Rules of thumb for commentary writing

Our commentaries are akin the the Bryn Mawr Commentaries: for first-time readers, whether students or advanced scholars who want to read the text expeditiously. Commentary authors are asked to keep the following considerations/rules-of-thumb in mind:

1. Respect the reader’s time
Stick to what a curious reader would want and need to know to help understand and appreciate the text at hand. Tangentially related material and ancillary texts can be handled in an introduction or in a close reading essay.

2. Look out for what is assumed
Readers frequently need to know what’s not there, or rather what’s there but invisible: the omitted antecedent of a relative pronoun, half of a compound verb form, or the explanation of some constitutional nicety, religious custom, or mythological detail that the author takes as common knowledge.

3. Use jargon only for a good reason
Technical terms are ok, but as a tool, not a substitute for explanation. Explain in a way that doesn’t simply rely on everybody being fully familiar with your own favorite terminology, at least the first time through.

4. Go easy on cross-references
Only use a cross-reference when it’s genuinely important for comprehension, or to spell out what is assumed. Avoid especially untranslated parallel passages.

5. Elucidate first, observe second
First make clear what is going on, whether by judicious translation, paraphrase, rearranging the word order. Then move to whatever comment you would like to make.

6. Look out for what is typical or atypical
It is sometimes useful to point out what is unusual or what is standard, what is distinctive or what is cliché, what is central or what is peripheral, interesting word order, or striking word choice. 

7. Separate interpretation from elucidation
When it comes to serving first-time readers, even expert ones, literary interpretation is out of place. If you advance a clever observation in a note that doesn’t help elucidate the language itself, you are likely to alienate rather than to enlighten. And there’s not enough time in a note to make a literary argument effectively, anyway. Save that for a close reading essay.

8. When the text makes no sense when translated literally, translate it idiomatically
Many commentators on classical texts see translation in a note as dishonest, allowing the reader to cheat. Think of it instead as modeling the sort of careful, close translation you’d like to see: not over-literal pseudo-English, but the real, satisfying mots justes.

9. Save space by linking to stable resources
Link to DCC grammars for grammatical points, to Logeion for lexicography, to Wikipedia for literary devices, to Perseus for classical texts, to Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology for those topics, and to Pleiades for geography. But don’t link to a news article or blog post that’s likely to be gone in a year or two. 

10. Model close reading practices
Humanists and scholars read slowly and carefully, alive to the precise meanings of words. They appreciate the beauty of the style. They read critically, aware of what’s left out, what’s partial or unfair. They want to take something away and apply it to life. The other rules flow from this central purpose.

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