Improving Paragraphs in Five Steps
Improving Paragraphs in Five Steps
There are five standard steps for dealing with all four of the Improving Paragraphs question types. Each type has its own particular quirks. First we give you the standard steps, then we go over each individual question type to explain the quirks.
Step 1: Read and outline the entire passage quickly.
This first step never varies, and you only have to do it once for every passage: Before looking at the questions, read and outline the entire passage very quickly. When we say quickly, we mean quickly. It shouldn’t take you more than two minutes to read the passage and write down a quick sketch of what the paragraphs contain. The “outline” we advise you to write is really just a very sketchy road map of the passage. As you read each paragraph, sum up its purpose in a few words and write that summation next to the actual paragraph in your test booklet. Here’s a quick sample of a paragraph and how we would outline it:

Dolphins can communicate by using a series of clicking and shrieking sounds. Researchers off the coast of Florida have undertaken research to try to decode these sounds and come up with a comprehensive dolphin language. So far they’ve managed to translate over 100 “phrases” dolphins use to communicate.

This paragraph is all about dolphins, but more specifically about research on dolphin communication. Our outline entry for this paragraph would read something like, “Florida dolphin research—100 phrases.” Just enough to cover the key facts and purpose of the passage.
As you read and outline, you’re going to blaze by a lot of errors. Don’t waste your time trying to fix them or even marking them. Since the passage has more sentences than the questions can possibly cover, it’s a waste of time to examine each sentence carefully. You won’t be asked about every single sentence, so let the questions guide you to the sentences you need to examine for problems. On this first quick read-through, your main goal is to understand the purpose of the passage and to see how its paragraphs relate. The outline sketch you build along the way will make navigating back through the passage a breeze.
Step 2: Read the question.
Read the first question, but remember not to look at the answer choices yet.
Step 3: Reread the context sentences.
Context sentences are the sentences before and after the sentence mentioned in the question. Your quick read-through of the passage will give you a general understanding of its subject. But to answer most Improving Paragraphs questions, you need to go back to the relevant part of the passage and reread the sentence mentioned in the question more carefully. It’s also crucial to read the context sentences. In fact, sometimes the context can help you rewrite the sentence. For example, read the two sentences around this problematic sentence:
Her mother told Emily to make the bed. Another chore her mother told her to do was to take out the garbage. Emily reluctantly complied.
Here, the first and second sentences convey similar information. The second sentence is wordy and awkward, however, while the first sentence is clean and concise. You can use the first sentence as a model for the revision of the second sentence.
Step 4: Make your own revision.
As in the other multiple-choice sections, it’s important to generate your own answer before you read the answer choices. The wrong answers are SAT traps placed there to confuse you, so don’t fall blindly into their clutches. Generate your own answer in your head before reading the actual answers.
If you read the example about Emily and her chores, and modeled your revision on that successful first sentence, you might come up with
Her mother also told Emily to take out the garbage.
Step 5: Read every answer and pick the one that comes closest to your answer.
Here are the answer choices:
(A) Another chore her mother told her to do was to take out the garbage.
(B) Her mother additionally asked her to do the chore of taking out the garbage.
(C) Also, take out the garbage, her mother asked.
(D) Then, her mother told Emily to take out the garbage.
(E) She also asked Emily to take out the garbage.
D comes closest to the revision you prepared before you looked at the answer choices, so that should be your choice.
Let’s sum up all five steps:
  1. Read and outline the entire passage.
  2. Read the question.
  3. Reread the context sentences.
  4. Make up your own answer first.
  5. Read every answer and pick the one that comes closest to your answer.
These fives steps apply to all four question types: Sentence Revision, Sentence Addition, Sentence Combination, and Essay Analysis. Each question type does have its own particular quirks, including one important exception, so next we take you through each type up close.
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