THE SAT ESSAY: ANALYZING ARGUMENTS
Write the Essay (20–25 minutes)
Lesson 9: Use strong verbs
According to the College Board, a strong essay demonstrates a highly effective command of language. As we discussed in Lesson 7, strong sentences contain strong verbs. Strengthen your verbs by minimizing weak verbs (like to be, to have, to make, and to do) and minimizing passive verbs.
Minimize weak verbs by upgrading “lurkers”
Look at a recent essay you’ve written and circle all of the verbs. Are more than one-third of your verbs to be verbs (is, are, was, were)? If so, strengthen your verbs. You cannot maintain a strong discussion if you overuse weak verbs like to be, to have, and to do.
To strengthen your sentences, upgrade any lurkers—the words in your sentence that aren’t verbs, but should be. Consider this sentence:
This action is in violation of our company’s confidentiality policy.
It revolves around a very weak verb. But the noun violation is a lurker. Let’s upgrade it to verb status:
This action violates our company’s confidentiality policy.
Notice how this small change “punches up” the sentence.
Here are some more examples of how upgrading the lurkers can strengthen a sentence:
Here, we’ve upgraded the lurkers reflective (adjective) and having studied (participle). Notice that this change not only strengthens the verbs and clarifies the sentence, but also unclutters the sentence by eliminating the prepositional phrases on the test, of the fact, and of my not having studied.
We’ve upgraded the lurkers ignoring (gerund) and resentful (adjective). Again, notice that strengthening the sentence also unclutters it of unnecessary prepositional phrases.
We’ve upgraded the lurkers to overeat (infinitive) and lack (noun).
Activate your passive verbs
What is the difference between these two sentences?
The rebel army made its bold maneuver under the cloak of darkness.
The bold maneuver was made by the rebel army under the cloak of darkness.
These two sentences say essentially the same thing, but the first sentence is in the active voice whereas the second is in the passive voice. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the “actor” of the verb, but in the passive voice, the subject is not the actor. (The maneuver did notmake anything, so maneuver is not the actor of the verb made in the second sentence, even though it is the subject.) Notice that the second sentence is weaker for two reasons: it’s heavier (it has more words) and it’s slower (it takes more time to get to the point).
But there’s an even better reason to avoid passive voice verbs: they can make you sound deceitful. Consider this classic passive-voice sentence:
Mistakes were made.
Who made them? Thanks to the passive voice, we don’t need to say. We can avoid responsibility.
Although you may sometimes need to use the passive voice, avoid it when you can. The active voice is clearer and stronger, and it encourages you to articulate essential details (like “who did it”) for your reader.
Lesson 10: Use concrete and personal nouns
Strong writers use concrete and personal nouns, even when discussing abstract ideas. Readers identify more strongly with people and things than they do with abstractions like being and potential.
You may have noticed that strengthening our verbs in Lesson 9 also had the extra benefit of strengthening our nouns:
In the first sentence, 75% of the nouns (failure, fact, and having studied) are abstract, but in the second, the nouns and pronouns (I, test, I) are personal and concrete.
By upgrading the gerund ignoring to a verb, we reduced the number of abstract nouns in the sentence by 50%. Even better, we upgraded the subject from an abstract noun (fact) to a concrete and personal one (protestors).
Lesson 11: Explain and connect your ideas
According to the College Board, a strong essay demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the source text and demonstrates a logical and effective progression of ideas. Therefore, explain each of your ideas and connect them with each other and with your central claim.
Explain your ideas
Don’t merely state your ideas: explain them clearly enough so that your reader can easily follow your analysis.
Good explanations often include words like by (our team slowed down the game by using a full-court press), because (we won because we executed our game plan flawlessly), or therefore (we slowed down their offense; therefore, we were able to manage the game more effectively).
Be careful, however, of overusing using phrases like because of and due to. These phrases tend to produce weak explanations because they link to noun phrases rather than clauses. Clauses are more explanatory because they include verbs and therefore convey more information.
Notice that avoiding the of forces the writer to provide a clause instead of just a noun phrase and therefore give a more substantial explanation.
Connect your ideas with clear cross-references
In Chapter 4, Lesson 8, we discussed the importance of making strong cross-references in analytical or rhetorical essays, that is, connecting ideas to establish a clear chain of reasoning. Use your pronouns carefully, particularly when they refer to ideas mentioned in previous sentences. Make sure your pronouns have clear antecedents.
Consider these sentences:
Davis makes the important point that defense lawyers sometimes must represent clients whom they know are guilty, not only because these lawyers take an oath to uphold their clients’ right to an adequate defense, but also because firms cannot survive financially if they accept only the obviously innocent as clients. This troubles many who want to pursue criminal law.
What does the pronoun This in the second sentence refer to? What troubles many who want to study criminal law? Is it the fact that Davis is making this point? Is it the moral implications of lawyers representing the guilty? Is it the technical difficulty of lawyers representing the guilty? Is it the financial challenges of maintaining a viable law practice? Is it all of these? The ambiguity of this pronoun obscures the discussion and makes the reader work harder to follow it. Clarify your references so that your train of thought is easy to follow.
Davis makes the important point that defense lawyers sometimes must represent clients whom they know are guilty, not only because these lawyers take an oath to uphold their clients’ right to an adequate defense, but also because firms cannot survive financially if they accept only the obviously innocent as clients. Such moral and financial dilemmas trouble many who want to pursue criminal law.
Connect your ideas with logical transitions
As you move from idea to idea—within a sentence, between sentences, or between paragraphs—always consider the logical relationship between these ideas, and make these connections clear to your reader. The logical “connectors” include words and phrases like
Lesson 12: Choose your words carefully
According to the College Board, a strong essay demonstrates precise word choice. Chapter 3, “The Language of Ideas,” provides exactly the vocabulary you need to articulate your ideas clearly and precisely. Spend some time with the vocabulary in Chapter 3 to familiarize yourself with words like consensus, conjecture, criteria, comprehensive, cohesive, circumscribe, and construe that are at the heart of the “analytical task.”
Choose precise words over pretentious ones. You won’t get extra points for using obscure words when you could use simple ones.
Lesson 13: Pay attention to sentence structure
According to the College Board, a strong essay uses an effective variety of sentence structures. Short sentences have impact; long sentences have weight. Good writers realize this and structure their sentences to fit their purpose.
Consider this paragraph:
Medical interns are overworked. They are constantly asked to do a lot with very little sleep. They are chronically exhausted as a result. They can make mistakes that are dangerous and even potentially deadly.
What is so dreary about it? The sentences all have the same structure. Consider this revision:
Constantly overworked and given very little time to sleep, medical interns are chronically exhausted. These conditions can lead them to make dangerous and even deadly mistakes.
Your readers won’t appreciate your profound ideas if they are stupefied by unvarying sentences. Now consider these sentences:
Gun advocates tell us that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” On the surface, this statement seems obviously true. However, analysis of the assumptions and implications of this statement shows clearly that even its most ardent believers can’t possibly believe it.
Now consider this alternative:
Gun advocates tell us that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” On the surface, this statement seems obviously true. It’s not.
Which is better? The first provides more information, but the second provides more impact. Good writers always think about the length of their sentences. Long sentences are often necessary for articulating complex ideas, but short sentences are better for emphasizing important points. Choose wisely.