Learn how to plan an IB English paper 1 commentary in 3 easy steps

For my Paper 1 commentaries, I always spent 20 to 25 minutes at the start of the exam planning what I would write. In my experience, adequate planning is the most important factor for success in IB English Paper 1. So do it!

A commentary is only as good as its plan.

Many students are too caught up in their annotations and analysis that they forget to stop and think clearly. When done correctly, planning is essentially a first (shorthand) draft of the commentary that you will write. The purpose of planning is to figure out exactly how you will write the commentary so that any logical issues, glaring incongruities and epic fails are elegantly avoided.

So how do you plan a commentary properly?

In this guide, we’ll go through the two critical components of planning:

  1. Planning at the micro-level
  2. Planning at the macro-level

If you’ve just discovered LitLearn, be sure to check out our complete guide on IB English Paper 1.

Macro-level planning

Macro planning is about getting the Big Picture correct.

If you’ve been reading my content on IB English analysis for a while now, then you’ll know that I always stress the importance of considering the Big Picture before messing around with the micro-details of analysis. This same principle applies to planning an IB English Paper 1 commentary.

When you begin to plan, you should have just finished annotating the text in detail. Thus, you have a decent but confused idea of what exactly is the main idea of the text. Hence, the first step in planning is to brainstorm, scrutinise and decide on a thesis (also called a subject statement). What is a thesis? The thesis is simply the central argument of your commentary; it takes the form:

“In the text Imaginary Book, the Imaginary Writer explores the central theme(s) / the central technique(s) / the central idea(s) of x, y and z in order to achieve the Imaginary Purpose of criticising the racism prevalent in Atlantis.

(I explain in-depth how to write a thesis in the Analysis Bootcamp course.)

Cool. We have a thesis in hand, and we (sort of) understand the main idea of the text. The next step is to find a set of three or four smaller points (think of them as arguments) that, when strung together, support the thesis, thus proving the main argument of our essay. These ideas will be the points that we argue in each body paragraph. Now, how do you find these ideas? Simple: Time and effort. You have to be consider each part of the text at an intensely detailed level as as well as from a global, birds-eye view.

Here’s a made-up plan of three ideas for the made-up thesis about racism in Atlantis:

  1. The construction of the setting to create a tense atmosphere
  2. The racial tension is highlighted through the characterisation of the mermaid Jane Fishgirl
  3. The writer celebrates Jane’s emotional fortitude in the face of racism

You now have your ideas. Sometime our first ideas are fantastic, and so we need not change them nor think any further. Most of the time, however, our ideas suck. So we need to improve them by digging through the text again, thinking of better ideas, and rearranging the ordering of the points. This process of optimizing our ideas can take 5 minutes or more.

Here is a summary of the steps in planning (so far):

  1. Brainstorm the most insightful analysis that you possibly can.
  2. Decide on a thesis.
  3. Search for three or four most relevant points for the commentary.
  4. Revise the thesis and the chosen ideas. Only stop when the logic flows flawlessly from one point to the next.

Micro-level planning

Micro planning is about getting the annotations, quotes and analysis for each individual point correct.

With our macro understanding of the text having been triple-checked, improved and perfected, we can now move on to the next step where we concern ourselves with the nitty-gritty detail.

  1. Choose three quotes for each point. Here, you will need to use your annotations whilst also improving them.
  2. Figure out the best ordering of these quotes in terms of argument flow.
  3. Revise steps 1 and 2 until your commentary structure is stronger than the walls of Fort Knox.

Hence, a complete, fully-developed plan consists of three key components:

  1. A subject statement
  2. Clear points in an appropriate order
  3. Three quotes for each point (highlighted or circled on the provided text, but useful to jot down the line numbers)

With a strong plan, you can do anything.

Fly like a bird? Easy.

Run like Usain Bolt? Trivial.

Get a 7 in IB English? Simple (given that you know how to analyse like a pro).

Not convinced that planning is essential?

When you don’t plan a commentary, you can start writing straight away. Wow! So much time to write my analysis for each point! Well, that’s the expectation. In reality, you have no idea what your central argument is, so you’ll make up a really bad thesis on the spot. Then you’ll start your first point, where you will pick the first idea that comes to mind. Who cares about logic ordering of points, right? Who cares about coming up with the best commentary structure, right? One sentence into your first point, you realise that you have no clue which quote to pick. So you waste 1 minute picking a good quote and write analysis on it, without ever thinking ahead and considering if this quote is the best quote to start analysing first. Hopefully you get the picture.

Writing a commentary without a plan is a guarantee for mediocrity.

  • You have not prepared any insightful analysis.
  • Your commentary structure is haphazard and certainly not 5/5 for Criterion C—Organisation.
  • You waste an exorbitant amount of time searching for quotes and thinking through the argument on-the-spot.
  • You waste lots of mental energy multi-tasking: writing whilst trying to think ahead.
  • Half-way through the exam, you cry in remorse for skipping the 20 minutes of planning.

Categories: Paper 1

Jackson Huang

Jackson is an IB 45 graduate and English tutor. He is studying at the University of Melbourne and teaches an online IB English analysis course.


Thomas · September 9, 2020 at 11:53 am

Hi Jackson. Thank you for the clarity which you wrote this.
However, regarding to the three made-up thesis ideas in the macro-level planning, how might they fit into a short and concise thesis?

juliaswizzles · September 17, 2020 at 3:47 pm

Would it be possible to get an link to the analysis bootcamp/tips for writing a thesis?

This was really helpful! Thank you!

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