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IB English Paper 2 Explained

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This guide will explain IB English Paper 2 and what you need to ace the exam come May or November, when the IB Gods throw you this (seemingly) insurmountable task.

If you don’t know all about Paper 1 already, do check out LitLearn’s amazing guide for IB English Paper 1. Paper 1 is all about on-the-spot thinking and adrenaline-pumping analysis. What about Paper 2?

Well, IB English Paper 2 is all of those things, plus extensive preparation. But don’t fret! I survived Paper 2, and so have many others before you. All you need is a couple sprinkles of guidance from a seasoned Paper 2 veteran (ahem).

This guide covers all the essential topics for acing IB English Paper 2.

Topics included in this guide

  1. What is Paper 2?
  2. How to answer a Paper 2 prompt
  3. Understanding the “key” of a prompt
  4. Morphing: the most important skill in IB English Paper 2
  5. How many texts to use in a Paper 2 comparative essay?
  6. How to choose the best points across your texts
  7. The brainstorm process for Paper 2
  8. Essential steps to prepare for IB English Paper 2

Let’s get started!


What is IB English Paper 2?

Imagine.

You’re in the exam room. With a silent but solemn hand gesture, the chief exam invigilator signals your cohort to open the test paper. A flurry of pages turning and sliding. You stare at the page. What do you see? You see several prompts… one, two, three, maybe four. You wipe the sweat from your forehead and try to focus on the words on the page:

“We are all prisoners of ourselves.” Discuss how the sense of imprisonment shapes the meaning and the effect on the audience of at least two texts you have studied.

Okay, let’s drop the dramatic tone.

A Paper 2 exam consists of three or four of these prompts. From these options, you choose one prompt and write a 1000 to 1500-word essay on it.

How long do you get? 1.5 hours for Standard Level (SL) students, and 2 hours for Higher Level (HL) students.

In these 1000 to 1500 words, your task is to write a comparative essay, which — you guessed it — means comparing similarities and contrasting differences between the texts you’ve studied in class for Paper 2 (i.e., poems, novels, plays or short stories) .

Now that you understand what a Paper 2 essay involves, let’s jump into how to properly answer one of these IB English Paper 2 prompts.


How to answer a Paper 2 Question

Let’s stick with the above example about the theme of “imprisonment”.

First, see that philosophical quote at the start of the prompt? It’s there to spark ideas, to get the juices flowing in your brain. You don’t have to refer to it directly unless the questions explicitly asks you to do so. So the take-away message here is to not be ‘imprisoned’ by the philosophical quotes at the start of the prompts.

Second, notice the command term “discuss”. This is usually replaced by words like “evaluate”, “analyse”, “examine”. Don’t worry about it too much: it doesn’t mean anything too important, because at the end of the day you still have to analyse, you still have to compare, and you still have to contrast.

The key of the prompt

The part after the command term is the most important part of the prompt:

“[…] how the sense of imprisonment shapes the meaning and the effect on the audience […]”

Here the “sense of imprisonment” — the key of the prompt — tells us exactly what we need to write about in the essay.

Can you find the key in this next prompt?

Compare and contrast the effectiveness of the use of irony in two or more texts you have studied.

Notice the command term “compare and contrast” and the important part after it. The key of this prompt is “the use of irony“.


Get comfy with morphing stuff

More often than not, our texts do not contain anything explicitly related to the prompt’s key, say, the theme of “imprisonment”.

Pay attention to this next paragraph…

The secret to scoring a 7 in Paper 2 is to get very comfortable with bending, morphing and twisting your texts and/or the prompt so that they are as compatible with each other as possible. There are two ways that this can be achieved:

  1. Morphing existing ideas in your own texts to fit the prompt. While Jane Sherwood’s (some random character) nostalgia in your Incredible Text 1 may not directly relate to “imprisonment”, you could twist the character’s nostalgia into the idea that emotions can trap or “imprison” an individual in a treasured memory or a past experience. Nostalgia and imprisonment seem like unlikely brothers at first, but with a bit of justification they look almost like identical twins.
  2. Redefining the prompt (reasonably). The key of the prompt can often be vague. For example, there was a real IB exam prompt that asked whether “male characters were more interesting than female characters.” What does “interesting” even mean? The IB Gods are inviting you to constrain the topic in a way that works for your texts specifically. You could write in the first sentence of your introduction: “Interest, an important part of dramatic works, is often generated by emotional conflict and the subsequent creation of tension.” Here I have restricted the broad topic of “interesting” to the more clearly-defined topic of “emotional conflict” because this redefinition works well for the texts I’ve studied for IB English Paper 2. You should do the same.

In reality, you have to morph both your texts and the prompt in order to reach a snug fit between the two. Getting to this point, which all happens during the planning stage, is the most difficult part of the Paper 2 process because it requires you to know your texts so well that you can apply the ideas in your texts to different situations.


How many texts to compare and contrast?

Before we continue with this guide, we need to address the age-old question of how many texts should we compare and contrast in an IB English Paper 2 comparative essay?

I strongly recommend that you use only two texts for your Paper 2 exam because it is extremely difficult to deal with three texts at the same time.

Now that we agree on how many texts to compare and contrast, let’s see how we can make the texts work together.


Choosing the best points across your two texts

There’s an easy way, and there’s a hard way.

If you want a score of 5 or below, you can simply think of two points to answer the prompt for Text 1 and two other points to answer the prompt for Text 2. Then, slap them together into different paragraphs, regurgitate some shallow comparison and contrast, and call it a comparative essay. That doesn’t sound very sophisticated, does it?

On the other hand, if you want a score of 6 or 7, you’ll need to use a lot more brainpower and insight. The points that you choose for your two texts are very important, in terms of how the points relate to each other and to the prompt. The points need to have enough overlaps that similarities can be analysed, but not too much similarity because you also want to contrast differences.

A graphical illustration of how IB English Paper 2 texts should relate to each other.

A graphical illustration of how IB English Paper 2 texts should relate to each other.

What ends up happening is you enter an algorithm — a set of steps, sort of like a recipe — where you repeatedly attempt to find good points for the prompt, gradually morphing them while re-defining the prompt itself, until you reach a good plan for your Paper 2 essay.

What does a good plan generally look like?

  1. Your re-defined prompt has not strayed far, or at all, from the original prompt
  2. The points for Text 1 fits well with the prompt
  3. The points for Text 2 fits well with the prompt as well as the points your chose for Text 1

The million dollar question is: How do we get to this optimum stage where the prompts and the texts and married so harmoniously? The answer is brainstorming.


Brainstorming for IB English Paper 2

Brainstorming is how we get from a blank page to a strong set of points that answer a Paper 2 prompt.

The questions IB English students need to ask themselves to brainstorm good prompt re-definitions and points.

The brainstorming framework for IB English Paper 2.

Brainstorming for IB English Paper 2 is unique because it’s difficult. There are so many variables to consider, and things get complicated very quickly. This is the part where most IB English students stumble.

So let’s fix that.

Below, I’ve listed four simple questions to provide order to the chaos. Think of it as an algorithm, a set of steps that you repeat. Ask yourself these questions again and again until you reach a strong set of points for your Paper 2 response.

The Paper 2 Brainstorming Framework

  1. Can I redefine the prompt to better suit my texts?
  2. Can I morph Text 1 so that it better fits with with the prompt?
  3. Does the prompt and Text 1 overlap enough with Text 2?
  4. Can I morph Text 2 so that it better fits with the prompt and Text 1?

Before we transition our focus to what you can do pre-exam, let’s have a quick recap of what we’ve learned so far in the guide already!

  • IB English Paper 2 is a comparative essay
  • The key of a Paper prompt is the most important part–the bit that you’ll be answering
  • Success in Paper 2 is all about being adaptable: morphing prompts and ideas until they are compatible with each other
  • Finding a set of points that fit well with a specific prompt is a challenging task
  • However, we can use the four-question brainstorming framework to achieve a strong set of points that match the prompt

How to best prepare for Paper 2

We’ve talked a lot about the skills and questions necessary to tackle an IB English Paper 2 prompt, but all of that happens during the exam itself. What can we do before Paper 2 to put ourselves in the best position?

  1. (Really) understanding your text
  2. Choosing great quotes for your Paper 2
  3. Learning these quotes off-by-heart
  4. Practise past Paper 2s

Let’s go through these steps in order.


Understanding your text

IB English Paper 2 tests skills that require a deep understanding. First, to compare and contrast effectively, you need to know your texts well enough that you can find similarities and differences in the micro-details and in the macro themes, in the characters and in the techniques. Second, in order to adapt the ideas in your text to the prompt, you need to know how far you can stretch those ideas while maintaining their validity.

Without a deep understanding, you’re dead in the water.

Here is a checklist to gauge whether you know your text well enough. The end goal is to be able to tick off at least half of this list:

  • I know the names of the main and minor characters
  • I know how the main characters evolve over time (character arc) and can easily provide quotes for these characters
  • I can easily recount the sequence of events, or the main ideas, of each text
  • I can easily list 5 themes from each text and provide 3 quotes for each
  • I can easily list 3 core techniques used in each text
  • I can easily list 3 pairs of characters, themes and techniques that I can compare and contrast across my texts, as well as the quotes required to support these points
  • I know how which main characters and core techniques contribute to the 5 main themes

What can you do to improve your understanding? First, work through each of the above points in the checklist. Next, go through the following steps:

  1. Re-read each text, and continuously compare / contrast the characters, themes and techniques you encounter. Note them down for use in later analysis.
  2. Read analysis from credible sources, i.e. SparkNotes, CliffNotes, LitCharts.
  3. Create notes for all main characters, core techniques and core themes, and collect quotes for each of these categories.
  4. Create notes that compare / contrast the main characters, core techniques and core themes in each of your texts.

Every part of the above four steps is important, but step 4 is the important (and difficult). This is because there aren’t usually any existing online resources that help you compare and contrast your specific selection of texts. You have to do this part on your own, and it requires thinking for yourself.


Choosing great quotes for Paper 2

As you probably know, IB English Paper 2 does not allow you to bring the texts into the exam. You have to learn all the quotes beforehand. This makes it very important to choose and learn the best quotes. Good quotes should be versatile. If you want to learn more about choosing great quotes, go over to our quick guide on how to choose quotes for Paper 2.

How to learn your quotes

If you followed the guide on how to choose quotes for Paper 2, then you know the first step is to maximise the quality of your quotes and minimise the quantity. Decrease the number of quotes to need to learn by making sure each of your quotes are versatile and cover multiple bases.

“Gurus” suggest using flashcards to memorise things, like quotes, but I’ve never been organised enough to make them and then use them consistently. So I don’t expect you to do so, either. (phew)

Instead, I memorised my quotes through repeated usage, i.e. through practice essays. Whenever I practised Paper 2 analysis, I used the quotes and either typed or wrote them down by hand in my essay.

Learning quotes through application beats flashcard wizardry any day of the week:

  1. You’re practising analysis of the quotes while learning the quotes themselves. Your time is being spent well.
  2. The quotes are easier to remember because they have a context. You’ve thought about them in-depth instead of just looking at them for 2 seconds before switching to the next flashcard in the pile.

Practising Past Paper 2s

The most challenging part of Paper 2 is bringing together three aspects:

  1. The quotes you’ve memorised
  2. Your analysis skills
  3. Your ability to adapt the quotes and ideas to a new prompt that you’ve never, ever encountered before

Grabbing that 7 in IB English Paper 2 requires that you are solid on all three fronts. You cannot just practice each of these aspects individually. Practising to plan and write Paper 2 responses ensures that you practise this core trifecta of skills together, all at once.

Practising past Paper 2s was the core of my IB English Paper 2 preparation schedule. It helped me to memorise quotes, learn which quotes are better than others, and learn certain pairs of themes, characters and techniques that work well in my texts for comparison and contrast.

By practising Paper 2s extensively, you increase your awareness of what works (and what doesn’t) for your texts. Hence, the main thing you have to worry about on the day of your exam is the prompt itself–the only variable that you cannot control.


Conclusion

I hope this IB English Paper 2 guide has been useful for your study and preparation. Good luck! Please leave a comment with questions and suggestions on what topics you’d like more guidance on for IB English Paper 2.

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Level 1 Techniques

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Diction

8 Minutes

FAQ: "Why should I learn to properly analyze diction?"

Diction is the most fundamental technique, yet most students struggle to analyze it correctly. Diction is found in every text you'll ever come across in IB English Lang & Lit and IB English Literature.

This 8-Minute lesson will cover:

  1. What is diction?
  2. Quick Example of diction in a quote
  3. Exemplar Analysis using the Diamond Analysis Formula
  4. Practical Analysis Advice for Diction
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What is Diction?

Diction is the simplest literary technique, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to master.

Pay close attention!

Diction means “word choice”: the specific words that a writer deliberately chooses to use in their writing.

Actually analysing diction in your IB English assessment would sound something like this:

  • “The writer’s use of emotional diction in line 5 illustrates…”
  • “The religious diction such as ‘communion’ and ‘confession’ suggests…”

Now, the problem we face as IB English students is that every word on a page technically counts as diction. We obviously can’t analyse all of them! So we need some rules. Two to be exact.

The rules of diction

  1. Never analyse boring words.
  2. Always analyse interesting words.

So how can you tell if a word is interesting and therefore worthy of analysis?

Connotations

Every word has a denotation (i.e., a boring, literal meaning found in the dictionary) and connotations.

A word is interesting if it has interesting connotations. In analysis, we tend to care less about the denotative meaning of a word because it’s not interesting.

Take the word “gold” as an example.

Denotation: “a yellow precious metal, the chemical element of atomic number 79”

Yawn. BORING.

The word “gold” obviously means a lot more to us than just its boring denotation. The word “gold” instantly makes us think of:

wealth, money, luxury, prestige, royalty, quality, beauty, perfection, big fat Rolexes

These ideas, feelings, and impressions that we naturally associate with certain words are called connotations. They are distinct from denotations: Denotation is what the thing literally means; connotation is what we think and feel about that thing.

Big difference.

Since analysis is about wading into the deeper layers of meaning, we care much more about connotations when we analyse diction.

Let’s take a look at the diction in this sentence:

“The town was an infested den of thieves and smugglers.”

Which words have interesting connotations?

The word “infested” is interesting. When we read/hear the word “infested”, we immediately think

Ewwwwwwwwww!!!

We think of a gross mental image of disgusting cockroaches and rats crawling around in some old basement or sewer. To us, the diction of “infested” connotes disgust, and the writer probably chose this word precisely because it makes the town seem dirty and disgusting.

“Infested” also connotes a sense of corruption; in this case, it’s not so much the biological disease, which is the literal meaning, but instead the moral corruption of these thieves and smugglers who work in morally-questionable professions.

There’s also another really interesting layer of meaning. We usually associate the diction of “infested” with animals and insects, as opposed to humans. So the writer uses animalistic diction to dehumanise these criminals to the level of animals, making us view them with contempt (remember this word from the tone list?).

By thinking about the connotations, we got some great analysis about amorality, disgust and dehumanisation.

Recall the 5 steps of the Diamond Analysis Formula from the Analysis Foundations section. Well, all we have to do is apply them here, and voila, we cook up some decent analysis like this:

The author characterises “the town” to be “infested” with criminals. Here, the deliberate use of animalistic diction in “infested” serves to dehumanise the “thieves and smugglers” as creatures comparable to cockroaches or rats, which evokes a sense of disgust in readers. The animalistic diction thus captures the squalid, corrupted state of this “town” and builds an unsettling atmosphere.

Great new adjectives to use in your next essay to boost your Criterion D Language mark:

  • “squalid”: lacking in moral standards
  • “unsettling”: disturbing, making someone feel uneasy or anxious

When you use the word “diction”, try to precede it with an adjective. For example, avoid writing

“The diction in ‘infested’…”

Instead, write

“The animalistic diction in ‘infested’…”

The reason is because ‘diction’ itself is meaningless unless we specify a particular type of word choice. In some cases, the diction is neutral and that is when you have no choice but to just write “diction”.

The same rule applies to tone, atmosphere and mood. Add a preceding adjective. There’s no meaning behind tone unless it’s a specific tone. The same goes for atmosphere and mood.

If you get tired of writing “diction” all the time, you can vary your diction by replacing it with “language”. For example, you can write “emotional diction” or “emotional language”, “formal diction” or “formal language”. They mean the same thing.

Yes, diction is the most fundamental technique and it’s important to understand.

Many students stay stuck at Level 1 in IB English, forever analysing this word, and that word, and this diction, and that diction.

To increase your IB English grade, you must learn more techniques, and rise up in the sophistication of the techniques that you analyse. You must learn the rest of the Level 1 techniques, and from there catapult into Levels 2, 3 and 4.

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How to Craft a Strong Thesis

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FAQ: "Why should I learn how to write a strong thesis?"

IB teachers and examiners form a first impression of your Paper 1 (...and Paper 2, IO and HLE!) based on 1 sentence in your introduction: the thesis. First impressions are important, so your thesis better be good!

This 10-Minute lesson will cover:

  1. What is a thesis?
  2. The Two Crucial Ingredients of a Strong Thesis
  3. The Bulletproof Thesis Formula
  4. Practical Example: How to Improve a Thesis statement
  5. A Word of Warning: Depth can kill

After successfully deconstructing and interpreting a text (explained in another Essay Essential lesson), you will have three things in your hot little hands:

  1. several main ideas
  2. annotations of techniques
  3. the writer’s overall purpose

Now, the hard part…

We need to summarise these three things in a single sentence called the thesis (or subject statement). At this point, we still haven’t started writing the Paper 1 yet. We are still in the planning phase. By doing all of this planning, the writing process will be much, much easier.

“OK, but what–actually–is a thesis?”

The thesis is a single sentence in the introduction of a guided analysis that states how the writer achieves his/her overall purpose. This sentence—this thesis—is also the main argument that you are trying to prove in your IB English Paper 1 guided analysis. The marker can usually judge the strength of your analytical skills from your subject statement alone, so it needs to be well-written.

A good subject statement must tick two boxes:

  • it must be clear and concise
  • it must convey the writer’s intention

1. Be clear and concise

Students often write a long, winding sentence for their thesis. This is bad because the marker cannot easily distinguish your thesis from the rest of your introduction. This is particularly bad when you realise that a marker spends only a couple of minutes reading through each essay (ain’t nobody got time for dat).

As such, you should always write a clear and concise thesis that is no longer than ~30 words.

“In the story, the author looks at how the main character is sad and how he always fights with his parents when he returns home from school.” (27 words)

This is a bad subject statement:

  • The language isn’t clear. In particular, the verb “looks” is too vague and informal. The word “how” is also informal.
  • The sentence isn’t concise. The subject statement should focus only on the main ideas: sadness and familial conflict. The contextual detail of “coming home from school” is distracting. Avoid excess information in the thesis.

A better subject statement looks like this:

“In the prose extract, the author conveys the sadness of the protagonist through the portrayal of his frequent conflict with his parents.” (21 words)

  • The language is clearer and more sophisticated. Notice how instead of writing “In the story”, we can write “In the prose extract”.
  • The sentence is also more concise. The language in “conveys” is much better than “looks at”.

Another great subject statement might look like this:

“In the prose extract, the author characterises the protagonist as a sad teenager who suffers frequent conflict with his parents.”

  • Here, the subject statement is explicit about the literary focus of the essay by including the term “characterization.”
  • In the poem/prose extract/article, (author X) explores/ criticizes/ ridicules/ portrays/ highlights/ illustrates the (subject) in order to (purpose).

In general, use this formula for clear and concise subject statements.

In the poem / play / prose extract / article (genre), the writer explores / criticises / ridicules/ portrays / highlights / illustrates (some verb) _________ (idea, effect, or meaning).

Our subject statement is now clear and concise, but there’s one problem. It feels too simplistic. There’s no depth. The reason is because we’re missing something essential.

2. Sprinkle the writer’s purpose

At the moment, our subject statement is simply saying: “In the text, the writer does this.” But that’s only half the picture. We need to add the writer’s purpose. The subject statement needs to say:

“The writer does this, this and that in order to achieve a purpose.”

By explaining not just what the writer does but also why the writer does it, the subject statement immediately becomes deeper and more complete.

For example:

“In the prose extract, the author characterises the protagonist as a sad teenager who experiences frequent conflict with his parents in order to highlight the harsh estrangement of adolescence.”

where the bolded part of the subject statement expresses the intention (why) behind the writer’s use of characterisation (what).

The subject statement sounds even better if we move the author’s intention to the beginning of the sentence:

In order to highlight the harsh estrangement of adolescence, the author characterizes the protagonist as a sad teenager who suffers frequent conflict with his parents.”

Or, we can be a little less explicit about the purpose by expressing it as a theme: .

“In the prose extract, the author explores the distressed emotional landscape of adolescence through the portrayal of the teenage protagonist’s constant melancholy and familial conflict.”

  • Here the writer’s message is expressed instead as a central theme: the distressed emotional landscape of adolescence.

We now have a new template for writing strong subject statements that have both clarity and depth.

In the poem / play / prose extract / article (some genre), the writer explores / criticises / ridicules/ portrays / highlights / illustrates (some verb) _________ (idea, effect, or meaning) in order to __________ (some purpose).

After you get used to using this template, it will start to feel formulaic and boring. At that stage, feel free to do away with the training wheels and express your thesis however you like, as long as it is clear, concise and conveys the writer’s intention.

Improving a real subject statement by a real student

Student’s version
“Banville utilises situational irony created by the characterisation of the parents, and the situational irony of the narrator’s depressing holiday to express a bittersweet tone by the narrator.” (28 words)

One of our lovely LitLearn students wrote this subject statement for a Higher Level Paper 1 guided analysis. We are going to identify what’s wrong with it, and then we will improve on it.

  • First, the subject statement is not concise. Situational irony is mentioned too many times, and the overall idea of the narrator’s depressing memories can be conveyed more succinctly.
  • Second, there’s an issue with the purpose. The student has made the bittersweet tone the writer’s core purpose. But tone is never the purpose. Ever. Tone is a technique used as a means, a vehicle, a way to achieve a purpose. So the purpose needs to change.
Fixed version
“Banville ironically constructs the narrator’s depressing memories of her childhood holidays in order to portray the fractured relationships within her family.” (21 words)
  • This version is clearer and more concise. It’s seven words shorter. The two uses of situational irony have been replaced by just one use of “ironically”. The reason for doing so is because situational irony is distracting detail that is irrelevant in the thesis but can be mentioned later in the introduction or in the points of the commentary.
  • Also, the purpose is now an actual purpose. The message of the story was really about the horrible relationship between the narrator and her parents, and this purpose is now adequately summarised in the phrase, “fractured relationships within her family.” Notice how an accurate understanding of the writer’s purpose is starting to become important just in the introduction; make sure you’ve deconstructed a text well before you even attempt to write the subject statement, because otherwise your interpretation will be wrong and your Knowledge and Understanding Criterion will go down.
  • Also, we removed the reference to tone from the thesis. The reason why tone is removed entirely from the thesis is because, like situational irony, tone is a distracting detail that is not important at the Big Picture level and should instead be mentioned later in the introduction and body paragraphs.

Depth can kill

A common question that students ask is this, and you might have wondered about it many times before…

The question is this:

“Hey <Teacher / Tutor / LitLearn>, does the subject statement (or thesis, or argument) have to be really, really deep?”

In other words, does the writer’s purpose need to be highly philosophical message about things like, “What is the meaning of life?”

I’m sure you will be glad to hear that the answer is a definite “No.”

Don’t try to make up some deep message that doesn’t exist in the text. It might sound impressive, but it won’t help you at all. In your subject statement, simply write down what the writer’s purpose is, and as accurately as you can. If you have genuinely interpreted the writer’s purpose to be a deep message, like “the meaning of life”, then great. But if the writer’s purpose is clearly just characterisation, then simply use that as the purpose and don’t make up some corny, cheesy message that doesn’t even represent the text at all.

Accuracy is what you should be worrying about, and you should not be worrying about whether the purpose in your subject statement sounds intellectual or philosophical.

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IB English Practice Papers

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Lang & Lit: Poster Ad

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  • Exemplar 20/20 Essay Response (1000 words)

Literature: Prose

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Check your answer with the full solution:
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  • Annotation & Analysis Video Part 2 (20 min)
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  • How to Write Analysis Paragraph (10 min)
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IB English Lang & Lit

IB English Literature

None available yet. Coming soon after November 2022.

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IB4 to IB7 in 1 Week

"[LitLearn] helped immensely in terms of building up the fundamentals such as knowing the techniques and their effects, which were key for my improvement. [...] I managed to improve my grade from a 12 to a 17."

Ethan Cheng, IB English Literature student
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IB4 to IB6 in 12 days

"I went from a 4 to a 6 in IB English [in 12 days], something that I had not seen coming at all! LitLearn helped me understand exactly what I was doing wrong and how to improve upon those mistakes."

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