley

    Good

  • hg007

    love this. question: under the “personal reaction” examples you also have this: “which, along with the creepy music soundtrack,” but it is not in a different color. It’s not summary. Would you call this part personal reaction? Or opinion?

    • Good catch! My using the word “creepy” to describe the soundtrack would qualify as me stating an opinion here. I can’t be sure that everyone would think it creepy.

      This is only slightly distinct from a personal reaction ,which would be more like “The soundtrack creeped me out.” 🙂

  • Saffi Grey

    I’m an academic writing adviser and this is a super useful, clear, and thorough example I can use for my students. Thank you Naomi.

    • That’s amazing! I’m so happy to hear it. Thanks for your kind comment. 🙂

  • Kimberly J. Haas

    Well, this article is quite informative. I will share it with my mates so they can know about it.

    • Awesome! Glad it helped you and thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Jade Wolf

    I still do not understand about the commentary my teacher said in our first commentary that you need to explain what is going on in the quotation but it still sounds like summarizing and when she explains waht to do it still sounnds like summarizinng

    • Hi Jade,

      The difference can be really confusing. When you use commentary, you’re often adding an opinion or evaluation — not *just* stating what is going on in the quotation. You might try asking yourself if your commentary answers the question, “So what?” So if you write “In this quotation, [author] is describing [X],” and you ask yourself “So what?”, you might realize that you can add on to this sentence with something like: “…which is important because [reason 1] and [reason 2].” Then you’re not only saying what is happening in the quotation (summarizing), but you’re showing the larger significance of what is happening — that’s what commentary is for 🙂

      Happy writing!
      Erin

  • me

    i usually don’t comment, but i think the topic sentence has a part that kinda sound like a summary

    • Do you mean this sentence: “In this clever and satirical scene from the 2004 movie Shaun of the Dead, Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) wakes up with a hangover and walks to the convenience store to buy a soda and an ice cream”?

      You’re right that it’s almost a summary — what sets it apart is the “clever and satirical” phrase, since that inserts an opinion 🙂

  • me

    But, the other things is very good, thx for the tips