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How to Write the Essay
Please Note:
The last administration of the SAT II Writing was on 1/22/05. Beginning 3/12/05, parts of the SAT II Writing test will be included in the New SAT. You should be studying the New SAT book. Go there!
How to Write the Essay
Before you start writing your essay, you must think about its structure. Structure refers to the overall arc of your essay, the way it moves from idea to idea in order to prove a point. It is crucial to consider the arc of your essay first. If you just plunge in and start writing, you’re like a foolhardy explorer who walks into a forest and wanders around helpless, cold, and hungry. However, if you think about your entire essay before you start, you’re like a smart explorer who examines maps and aerial photos before walking into the woods, and who makes it out alive and well on the other side, toting a cauldron of leprechaun gold.
Good structure involves understanding the Topic, taking a stance, coming up with good examples, and making an outline.
Understanding the Topic
The first step to writing a successful essay is to read the Topic with extreme care. Yes, that sounds like a painfully obvious point, but it’s a crucial one. Suppose the Topic says, “Censorship can never be justified.” Often, Topics on this test include words like censorship, justice, morals, evil—words that you’ve heard many thousands of times, whose definitions seem obvious. It’s exactly these seemingly obvious words that can trip you up on the essay. These words cover large, unwieldy concepts, and often lure test-takers into vagueness. If you don’t really think about what you mean by censorship, you can find yourself with an assortment of paragraphs that are sort of about censorship, but also sort of about free speech, and how nice it is to live in a democratic country, and the excellence of freedom of religion.
Don’t launch into your essay until you’ve narrowed and pinned down the topic you are going to focus on. If your topic is censorship, decide what kind of censorship you’re talking about. Are you talking about censorship of the arts? Censorship of things like pornography and hate speech? Censorship in democratic countries? Censorship in undemocratic countries? Carve down the topic into something concrete and manageable.
Taking a Stance
Once you’ve thought hard about the Topic, you must take a stance on that Topic. There is no place for wishy-washiness in the SAT II Writing. As open-minded and I-can-see-your-point as you may be in real life, when you’re writing this essay, you must take a side. Do you agree with the Topic statement, or do you disagree with it? Do not write an essay that argues one side of the issue for a few paragraphs, then grinds to a halt, spins around, and says, “on the other hand, there are many reasons why the opposite argument makes sense.” Be firm. Decide if you want to agree or disagree with the Topic statement, and make your position clear to the reader.
Generating Good Examples
Once you’ve thought about the Topic and decided what stance you’ll take on it, it’s example time. Before you start writing the essay, you need to generate examples that are concrete, specific, and impressive.
Think of the examples as an opportunity to impress the readers. Bowl them over with examples from history, current events, literature, or the arts. Examples from your personal life will not impress them nearly as much as will your searing insights on the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the novel Things Fall Apart, or the advisability of drilling for oil in wildlife preserves. Personal examples are okay in a pinch, but avoid using them if you can. If you have time to write a third example paragraph, and the history-current event-literature-art well has run dry, you can resort to that touching story about your granny.
Before the day of the test, think of a few examples—current and historical events, novels, or artists—that already interest you and about which you can write in reasonable detail. There’s no need to make extra work for yourself by dreaming up boring examples that you’ll have to research. Chances are at least a couple of the examples you prepare will work for the essay. Say you just read Little Women for school, liked the book, and paid a reasonable amount of attention in class. Great! You now know enough about the book to use it as an example. Of course, you’ll have to tweak your example to fit the Topic. If the Topic statement says, “The strong always bully the weak,” talk about Mr. March running through his family’s money. If the Topic is “Some say that students are their own best teachers. Some say traditional learning is best,” talk about Amy’s attempt to teach herself about art in Italy. Tailor your example to fit the essay.
Writing an Outline
If you spend four or five minutes jotting down an outline, actually writing the essay will be much easier. Force yourself to think through the beginning, middle, and end of the essay before you put pen to paper. If you know where you’re going with the essay before you start it, you’re less likely to waste time and ink hemming and hawing, wandering off on tangents, or writing paragraphs that you belatedly realize you don’t really need. Second, even if you’ve thought through the essay before you begin to write, by the time you come to the end of the first paragraph, you may find you’ve forgotten all about the structure that seemed so clear only five minutes earlier. Jotting down an outline will make you feel calm, and it will keep you on track as you write.
Your outline need not be involved. You don’t need to write a sentence, or even a phrase, for each paragraph—just scribble down a few words reminding yourself of what you want each paragraph to say.
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