Savoring great sentences

Good writers try to make their sentence structure invisible so that we readers are 100% engrossed in the meaning of the writing without being distracted by the grammar.  But when I read really good writing, I go back to analyze why it seems so effortless, so perfect.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Sometimes I find incredible sentences.  Here is one of my favorite cumulative sentences, jotted down many years ago, its source now unknown to me.

“He stood at the top of the stairs and watched me, I waiting for him to call me up, he hesitating to come down, his lips nervous with the suggestion of a smile, mine asking whether the smile meant come, or go away.”

Isn’t that a great sentence?  It contains 43 words.  Usually 43-word sentences are hard to follow unless they are a list.  But this simple sentence is easy to follow.  Why?

It starts with an independent clause using all single-syllable words:  a subject (he) and two verbs (stood and watched).  Next are two phrases with parallel ideas about the two people (I and he) expressed in parallel grammar (I waiting, he hesitating).  The last two lines are also parallel ideas expressed in similar ways.  The first starts with “his lips,” and the second starts with the pronoun, “mine,” referring to her lips.

Adding to the clarity of this long sentence are the organic transitions.  The first line introduces the two people, “he” and “me”; the second line uses “I,” “him” and “me”; the third uses “he”; the fourth uses “his”; and the fifth uses “mine.”

Also adding to the sentence’s goodness is the use of “up” and “down” to create a visual image of the situation.  In the independent clause we learn a male is at the top of the stairs; in the next phrase we learn that another person is waiting to be called up by him; in the next line the word “down” is used.

Another organic transition is his “lips” and his “smile”; in the last line the word “smile” is repeated.

And finally, there are the last three words.  “Or go away” comes as a surprise.  Wait!  Did I understand this right? the reader asks, going back and re-evaluating what the sentence might really mean.  You have been bewitched by a master writer.

Are you a sentence saver?  If so, you must be a writer.

How to write more gut-wrenching words

If you want a gut-wrenching reaction from your readers, replace words with many syllables.  Instead, use single-syllable words.  And change long  nouns and adjectives into verbs.

girl writing and thinkingUse short, pithy words that have peppered English for centuries rather than words derived from French or Latin to arouse the greatest response.  Words with many syllables tend to be intellectual words, not emotional words.  For emotion, choose blunt words.  But be careful to check for tone and meaning.  Old words can have many meanings and many connotations.

Here are some examples.  Replace each of the boldfaced words with one of the suggestions.  Then ask yourself:  Does the meaning change?  Does the emotion?

1.  As the lion approached, I felt trepidation.  (fear, quaking, shivers, creeps, chills, a cold sweat)  Now take out “felt” and create a new verb from one of the suggestions.  (quaked, shivered, sweated)  Which grabs you?

2.  My insatiable brother ate both drumsticks from the turkey.  (greedy, gobbling, piggish, hoggish, swinish)  Now replace “ate” with a specific verb.  (gobbled, devoured, downed, dispatched, wolfed down)  Notice how replacing the verb gives a stronger visual image than replacing the adjective?

3.  Before the audition, the dancer’s legs fidgeted.  (jerked, itched, twitched)

4.  The corpulent passenger could not fit into the airline seat.  (fat, obese, fleshy, stout, portly, pudgy, plump, chubby)  Now replace “fit” with a more specific verb.  (compress, squish, squeeze, crush)

5.  The color of the girl’s eyes captivated the photographer.  (charmed, ensnared, bewitched)

Long words are not only harder to read, but they lessen the emotional impact.  If you want to appeal to emotions, use short Anglo-Saxon words.

 

SAT essay: Should you write a separate summary or weave it together with the persuasive techniques?

Should you separate the summary from the analysis when you write your SAT essay?

I recommend you separate your summary and analysis.  Here’s why:  it’s easier.

You want to be sure to include a complete summary in your response as well as a complete analysis of the persuasive techniques used in the prompt.  If you write the summary as a separate paragraph, you are sure you have supplied a complete summary.  If you weave the summary and analysis together, you might leave part of your summary unsaid.

Weaving all the elements into your response in an integrated way might be possible.  But more likely, your summary or your analysis will suffer.  It will be clearer to you as you write that you are covering what you need to if you isolate the two important elements, the summary and the analysis.

Weaving everything together is a more elegant way to write, but it is also a more difficult way to write.  The exam is stressful enough without adding another layer of difficulty.  Unless you have received perfect scores on AP lang or AP lit, I would not attempt it.

There is not one perfect way of writing your response.  Rather, there are several good ways.  Focus your time on the analysis part of your response; that is the part whose score is usually lowest.  Focusing on that part of the essay can improve your score the most.

What are persuasive techniques used in the SAT essay prompt?

Most students writing the SAT essay find summarizing the persuasive essay prompt to be easier than explaining why the prompt persuades.  But analyzing and explaining the prompt is an important part of your essay response.  It is an area where you can pull ahead if you know how to do it.

There are many reasons why a prompt might be persuasive.  Let’s list some of them here.

____ academic vocabulary:  precise, domain specific words

____ allusions, especially to the Bible or Shakespeare

____ analogies

____ anecdotes

____ attacking, undermining other opinions / counterarguments

____ clarity

____ colloquial language

____ current events references

____ examples, spot-on and easy to understand

____ experts, authorities in agreement with the author

____ facts, lots of facts

____ figures of speech

____ historical references

____ humor

____ inclusive language, including the reader with words like “we” and “us”

____ logical presentation such as using cause/effect, sequential information, chronological information, ranking of info

____ personal experience, education, or work of the author

____ primary source references

____ repetition

____ rhetorical questions

____ sensory language such as vivid images, sounds, smells, textures and tastes

____ statistics

When you analyze why the essay prompt is persuasive, you must identify several of the above techniques which the author uses.  You must give one or more examples of the techniques you identify.  And you must explain why using each technique persuades readers to the author’s point of view.

More of that in future blogs.

How to summarize the prompt in the SAT essay writing section

How to summarize the prompt in the SAT essay writing section

If you write the SAT essay, you need to do three things well:

  • summarize the essay prompt to prove you understand it;
  • analyze how the author persuades readers; and
  • write your response in excellent, stylish English.

I recommend that you summarize the essay prompt in one sentence to open your essay response.  After that you need to summarize the rest of the essay.  How?

The SAT prompt is usually five or six paragraphs long.  One of those paragraphs might be a hook; if so, the hook needn’t be mentioned unless the hook highlights the author’s style.  If so, include it in your summary.

The thesis is given to you in the paragraph following the SAT essay prompt, in the paragraph which gives you directions.  You need to know the thesis to know what the author’s point is, what he or she is trying to persuade you, the reader.  When you know what the thesis means, look for information in the prompt which backs up the thesis—not the tiny details, but the big ideas.

Sometimes the organization of the essay itself can help you summarize it.  In Dr. Martin Luther King’s essay, “Three Ways of Meeting Oppression,” King has one introductory sentence.  The next sentence, in the same paragraph, names the first way of meeting oppression, acquiescence.  Several sentences later, King says acquiescence is not a good way.  In another paragraph, King names the second way of meeting oppression, violence.  A few sentences later he explains why this is also not a good way.  Near the end of his essay, he names the third way of meeting oppression, nonviolent resistance, which he supports.  Summarizing the main ideas of this essay prompt is easy.

Unfortunately, most SAT prompts are not written with the organization so clear.  But the prompts are organized.  You need to figure out how.  Once you understand the organization, you can spot the main supports for the essay thesis.  Not always, but most of the time, each body paragraph contains a main support.  And most of the time, those supports are near the beginning of each paragraph.

If we look at The Declaration of Independence, it is clearly broken down into four distinct parts.  The first section introduces the idea that the colonies are breaking away from Great Britain and that the world deserves to know why.  The second section identifies the philosophical legitimacy of such a break. The third section names grievances the colonial people have against King George III.  The last section declares the independence of the 13 colonies.  Naming the four parts, as I just did, is sufficient to show that you understand the main ideas of the document.

How can you become quick and accurate in identifying the main ideas of an essay prompt?  Practice.  Read an essay a day from your newspaper.  If you don’t subscribe, go to your media center daily and read a column or editorial.  Analyze its contents for structure.  What is the thesis?  What are the main points backing up the thesis?  Practice writing them down quickly, in five to seven minutes.

If you go into the essay portion of the SAT without practice, you likely will do poorly.  But if you practice, knowing what is expected of you, your chances go way up.

 

 

Start your SAT essay with a one-sentence summary

If you write the SAT essay, you need to do three things well:

  • summarize the essay prompt to prove you understand it;
  • analyze how the author persuades readers; and
  • write your response in excellent, stylish English.

When you write a summary for the SAT essay response, I recommend you start with a one-sentence summary of the whole essay prompt.  Why?  Doing so proves you know what the essay is all about, what the gist of the essay is.  In the few sentences which follow, you can elaborate by stating the supporting main ideas.

For example, suppose you were to write a one-sentence summary of the US Declaration of Independence.  The first section of that document introduces the idea that the colonies are breaking away from Great Britain and that the world deserves to know why.  The second section identifies the legitimacy of such a break by any people who think their government is not supporting their rights.  The third section names the many grievances the colonial people have against King George III and his government.  The last section declares the independence of the 13 colonies.

How to put that all in one sentence?  How about this:

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to tell the world why the colonies were breaking away from their long established relationship with Great Britain and were declaring their independence, and why they had the right to separate.

All the important information is in this one sentence:  the author, the name of the piece of writing, and the major ideas of the document.

Let’s try another.  How about summarizing Romeo and Juliet in one sentence?   In Italy hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare has two teenagers meet, fall in love, and marry despite a feud between their families, leading to a tragic ending for the young lovers.

Or how about To Kill a Mockingbird?  Author Harper Lee has a precocious white girl, her brother, and their friend taunt a reclusive neighbor while the children’s father defends an innocent black man on trial for his life in 1930’s rural, bigoted Alabama.

In each of these one-sentence summaries, almost all details are left out.  Leaving out major details can be hard for some children.  Even teenagers sometimes can’t figure out what is most important.  That is why writing one-sentence summaries takes practice.

You will have one major help:  the thesis is given to you.  In the paragraph following the essay prompt, the thesis is named.  Many times you can wrap your summary around its ideas.

Scoring higher on the SAT essay

Let’s look at the SAT essay and how you can score higher on it.

Your response to the prompt (a persuasive essay provided in your testing packet) is an essay.  It is judged based on three criteria:

  • Naming the author and title of the prompt; identifying the thesis of the prompt, and summarizing the main ideas in the prompt plus important details.
  • Identifying what persuasive techniques the author of the prompt uses, pointing out examples of those persuasive techniques in the prompt, and explaining why those persuasive techniques work.
  • Writing your response in standard essay format (an introduction, body, and conclusion) while using excellent, stylish English.

Today let’s look at the first of the three criteria, the summary.

Before you read the essay prompt, I would go straight to the paragraph after the prompt ends.  That paragraph directs you to write an essay, but more importantly, it identifies the thesis of the prompt.  You don’t need to figure out what the thesis is because the test information identifies it.  Underline the thesis and in the margin write “thesis.”

(Yes, you can write in your test booklet.  It will be shredded after the test, so no one but you will see it.  Write any notes that help you.)

Now that you know what the essay prompt is all about, you can read the prompt aware of what you are looking for, that is, the main ideas backing up that thesis.  Underline the main ideas as you read and in the margin next to the ideas write “MI1” or “MI2.”  Why?  You need to be able to find the main ideas quickly later on.  Underlining them and annotating them in the margins makes finding them easier

Usually the prompt is five or six paragraphs, so you might wind up with four or five main ideas, one per body paragraph.  But sometimes an author begins the first main idea in the first paragraph and offers the last main idea in the last paragraph.  So read carefully.

Now that you know what the prompt is all about you can write your summary paragraph.  I would make that summary the first paragraph of your essay.  No need for a separate introduction–and no time.  In your first sentence, write an overall summary of the essay, and in the next few sentences, identify the main ideas.  That’s right.  Write a one sentence summary of the article to start your essay.

Remember, the SAT is a test designed to see if you are ready for college.  In writing the summary of the essay prompt, the test is asking you to prove you can read and understand college level material, and to prove that by summarizing the material.

How can you become proficient at this kind of writing without working with a tutor like me?  Go online to a well-written newspaper and read an op-ed article (an opinion essay on the page opposite the editorial page).  Do this several times a week.  Download one copy and mark it for its thesis and main ideas.  Write a five or six sentence summary.  Choose different authors with different writing styles and topics.

Or from your library, take out a book of essays and do the same thing.  Or find a book of essays from a resale book store or Goodwill which you can mark.  Choose persuasive essays because that is the kind you will be tested on.