10 September 2015

How to write the new ACT essay, pt. 2: introducing and discussing supporting viewpoints

After providing an overview of the new ACT essay and some possible approaches to it in my previous post, I want to now discuss one particular – and very important – skill involved in writing it: incorporating other perspectives into your own argument for support.

If you’ve ever written a research paper, you probably have some experience integrating the ideas of people you agree with into your writing. (And if you haven’t, you’ll get an introduction to doing so in this post.) That said, I find that most high schools do not explicitly teach students to weave supporting quotations, ideas, etc. fluidly into their writing. The quotes are there, but they’re often integrated awkwardly into the larger argument.

Very often, students assume that they do not really need to spend time introducing or explaining their quotes because they seem so self-explanatory. They’re there to support the argument, and if the argument is clear, then the point of the quotation is obvious…right? Well, not always.

The problem is that analytical writing requires much more explanation than might seem necessary. Generally speaking, people write about topics with which they are familiar. Because they know a lot of about their topics, they are often unaware of the gaps in other people’s understanding. As a result, it simply does not occur to them how explicit they need to be, and they end up inadvertently leaving out information that is necessary to understanding their thought process.

When you explain an idea – any idea – in writing, you must take your reader by the hand, so to speak, and lead them through each step of your thinking process so that they do not get lost. Introducing other people’s words or ideas in such a way that makes clear the relationship between your argument and theirs is a key part of that process. Otherwise, it’s as if you’ve skipped ahead a few steps, leaving the reader to stop and try put together the pieces. If there’s one thing you don’t want to do to your reader, it’s make your ideas hard to follow. That goes for school, the ACT, and any other writing you might do for the next sixty or seventy years.

Once again, we’re going to work with the sample prompt released by the ACT.

(Abridged) prompt: Automation is generally regarded as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines? Given the accelerating variety and presence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meanings of their presence in our lives.

 Perspective 1: What we lose with the replacement of people with machines is some part of our humanity. Even our mundane encounters no longer require from us respect, courtesy, and tolerance for other people.

 Perspective 2: Machines are good at low skill, repetitive, jobs, and at high speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases, they are better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.

 Perspective 3: Intelligent machines challenge our longstanding idea of what humans are and can be. This is good because it pushes humans and machines toward new possibilities.

Thesis: Technology should be seen as a force for good because it creates new possibilities for people as well as a more prosperous society.

Consider this this sample paragraph:

Perspective 3 states that, “Intelligent machines challenge our longstanding idea of what humans are and can be.” I agree with this idea. In 2014, a terrible tragedy occurred during the Boston Marathon. Two bombs went off near the finish line, and three people were killed. Dozens of people were also injured, and many even lost limbs. However, with new advances in technology, many of the victims were able to benefit from high-tech prosthetics, which allowed them to return to normal lives and even play sports. This “pushes humans and machines toward new possibilities” (Perspective 3).

There’s nothing terribly wrong with this paragraph. It’s grammatically correct, clear and focused, and uses one of the outside perspectives for support.

That said, it also features short, declarative statements, and relatively little stylistic variation. There’s also only one transition (“however”), and Perspective 3 is simply dropped into the paragraph without much introduction. The final quotation is never discussed or analyzed; the reader is left to connect it to the information that precedes it. Basically, this is quintessential high school writing.

Assuming that the rest of the essay integrated the remaining perspectives, it would probably score somewhere in the mid-high 20s. It’s solid but doesn’t flow particularly well, and the example could include more specific details.

One simple way to boost the level of your writing is to use one of the following “formulas” for introducing an outside source:

-According to perspective 1…
-As perspective 1 states/points out/emphasizes
-Perspective 1 suggests/implies that…

You can also rephrase the quotation, giving it your own particular emphasis. So instead of writing something like this:

Perspective 3 states that, “Intelligent machines challenge our longstanding idea of what humans are and can be.” I agree with this idea.

You can write something like this:

As perspective 3 indicates, intelligent machines do indeed challenge conventional ideas of what it means to be human.

The essential information is the same, but the second version is smoother and more sophisticated.

For more options, see:



A few well-placed transitions also go a long way toward making your writing flow. What follows is a “template” for constructing a paragraph in which you cite an outside perspective for support.

1) Topic sentence: introduce the main argument of the paragraph

In recent years, machines have undoubtedly transformed our lives for the better in ways both large and small.

2) Expand on your argument: 2-3 sentences

Only a few decades ago, staying in touch with family and friends required a complex dance of phone cards, long-distance plans, and missed connections; today, in contrast, we can Skype and text with people half a world as away, conversing with them as clearly and quickly as if they were in the next room. On a more serious note, recent developments in prosthetics have allowed soldiers injured in battle or people injured in accidents to resume normal lives.

3) Introduce the outside perspective: 1 sentence

In fact, as perspective 1 suggests, so-called “intelligent” machines have created possibilities that would have been unthinkable in the mid-20th century. (Note how this sentence summarizes the perspective without parroting it word-for-word).

4) Tie the perspective back to your argument with a specific example: 4-6 sentences

For example, consider the impact of new technologies on the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. One of the largest-scale tragedies in recent memory, the 2014 attack left three people dead and more than 100 wounded – some requiring multiple amputations. In the past, people who suffered these types of injuries would likely have been consigned to wheelchairs or been forced to make do with heavy, unwieldy prosthetics. Now, however, “smart” prosthetics are both lighter and able to mimic the movements of natural limbs, responding instantly to the wearer’s muscles and allowing them carry out a full range of daily activities. In fact, one of the marathon victims (specific example) whose leg was badly mangled actually elected to have it amputated rather than live in constant pain. Her rationale: a high-tech prosthetic would allow her to return to a normal life much more quickly.

5) Tie it back to the outside perspective: 1-2 sentences  

Far from creating the science fiction nightmare suggested by movies such as Terminator and Jurassic Park, the integration of machines into human bodies has permitted people who would otherwise be seriously disabled to live normal lives. In the best possible way, these machines have indeed altered traditional ideas of what human beings can be.


In Part 3: how to discuss ideas you disagree with.

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