What is a Commentary?

A commentary is a response to another person’s argument. Commentaries are most often found in expressions of opinions on current issues and events.1 The purpose of commentaries is to offer new and insightful perspectives so that readers can understand their own stance on an issue or event. Importantly, readers can find commentaries similar to an op-ed (opinion/editorial) piece in a newspaper or a magazine.

What Do Commentaries Do?

Commentaries offer a new angle to an ongoing public conversation.2  The goal of commentaries is to convince readers that the opinion of the person writing the commentary is more convincing. When writing a commentary, it is important to make clear points that are understood easily by readers. At the same time, readers of commentaries want to learn something new while figuring out how someone else views an issue or event of interest. Most commentaries act on the purpose of making their points memorable. 3

Where Can I Find Commentaries?

Commentaries are not difficult at all to find. Readers can find them in print media (e.g., newspapers, magazines) and visual media (e.g., online news). Many letters to the editor and opinion-editorial (op-ed) pieces have a similar style as commentaries do. In addition, blogs and social networking sites like Blogger or Facebook serve the purpose of creating a space for writing commentaries.4

What Is In a Commentary?

The content of commentaries (along with letters to the editor and op-ed pieces) have current events or issues as their primary focus.5 Commentaries often contain an explanation of the current event or issue. Commentaries often offer support for the opinions written in them. As with any writing genre, commentaries focus on topic, angle, purpose, readers (audience), and context. Writers of commentaries, letters to the editor, and op-ed pieces often view a current issue or event from a unique angle that applies to the issue’s timely relevance. In rhetoric, this is known as kairosKairos is the Greek word meaning “right or opportune time.” Writers and readers of commentaries should not confuse kairos with chronos (chronological time). However, if historical criticism applies to the current event, writers should feel free to put that in their commentaries.

How Should Writers Organize Their Commentaries?

One method of organizing a commentary comes from Johnson-Sheehan and Paine. 6

The features included in this method of organizing commentaries are:

Topic: This is the basis of the current event or issue

Introduction: It is important that writers of commentaries engage their readers immediately by stating the issue clearly. This involves announcing the issue at hand, the thesis statement, and the angle or position taken on the topic in relation to the issue.

Explanation: In this part, writers review what has happened or is happening in addition to what other writers have written (or said) about both the topic and the issue.

Argument: Writers of commentaries argue for a specific position by using reasoning (also known as logos, examples, and eyewitness accounts.

Clarification: This qualifies the argument while it attempts to avoid the tendency to make overgeneralizations about the topic. This is also what is known as ethos.

Conclusion: As with any written task, the conclusion offers an overall assessment of the issue by highlighting its importance to the audience. Conclusions make additional implications for the future.

How Do Writers Know What to Put in Their Commentaries?

As with reviews, commentaries involve using the techniques of preliminary inquiry and background research without necessarily experiencing the subject under review. However, commentaries are different from reviews in lieu of these features. Writers of commentaries should write about something that is important to them by listening to what others say and reading what others write.7 Writers of commentaries should also take care to listen to what people are not saying and not writing; this would mean citing a gap in the conversation. Writers of commentaries, in addition, often follow news events found on Web sites, in newspaper, and in magazines.8 As it is for reviews, writers and readers of commentaries should play the Believing and Doubting Game using the three steps of believing, doubting, and synthesizing. Playing the Believing and Doubting Game can help writers of commentaries see multiple sides of an issue while they tie all of their information together to make it their own.

Preliminary Inquiry

Another way of stating this is “finding out what you already know.” 9 10 The Believing and Doubting Game applies most fittingly here.

The three steps of preliminary inquiry are:

  • Believing: Clearly, this means understanding a topic and seeing an issue from the perspective of a convinced and unquestioning believer. The first step of believing assumes that all of the information and opinions from this angle are all correct, even if all of the assertions of information and opinions contradict each other. Writers using this step should take into consideration of where the believer’s angle makes the most sense. Writers should also substantiate their claims with supporting evidence that is not only credible but also accurate.11
  • Doubting: Writers, in this instance, should imagine themselves understanding their topic and viewing their issue from the perspective of a skeptic. When doubting, writers can cite logical fallacies in another writer’s argument.12 Writers can also use the technique of doubt to allow refutation by future writers. In doing so, writing a commentary from a skeptical angle means not taking the believer’s argument literally while considering the practical consequences of the same argument.
  • Synthesizing: Here, writers place the believer and the skeptic at odds with each other to find common ground where possible. Writers, then, give their own perspective on the issue based on the arguments made by the believer and the skeptic. Synthesizing entails consideration of the major issues separating both sides of the issue by analyzing the assumptions made and the terms used to make those assumptions.

Background Research

This next step of the Believing and Doubting Game is also known as “finding out what others know.”13 Since commentaries are most often responses to current events and issues, writers must comment on how the events are still happening and what that will mean. Not all the facts are present in commentaries because they are happening at that moment. New developments often arise before any publication of the commentary takes place. Nonetheless, sources that writers of commentaries include:

  • Online Sources: These sources are especially useful for commentaries because they are happening immediately. Online sources are most useful if new events continue to happen within a specific topic.14 With online sources, writers should keep the Believing and Doubting Game in mind. Writers, in addition, should assess the bias and reliability of each online source. Assessing bias involves how the arguments made use factual information.
  • Print Sources: These sources are useful for conducting background research on a topic.15 Most background research on a current event or issue is available in newspapers and magazines. Such sources can give impressions on how to frame a debate while considering who is involved.16 Books also work as resources for researching background information. They are useful in exploring the historical dimensions of a topic. From that, writers can develop a better understanding of the issue. Overall, it is important to look for the most recent information available, as some sources can become outdated quickly.
  • Empirical Sources: As with a review, it is likely that an expert on a topic or issue is available, particularly on university campuses. In this case, writers of commentaries can correspond with the expert by using e-mail or another mode of correspondence to set up an interview. Aside from interviews, writers of commentaries can use surveys and/or field observations. This, of course, depends on the topic.

With all of the potential sources to use for writing commentaries, writers should triangulate their sources.17  Triangulating sources helps confirm facts to gain a broader understanding of an issue.

How Do Writers Organize and Draft Their Commentaries?

As mentioned earlier, the best commentaries often grab the readers’ attention immediately. In any format, including the commentary, the best writers often lead readers through a series of argument supporting a specific position. There is often the consideration of what type of information is best suitable for the writer’s intended audience. In other words, writers of commentaries must focus on what the audience needs to know.


In the introduction, it is often the case that writers generate reader interest if there is the use of information not previously considered.18

Within the introduction, it is best to do to two things:

  • State the Purpose: This usually happens immediately in any genre, but it is especially important for writing commentaries. In other words, readers want their writers to “get to the point.” At the same time, readers have a surprising interest in the angle writers of commentaries take.
  • State the Main Point or Thesis Statement: In the introduction of a commentary, writers should be clear about what they want to either prove or disprove.19 Sometimes, writers of commentaries state their main point immediately. Solid thesis statements give readers a clear sense of the direction the commentary will take.


The amount of explanation needed in a commentary depends on how familiar readers are with both the topic and the issue.20 When explaining the topic and the event, writers should explain what has already happened. Writers should also summarize what others have said about the topic and the issue. If, for example, readers are already familiar with a topic, then the explanation should be very brief. Writers, therefore, should give enough information to remember an event or the origins of an ongoing debate.

If readers are not already familiar with a topic or an issue, then writers should provide enough background to help stimulate the readers’ interest.21 In this case, writers will need to explain who was involved, where and when it happened, how it happened, and why. Additionally, writers should show as many angles to the debate as possible by summarizing what others have said.


It is impossible to include all the possible information in explaining why a writer’s own position is the most credible.22 Instead, writers often pick the best and most important pieces of evidence while they devote an appropriate amount of time explaining them. In most commentaries, each piece of evidence receive one to two paragraphs of coverage. Each piece of evidence should support the main point (or thesis statement) while each piece should provide a solid structure for taking an angle on the topic and issue at hand.


This section often comes before the conclusion. When writing this section of a commentary, writers should make their readers of the complexities involved in the issue.23 Here, writers need to make their arguments clear, particularly when they insert new information or events that could complicate the overall argument. In most cases, writers use signal phrases such as:

  •  “I’m not arguing here for a complete … but only …”
  • “I understand, of course, but …”
  • “I’m only suggesting that …”
  • “I recognize that the people on the other side want to do the right thing, too.”24

Most clarifications are only one paragraph in length, depending on the extent of the issue as well as how much readers already know about the topic and the issue. Often, clarification prevents readers from making accusations of writers “painting with too broad a brush”–generalizing too far or failing to consider the fine but important points of an issue.25


Readers should finish reading a commentary with a clear statement of a position writers make. As with any written task, writers often restate the main thesis but in stronger terms. Writers often reemphasize why the topic is important while speculating on what others will say in the future. Many writers of commentaries finish with an anecdote, a figure of speech, a clever turn of phrase, or a lasting image.

What Is An Appropriate Writing Style for Commentaries?

Commentaries often use a style that set their arguments apart from writing done for other genres, such as reviews or proposals.26  With the style, writers should see through the lens of someone making a commentary. Important aspects of commentaries to consider are: how writers want their readers to imagine them and how writers want readers to react to the overall tone.

“Getting into Character”

Johnson and Sheehan suggest that writers of commentaries play their role “like an actor.”27 Another term for this is “getting into character.” This allows writers of commentaries to write with less constraints. Depending on the tone writers of commentaries wish to convey–whether angry or upbeat–they can let emotions flow onto a screen or page. Writing multiple drafts of commentaries allows writers to explore the specific emotion they use.


Some commentaries work best when they imitate the style of a well-known critic or commentator. Examples of well-known commentators include George WillGlenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Ariana Huffington. Writers of commentaries look closely at how other commentators achieve their style or tone.28 In most cases, writers of commentaries look for details or words used in a particular way; sentence length; analogies, similes, and metaphors to express complex thoughts; and expression of emotions. Writers should, however, best avoid imitating the style of an article on the topic they want to write about so as to avoid plagiarism.

Works Cited

  1. Writing Today, Custom Edition for St. Cloud State University. Taken from Writing Today, Second Edition by Richard Johnson-Sheehan and Charles Paine, 2012. Print. p. 171.
  2. Johnson-Sheen and Paine, p. 171
  3. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 171
  4. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 171
  5. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 172
  6. Writing Today, p. 172
  7. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 175
  8. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 175
  9. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 84.
  10. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 90
  11. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, pp. 175-176
  12. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 176
  13. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 176
  14. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 176
  15. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 177
  16. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 177
  17. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 178
  18. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 178
  19. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 178
  20. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 179
  21. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 179
  22. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 179
  23. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 180
  24. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 180
  25. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 180
  26. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 181
  27. Writing Today, p. 181
  28. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine, p. 182



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