As I mentioned to Debbie Stier today, Fixing Paragraphs often feels like the neglected step-child of the SAT. It doesn’t seem as fun as the other Writing sections (relatively speaking), and no one seems to spend much time talking about it. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be underestimated. Missing just four multiple choice Writing questions is enough to get you from an 800 to a 700, and if stumbling on just one or two Fixing Paragraphs questions can have serious consequences if you don’t absolutely nail Error-IDs and Fixing Sentences. So here goes.

“Fixing Paragraphs” may be part of the Writing portion of the SAT, but its placement there is somewhat deceptive. The reality is that Fixing Paragraphs does test some writing skills, but it also tests reading skills. To do well on the section, it is therefore necessary to know which questions require which approach.

Fixing Sentences questions fall into two general categories:

1) Grammar and style questions require you to either choose the best version of a particular sentence or two choose the best way of combining two sentences. These are essentially Writing questions, and the rules for answering them are essentially the same as those for Fixing Sentences: shorter answers are more likely to be correct, gerunds are bad, and passive voice is bad. While it is not crucial that you go back to the passage to examine the sentence(s) in context, it may be necessary to do so.

2) Paragraph organization and rhetoric questions require you to identify main ideas and understand the relationships between ideas and paragraphs. These are essentially Reading questions (I call them “Critical Reading-lite”), and when you answer them, you need to approach them the basic same way that you would approach Critical Reading questions.

While tone is generally irrelevant, main point is still of the utmost importance. In order to determine where a particular piece of information should be inserted or moved within a given paragraph, you need to be able to distinguish between information whose function is to introduce an idea or provide an overview (i.e. a topic sentence) and information designed to provide supporting detail…neither of which you can do without first determining the point.

For these questions, you should plan to look back at the passage, ideally before you look at the answers. Go back and read, try to get an idea of the answer for yourself, and only then look at the choices. If there’s an option that’s more or less what you came up with, it will almost certainly be right.