The Literary Commentary

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The literary commentary (henceforth known as ‘lit comm’) is a fickle overlord. Sometimes you are just able to connect with and understand the poem or prose passage presented to you in the exam and can produce a fluent and comprehensive analysis. On the flipside, the given options may be nigh unintelligible leaving you struggling and unable to string together a coherent essay. While the lit comm isn’t a paper that can be mugged for in a traditional sense in terms of reading copious amounts of notes and regurgitating them in an exam setting, here are a few tips that have helped me better my literary commentary skills through my IB journey thus far.

Preparation

First, One thing that you can and should memorise is literary features. Your interpretation and understanding of these features is one of the hinges of your commentary, attributed under criterion B of the marking rubric, appreciation of the writer’s choices. For students coming out of year 4 IP, the GLA booklet that was given to you contains a ton of description and explanation of literary devices, so that’s definitely still a relevant and viable resource to help you study for the lit comm. Apart from that, there are various websites online that serve a similar function, and spending a half hour every day learning a couple of new literary features starting from even a month before your paper will do you a world of good. Even if you can’t remember the formal name of the literary feature, what’s more important is that you are able to convey the author’s intended effect in employing the literary feature, as that shows that you appreciate the writer’s choices. For example, you can use “run-on lines” instead of “enjambment” without being marked down as long as you are able to expound on the effect it has on the rhythm of the poem.

Second, as I mentioned earlier, the lit comm is really subjective to the specific student and their interpretation of the poem or prose passage. Hence, I feel like it’s really hard for teachers to give anything more than general advice when going through a lit comm in front of an entire class. If you want to know why exactly you got a specific mark band for each criterion, you should arrange for personal consultations with your lit teachers so that you can thoroughly deconstruct your essay and thought process while writing it such that the teacher can give you advice specially catered to you.

Third, read. Not just model essays, though those help too.  Reading any sort of book from a reputable author helps you particularly to improve your writing style, particularly when it comes to syntax and language. This comes under criterion D of the marking rubric and I feel like it is a criterion that we students tend to overlook when preparing for the lit comm. This isn’t something that you can just start doing a week before the exam. It’s a long-drawn process and one that should be undertaken throughout the school year. At the same time, this is one of my favourite parts of Lit, because simply reading for leisure and not having to deeply analyse anything is a fruitful method of exam preparation. I also do not want to underestimate the importance of reading model essays though. These essays usually provide holistic analysis and you should pay attention in particular to the key points that the student has; the content of the essay. What you should certainly not do is emulate the writing style of the model essay. Like I said earlier, everyone has their own distinct style that works for them and you should just do what comes naturally to you.

Fourth, one method that was particularly effective for me this year was to share ideas with my classmates. What some of my classmates did to prepare for the lit comm is that we stayed back one day after school and analysed a handful of poems as a group. It allowed us to see alternative thought processes, which would naturally differ and help in bringing a new perspective to our texts! When analysing in a group, it is more likely that our analysis is better covered as we would cover the gaps in each other’s.

Lastly, practice, and practice seriously. When you have lit comm assignments to do, try to time yourself and do it in one sitting, to simulate exam conditions and also so that you can gauge how much you can and should write in the allotted time. The biggest issue I’ve had for the lit comm is time management, and practicing in this fashion reduces the pressure of racing against time in the exam! The need for practice in both poems and prose is essential (though often neglected!), as they allow for flexibility in the event when a particular question is hard.

The Exam Itself

Especially for students that come from Year 4 IP where our GLAs had guiding questions, a dangerous pitfall you need to avoid is starting to write from the outset. Without the questions to help focus and direct your essay you need to plan. The first step should be annotation. Especially for HL students, there is sufficient time for you to write out all your points, so what you have to concentrate on is the depth of your analysis rather than the speed at which you write. As a result, don’t be afraid to spend around ten minutes making notes on the poem or prose passage that you’ve selected, such that you have a good idea of each point you want to make.

From that point, you have two options. Firstly, you could extract the common themes that you have been able to tease out from the notes you’ve made and try to touch on each of them in an order that has a cohesive and eloquent structure. Organisation and development is criterion C in the marking rubric, so ensuring that your ideas have a logical flow and are easily followed by the marker is an important consideration. The second method you could use is simply arranging your analysis in chronological, top-down order. Whichever method you choose, be sure to mention the overarching themes of the passage in your introduction and continuously reference them when you are expanding on each point, as this will elevate your analysis into considering the big picture.

I will be comparing both methods by their pros and cons:

Top-Down Method Thematic Approach
  • Easier to execute
  • Harder to execute
  • Less thought in organizing
  • Allows for a more cohesive analysis
  • Sacrifice cohesion for jumping back and forth themes (in a disjointed manner)
  • Clear thematic order, substantial connections easily made
∴ Easy, but the marker may find it hard to identify the narrative threads consistent in the passage ∴Hard, but if done well, the marker may see a well-bodied paragraph that shows coherent analysis

Overall, I do think that it is very reliant on your individual thought process and which method complements it so that you can deliver a fluent essay, and that you should not be dissuaded from either method if it comes naturally to you and you are adept in successfully adapting it to your passage. A method you should certainly avoid is the secondary school method of organizing the analysis by literary feature. This is rather poor in demonstrating to the marker that you have a solid understanding of the overall thought and feeling of the passage, as it focuses too heavily in spewing out technical terms without appreciating them!

The lit comm is a paper that doesn’t require you to mug, and can be one that is actually quite enjoyable to write if you are able to connect with the passage you are analyzing, which is why it’s one of the papers that I personally never dread. I hope that with these tips, you realise that a little bit of effort and using the right techniques can go a long way in helping you achieve a COMMendable result for your lit comm.

Adam Tan (6.17) is from the graduating batch of 2016.

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