If you have deconstructed a text successfully, as explained step-by-step in the previous lesson (not included here), you will now have three things:
- several main ideas
- annotations of techniques
- the writer’s overall purpose
Now 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 the 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. 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.
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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.
“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
“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.
“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 me is this, and you might have wondered about it many times before...
The question is this:
“Hey Jackson, 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.