08 March 2017

SAT Essay tip: find alternatives to the word “say”

If you look at the SAT Essay scoring rubric, you’ll find in order to earn a top score of 4 in “Writing,” an essay must demonstrate “a highly effective use and command of language,” and “a consistent use of precise word choice.”

Those are lovely-sounding directives, but they’re also extremely vague. It’s hard to dispute that these are characteristics of good analytical writing, but what do they actually mean, and how can you put them into practice?It’s easy enough to memorize grammatical rules, but style is something that can’t be taught…right? 

I think that very often, skill in writing is conceived of in very black-and-white terms: it’s either something people are born with a knack for, or it’s something that can’t be learned. Obviously, yes, writing comes more easily to some people than to others, but to assume that effective analytical writing — which almost no one is naturally good at — is something that just magically happens, is to overlook the fact that like any other complex activity, it is made up of specific, concrete skills that can be practiced individually. 

In terms of the SAT Essay, I’d like to look at one simple, specific way to make your writing more varied and thus more likely to obtain a high score.

Because the Essay assignment requires that you spend a fair amount of time describing an author’s argument, and that you quote repeatedly from the passage provided, it is very easy to fall into the trap of introducing each reference to the passage the same way: namely, by using the verb say

Don’t get me wrong — say is a great all-purpose word, but if you write something like, “In the introduction, the author says xyz….” and then two sentences later, “The author also says xyz…” and then a couple of sentences after that, “In addition, the author says…” Well, that’s going to get old pretty darn fast. And in an assignment that’s less-than-thrilling by nature, you don’t want to bore your reader any more than necessary. 

One way to liven things up a bit is therefore to use a variety of different verbs to introduce what the author, well, says. To be clear, these do not need to be “fancy” words; they just need to present an idea or quote smoothly, and in a way that doesn’t involve repeating the same thing over and over again. 

For example: 

-The author states…
-The author indicates…
-The author asserts… 
-The author recounts…
-The author explains…
-The author reveals…
-The author implies…
-The author suggests…

You get the picture.

Each time you cite from the passage or summarize a portion of it, pick a different option to introduce the quote or summary. If you can use 5-7 alternatives over the course of your essay, you will leave an overall impression of greater variety and sophistication than would otherwise be the case. And because your reader will spend no more than a couple of minutes scoring your essay, that sort of general impression can count for quite a lot. 

 

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