02 June 2011

Be nice to your reader, and your reader will be nice to you

You have to feel kind of sorry for the people who read SAT and ACT essays. They have to sit in a room for hours reading essay after essay after essay (after essay after essay) on Hitler, Martin Luther King, The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher in the Rye, with the occasional Frankenstein or ancient Chinese proverb reference thrown in for variety. Or, in the case of ACT readers, “Why a fifth year of high school is *not* a good idea.” Not really anyone’s idea of a fun afternoon, I’m guessing. Hey, they’re people too.

Just think: if you were stuck reading all those essays for hours on end, how generous a mood would you be in by the end of the day? I don’t think anyone’s ever done a study, but I suspect that many readers are somewhat more inclined to be generous with their score for essay #7 than they are for, say, essay #157.

So given that you have no idea whether your essay will in fact be #7 or #157, it would strongly behoove you to be as nice to your reader as you can manage. Or at least try not to annoy him or her too badly. As I always tell my students, if you take pity on your reader, your reader will be more likely to take pity on you. Here are three ways you can do that:

1) Write neatly

You can manage it just this once. Readers have about two minutes at most to read and score essays. If they’re tearing their hair out just trying to decipher what you wrote, which way do you think they’re more likely to go (subconsciously, of course) if you’re on the border between a 4 and a 5?

2) Make your argument easy to follow

You are writing a persuasive essay, not trying to win a poetry award. Some big words are good, but not to the point that they obscure what you’re trying to say. If your readers can’t get the gist of your argument almost instantaneously, they will not go to go back over your essay, parsing the details the way your English teacher might and trying to figure out what you meant to say. Instead, they’ll just give you a lower score.

Using transitions such as “in addition,” “however,” and “likewise” can go a long way toward reducing the amount of work a reader has to do to figure out your argument.

3) Use an example they haven’t already seen 150 times

That means no Hitler or MLK if you can manage to avoid them. That’s not to say that a stupendously written essay that uses one of these examples won’t get a 12, but try not to push your luck. If your readers are even mildly engaged by your writing, they’ll be much more favorably disposed toward you.

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