SAT WRITING WORKBOOK
HOW TO WRITE AN ESSAY IN 1,500 SECONDS
COMPOSING: PUTTING WORDS ON PAPER
Writing a Gripping Introduction
Introductions let readers know what they’re in for. But avoid making a formal announcement of your plan, as in:
This discussion will show the significance of television as an influence on the learning of children from ages 3 to 12. Distinctions will be made between early childhood (ages 3–7) and middle childhood (8–12).
Such an intro may be useful in a section or chapter of a textbook but in a short essay it’s out of place. Rather, just state your point. The reader will recognize the topic soon enough, even without a separate statement of your intention.
Jill B began her essay on the rights of high school students this way:
On Monday morning, October 20, I arrived in school to find every locker door in my corridor standing ajar. Over the weekend, school officials had searched through students’ lockers for drugs and alcohol. I believe that this illegal action was a violation of both my civil rights and the civil rights of every other student in the school.
This opening sets the essay’s boundaries. Because she can’t cover all there is to say about students’ rights in one or two pages, Jill focuses on one issue raised by her personal experience on a particular Monday morning.
Good SAT essays often begin with something simple and relatively brief that will grab and hold the readers’ interest. Jill’s opening is effective because it tells an informative anecdote that leads directly to her essay’s main idea—that locker searches violate students’ civil rights.
Here is the opening of Tom M’s essay on the topic of drug and alcohol abuse:
Drugs and alcohol are a problem for many young people in today’s society. Many teenagers smoke weed or do other drugs. Many more participate in underage drinking. Society is working on the problem but has not found an effective solution.
If that introduction made you yawn, you’re not alone. Why? Because nothing in that four-sentence paragraph says anything that you don’t already know. In a word, it’s dull. Not only that, the topic being introduced is far too broad for a short essay.
Compare it to this one:
When sixth-graders get drunk and thirteen-year-olds smoke weed every Friday night, society’s got a problem. And it’s a problem that won’t go away until someone figures out how to get kids to just say NO!
This introduction uses a compelling image of young children out of control. It provokes curiosity, leaving readers hungry to know more about the problem of abuse and how it can be solved.
Here is another example of a dull opening:
Photography is one of the most popular hobbies in the world.
No reader except maybe an avid photographer would be moved to continue reading the essay. A more lively opening evokes a different response:
I took my brand-new digital camera on spring break, but when I came home the box was still unopened.
Aha! That’s a sentence that leaves readers wondering what happened during Spring Break. It implies that the writer is about to tell a story that explains why he took no photos.
Here’s one more example:
Dull: Most predictions that George Orwell made in his novel of the future, 1984, did not happen.
Sharp: Why did the brilliant author George Orwell goof?
The first opening, written as a nondescript statement of fact, won’t interest anyone unfamiliar with 1984, but the second one, a pithy question, is more powerful. It’s intriguing that Orwell, a great intellectual author, had “goofed.” The very idea entices readers to find out what happened.
By now the message should be clear: Openings should not only reveal the subject matter and main idea of the essay but also compel readers to go on to the next paragraph.
As you write practice essays, try using the following five common techniques, each illustrated with an example from an essay by a high school student.
1. Start with brief account of an incident—real or invented:
By lunch period, Megan, a senior at Brookdale High School, had already traded text messages with her brother in college, with her dad at work, and with a friend who was absent from school that day. Although every form of communication has drawbacks, texting, like nothing since the invention of the telephone, has opened up the world to teenagers.
With one sentence, Lisa has whetted her readers’ curiosity about what comes next. Her list of text messages suggests that the essay will be about the effects of staying constantly in touch with others, or about some other aspect of communication.
2. State a provocative idea in an ordinary way or an ordinary idea in a provocative way. Either one will ignite reader interest.
As any football hero will tell you, on-the-field brains count for more than brawn.
This unusual idea may cause readers to question Ollie’s sanity or maybe to analyze their own images of football players. Either way, Ollie has aroused his readers’ interest with a provocative idea that presumably will be explained in the rest of the essay.
3. Use a quotation—not necessarily a famous one—from Shakespeare, a popular song, or your grandmother. Whatever the source, its sentiment must relate to the essay’s topic.
“You can take people out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the people.”
With this opening, Gary accomplishes a great deal. He gives a clever new twist to a common adage and with a few words has introduced his main idea—the futility of changing people’s basic characteristics or core values.
4. Refute a commonly held assumption or define a word in a new and surprising way.
Even though she’s never written a rhyme or verse, my boss at Safeway is just as much a poet as Shelley or Keats.
Rebecca hints at a new and perhaps unusual definition of the word “poet.” How can someone who has written neither rhymes nor verses be called a poet? That the label “poet” applies to her boss is intriguing because most poets don’t work as supermarket managers. In short, this intro quickens our interest in reading the rest of the essay.
5. Ask an interesting question or two that you will answer in your essay.
Why are stories of crime so fascinating?
State your essay’s main idea plainly and clearly.
Doug’s opening has wide appeal because most of us read the police blotter in the newspaper, tune to news channels that hype crime stories, talk about the latest murder, or watch CSI on the tube. In other words, Doug’s essay invites us to explore our fascination with crime, both real and fictional.
Although an effective introduction always helps to draw readers into an essay, you needn’t feel obligated to contrive a super-catchy opening. A direct, clearly worded statement of the essay’s main idea could serve just as well. Because there’s no time to dawdle during the twenty-five minutes allotted for the essay, a plain statement conveying the topic and main idea of your essay may be all you need. For example, here are three ordinary openings written in response to the following prompt:
Love your children with all your hearts, love them enough to discipline them before it is too late…. Praise them for important things, even if you have to stretch them a bit. Praise them a lot. They live on it like bread and butter and they need it more than bread and butter.
Lavina Christensen Fugal, Mother of the Year, 1955
Assignment: Is it a good idea to praise children even when they don’t really deserve it?
1. The statement that children should be praised, “even if you have to stretch them a bit” makes good sense for at least three reasons.
2. Is it a good idea to praise children even when they don’t really deserve it? I don’t think so. Sometimes it may be useful, but there are several circumstances when undeserved praise can hurt more than it can help.
3. Because praise is vital in the life of a child as well as in the lives of adults, I completely agree with Lavina Christensen Fugal.
None of these openings will win a prize for originality, but they all do the job—introducing the topic and stating the essay’s main idea. Openings 1 and 2 also suggest a plan for the essay. The first essay is likely to discuss three reasons for agreeing with the prompt. The second will show how children can sometimes be helped and sometimes be hurt by undeserved praise.
Another virtue of these sample openings is that they are short. Long-winded openings can work against you on the SAT. An opening that comprises, say, more than a quarter of your essay reflects poorly on your sense of proportion.
If you can’t think of an adequate opening right away, don’t put off writing the body of the essay. A good idea may strike you at any time. In fact, many writers, needing time to warm up, begin with material they fully expect to delete. Once they hit their stride, they figure out the point of their essays and work on openings sure to hook their readers. As you practice, you might try a similar tactic. Delete your first paragraph unless it contains ideas you can’t live without.
Practice in Writing an Appealing Opening
Directions: Here is a list of general essay topics. Try to write an appealing opening for each.
1. The courage of one’s convictions
3. “Keep it! You may need it someday.”
4. The wrong time in the wrong place