Fundamentals of the commentary
In the last section, I explained in detail what it means to “analyse” a text. In this section, we zoom out and look at the big picture:
- What is a Paper 1 commentary?
- Where and how does ‘analysis’ fit into a Paper 1 commentary?
What is Paper 1?
In a Paper 1 exam, you are given two mysterious, unseen texts, both of which are between 1 and 2 pages in length. One text is a poem; the other text is a prose extract from a novel or a short story. Your task is to write a commentary on one of the two options.
Standard level students: you have 1.5 hours plus 5 minutes reading time to choose the text, plan the commentary, and write the commentary.
Higher level students: you have 2 hours plus 5 minutes reading time to complete the same mission.
The commentary in detail
In a commentary, you have one main goal:
Explain how the writer uses specific language to build a central idea, message or purpose.
In other words, this is the general argument that will you always try to prove in any IB English Paper 1 commentary. The main argument of a commentary is also called the subject statement or the thesis.
A commentary is a persuasive essay made of three parts:
- An introduction
- A body
- A conclusion
As a general overview:
- The introduction has the easy task of introducing the subject statement.
- The body paragraphs then do all the hard work. The body paragraphs support, develop and prove the main argument. The body is by far the most important part of the commentary, because this is where all the analysis occurs.
- Finally, the conclusion summarises everything that was already said in the body paragraphs so that the essay ends on a smooth note. More on the conclusion later.
Now, let’s look at each of the three parts in a little more detail.
The main role of the introduction is to introduce the subject statement. That’s pretty much it. There are some other details, but we don’t care about them at the moment.
What would be really useful is to show you what a good, real subject statement looks like.
CS Lewis example
Let’s say we’ve just read an extract from a novel by CS Lewis. Quick summary: the narrator is super paranoid about the dark.
- Here the writer’s purpose is simply to characterise the narrator as a fearful person. Characterisation is a very common purpose that you will find in many IB extracts, especially prose extracts.
- A good subject statement for this extract looks like this (there are many alternatives):
“In the prose extract, Lewis uses setting and tone to characterise the irrational, fearful and unreliable nature of the narrator.”
Les Murray example
Here’s another quick example for a poem by the Australian poet, Les Murray.
“In the poem, Murray hyperbolises society’s aversion towards emotion in order to criticize masculinity as a restrictive social norm that inhibits the natural expression of emotion.”
If we look at these two good subject statements side-by-side, we can spot the formula for what makes a good subject statement:
“The writer does this, this and this in order to achieve _______ (core purpose, idea, or message).”
A good main argument is a clear statement of how the writer’s language achieves the writer’s overall purpose. For now, that’s all you need to know.
Okay, so you have a subject statement for, say, the Les Murray poem. Let’s imagine that you’ve already written the introduction. The immediate next step is to write the body of the commentary. In the body, your job is to prove the bold claim that you made in the subject statement.
So how do you prove the subject statement? You do it by looking at individual points. These smaller points support smaller, specific aspects of the overall subject statement.
The idea is that each body paragraph tries to prove a separate, smaller aspect of the bigger purpose. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle: You must piece together smaller, more manageable pieces to build the bigger idea.
So there are usually three points, each in a separate body paragraph. Why does there have to be three points? I don’t know. It’s just convention. Probably some random philosopher in Greece like two thousand years ago thought that an argument with one supporting point is absolute rubbish, and 2 doesn’t seem good enough either, so the next best thing is three. Who knows. By the way, don’t write that in your history essay if you take history. In general, three points is a good balance between depth and breadth of your essay. Of course, three is only a general rule. Two and four body paragraphs also work very well if it suits the extract.
Okay, so we use specific points to support the bigger subject statement. Now the question is… how do we come up with these amazing points? Well… we don’t.
Up until now, I’ve been very evil and sneaky. I’ve made you think that we start with the subject statement and then we think of supporting points. This is the exact opposite of what actually happens.
- In reality, we dig through an unseen extract and find interesting points and ideas first, and then we think of an overall subject statement—a nice large umbrella—that encapsulates each idea nicely into a single sentence.
So really, we already have the points in our minds when we write the body paragraphs. What might these points look like for our examples?
- For the CS Lewis example, the ideas contained in the subject statement are obviously the original ideas from which the subject statement was derived. The ideas would be irrationality, fear and unreliability of the narrator. Nice and simple.
- For the Les Murray example, it’s less obvious, because it’s a more complex piece of writing. One set of points out of many possibilities is this:
- Portrayal of society’s rejection of emotion.
- Criticism of masculinity as a restrictive social norm.
- Emotional expression as a natural and liberating act.
- Don’t worry about how I chose these points. Those are distracting details. What you should understand from this example is simply that these points address smaller aspects of the overarching subject statement.
So how do we prove the points? Analysis. By analysing the heck out of the text. The body paragraphs should be full of analysis. If you’re not stuffing these paragraphs with so much analysis like flavoured rice into a juicy chicken, then you’re not doing it right.
In each point, what you want to do is:
- Present a relevant quote that supports the point.
- Analyse the quote.
- Repeat for 2, 3 or 4 quotes.
Often, students don’t really understand why we have to analyse in the points; they analyse because the teacher tells them to do it, but they don’t really know why they’re doing it. Here’s why you analyse.
Remember the subject statement? It claims that the writer achieves a core purpose. The rest of the essay is dedicated to proving this fact. When you analyse, what you’re doing is explaining how specific examples of language achieve that core purpose. Analysis is simply about giving real examples from the text that support the subject statement.
The truth is: the conclusion doesn’t really matter. But you still need to write it, and you still need to write it well, because Criterion C (Organisation) depends on a completely written essay. Never leave out the conclusion.
A conclusion summarises the subject statement and the points. You cannot introduce new information, new quotes or new analysis in the conclusion. Stay away from new stuff.
The best conclusions are those that finish off the essay with an insightful, relevant, and (often) slightly cheesy message about life. For example:
- How does this text impact the reader?
- How does it change the reader’s worldview?
A Paper 1 should ideally be anywhere between 800 to 1200 words. I personally wrote towards the higher end of the range, but you can certainly get a good mark if you write concisely. Quality of analysis is more important than quantity of analysis.
HL students should definitely write 1200 words or more, depending on how much time you have and how complex the text is, etc. The reason is because HL texts are more complex and require more analysis.
In terms of a word count for each section:
- Introduction – no longer than 150 words
- Body – 750 to 900 words
- Point 1 – 250 to 300 words
- Point 2 – 250 to 300 words
- Point 3 – 250 to 300 words
- Conclusion < 100 words
It’s important to ensure that there is a balanced word count in each of the points. A common mistake is to write a lot on the first point and then run out of time, and then rush through the last two points without any depth. Time management is important; we’ll cover this skill later.
Conclusions are almost always written in a mad scramble in last 2 to 5 minutes, so 100 words is very decent effort, and I actually wouldn’t write any more than that, because you’re not developing newer or deeper ideas anyway.
In the Paper 1 commentary, you are trying to prove a central argument about how the writer achieves his/her purpose.
- The introduction introduces this main argument.
- The points in the body support different but connected aspects of the central argument. The magic of analysis all happens here in these 3 body paragraphs.
- In the body paragraphs, quotes from the text are used to support the points, and each point supports one part of the subject statement.