SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

What Is SAT Writing and Language? 5 Tips to Excel

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Mar 22, 2016 9:00:00 PM

SAT Writing

 

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Stephen King once wrote, "To write is human, to edit is divine." Anyone who has written papers for school knows that first, second, and even third drafts can be full of errors. Through editing and revising, you can polish a piece of writing into its best form.

The Writing and Language section of the SAT asks you to be that "divine" editor. It asks you to improve paragraphs that contain both little picture mistakes and big picture weaknesses.

Writing and Language will be combined with your Reading score, but it’s a unique section that requires its own specific approach to prep. This guide is your first stop for preparing for the Writing and Language section of the SAT; read on to learn everything you need to know!

 

What's New About SAT Writing and Language?

The new SAT Writing and Language section differs from the old SAT’s Writing section in a number of ways, one of which is its name. It’s now called Writing and Language, though most people will probably just shorten it to SAT Writing. (As will I, unless I'm differentiating between the old Writing section and the new one.) Since both sections test your understanding of the conventions of the English language, you can consider them to be similar. However, there are some important differences between the two sections beyond what they're called.

The new Writing section has an expanded emphasis on how language functions in different contexts (one reason, perhaps, behind the name change). No longer will students answer stand-alone questions about fixing individual sentences. Now, all the questions are passage-based, and many ask you to improve meaning, style, or flow of ideas.

Since all the questions are based on passages, that means “sentence completions” and “identifying errors” questions have been completely eliminated. You’ll still need to apply rules of grammar - and now rules of punctuation, as well - to fix sentences, but all of these will be contained within the context of a paragraph and passage.

I’ll delve into the content of SAT Writing  more below, but first I want to point out one more change that distinguishes it from the SAT Writing section of years past. SAT Writing  is now combined with Reading to make one verbal score out of 800. Your score report will break down your performance by individual section, but your overall scores that matter for college will be made up of one math score and one combined Reading and Writing score.

While the SAT Writing and Language section is similar to its predecessor, the above make up the main changes of which you should be aware. To reiterate them briefly...

  • the Writing section is now called Writing and Language.
  • this section focuses on both little picture editing - grammar, word choice, punctuation - and big picture editing - flow, organization, and tone.
  • all of the questions are passage-based.
  • your Writing score will be combined with your Reading score to make one verbal score, on a range from 200 to 800.

Now that you know about the main changes to the SAT Writing and Language section, let’s take a closer look at how this section works, starting with a review of its structure.

 

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The Writing section is only 35 minutes, so it might just be over before you know it.

 

How Is SAT Writing and Language Structured?

As you saw above, though, it’s different than the SAT Writing section of past years, so make sure you don’t confuse the old and new SAT Writing sections as exact equivalents.

SAT Writing will be your second section on the SAT, right after Reading and a five-minute break. After you’ve stretched and snacked, you’ll get to work on Writing, which asks you 44 questions in 35 minutes. You’ll have about 47 to 48 seconds to answer each question.

All of the Writing questions are multiple choice and feature four answer choices, A, B, C, and D. As you read above, every single question on SAT Writing is passage-based. Some questions may be detail-oriented, even asking you about a single word, but they’ll still point to that detail within the context of a longer passage.

Within the Writing section, you’ll get four passages of about four to five paragraphs, or 400 to 450 words, each. Every passage will accompany 11 questions. 

Don’t worry about having to flip back and forth through the test booklet to find your answer. The questions will be lined up alongside the paragraphs to which they refer. Here’s a preview of the format (this passage continues from a previous page): 

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In addition to knowing exactly how many passages and questions you’ll encounter, you’ll also be able to anticipate the broad topics of each passage.

 

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One Writing passage will feature a major career field, such as health care, technology, or historical pirate reenactment.

 

What Are the SAT Writing Passages Like?

While you won’t know exactly what your Writing passages will look like, you can have a general sense of their topics. According to College Board, these always include careers, social studies, the humanities, and science.

    • Careers - passage might feature trends or debates in major fields, like business, technology, or health care.
    • Social studies - passage might draw from history, anthropology, psychology, political science, sociology, among other areas.
    • Humanities - this passage might focus on arts and literature, feature an author, or describe trends in prose, poetry, art, music, or dance.
    • Science - this passage will explore topics in earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics.

Unlike the Reading section of the SAT, the Writing section won’t include any prose. Instead, the passages may take the form of an argument, an informative or explanatory text, or a nonfiction narrative. Additionally, one or more passages might contain an informational graphic, like a chart, graph, or table. These graphics are no longer contained only in math questions, but instead show up throughout the SAT!

Now that you have a sense of the structure and format of SAT Writing, let’s discuss the skills it seeks to test.

 

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SAT Writing asks you to mow down overgrown details and graze for stray errors.

 

What Skills Does SAT Writing and Language Test?

SAT Writing tests a number of skills, from the detail-oriented to the big picture. It wants to make sure you understand sentence structure and punctuation, but it also seeks to measure your ability to organize the information and ideas within a passage. In a nutshell, SAT Writing makes sure you can use language effectively to develop ideas and prove a point. With the inclusion of graphics, it also wants you to be able to describe and back up those ideas accurately with data.

Of course, you’re not producing the paragraphs as you would be if you took the SAT Essay section. Instead, you need to be able to spot and fix errors within and improve organization of pre-written paragraphs. You’ll be asked to revise and edit texts and to show facility with the conventions of grammar, usage, and punctuation. A few questions are also vocabulary-based, asking you about word choice and how it can shape tone and meaning.

According to College Board, SAT Writing covers four major skills areas: Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of ideas, and Standard English Conventions. Here's the breakdown:

    • About 24 questions, or 55%, cover Command of Evidence, Words in Context, and Expression of Ideas. These questions ask about development, organization, and effective language use
    • About 20 questions, or 45%, will cover Standard English Conventions. These questions ask about sentence structure, usage, and punctuation.

Between 2 and 4% of all questions will also ask you to interpret data from a graphic. These questions often ask you to revise a sentence so that it accurately represents information given in the corresponding graphic. Here’s an example of a typical data interpretation question:

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Now that you have a sense of the structure and purpose of SAT Writing, let’s delve deeper into each major skill area. Read on to learn about the concepts tested, as well as to see an official sample question for each area.

 

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Attention in the courtroom! The first skill area calls for strong supporting evidence.

 

#1: Command of Evidence

Command of Evidence questions ask you to improve the way a passage develops information and ideas. These are “big picture” questions. You may have to add a supporting detail or choose a sentence that would strengthen the passage’s argument.

Because these questions are concerned with overall meaning and function, they usually require that you read the entire passage before answering. The sample question below, for example, represents a Command of Evidence question. It asks you to choose a sentence that, if added to the paragraph, would best introduce its main topic.

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Answer: C

 

#2: Words in Context

Words in Context questions are all about vocabulary and word choice, otherwise known as diction. Based on context, you’ll have to choose the best word or phrase for a sentence. In some cases, you’ll have to correct an error. In others, you’ll replace a word with one that improves the passage’s style or tone.

Unlike Command of Evidence questions, Words in Context questions often point to a single line within a passage. You may be able to answer these questions without reading the entire passage first - though having context is always helpful.

Just as you need to be able to spot and fix an error, you also must be able to recognize when no error exists. That’s why the first answer choice (A) for these questions will always be, “No Change.” In the example below, you’re asked to choose the correct word, not improve style or tone. Notice how this question represents the SAT’s focus on more commonly used vocabulary words that may have multiple meanings.

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Answer: D

 

#3: Expression of Ideas

Back to big picture! Expression of Ideas questions ask about the overall organization of a passage or strength of an argument. They may refer to individual sentences and ask you whether or not (and how) they should be rearranged. They also might refer to larger structural changes you could make to improve flow or make the passage more impactful.

The following sample question asks about whether a sentence should be kept or deleted and why. You need to demonstrate your understanding of how a sentence functions within its context, as well as provide your reasoning behind your decision.

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Answer: D

 

#4: Standard English Conventions

This last category of questions may be the one that most commonly comes to mind when people think about SAT Writing. These are the detail-oriented questions that ask about sentence structure, usage, and punctuation. You may be asked to fix mistakes in clauses and sentences. Some grammar rules that SAT Writing tests include verb tense, parallel construction, subject-verb agreement, pronoun use, and commas.

The following are two examples of Standard English Conventions questions. The first asks about subject-verb agreement and verb tense, while the second tests subject-possessive pronoun agreement and the difference between “it’s” and “its.” 


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Answers: 18. A; 19. D

Your first step in studying for SAT Writing should be familiarizing yourself with exactly what’s on it. If you’ve made it this far in the guide, then congratulations! You’ve completed the first step of your prep. Now, what else can you do to study for the Writing section of the SAT?

 

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Most of the passages present an argument or describe an argument, so reading the news may help you prep. Just opt for articles and editorials over crossword puzzles and comics.

 

How to Study for SAT Writing

In case you had any misconceptions that SAT Writing was only about grammar rules, you should have them cleared up by now! This section also tests your ability to edit entire paragraphs and passages for logical flow, organization, tone, and argument.

Studying grammar rules and punctuation is still an important part of your prep, but you’ll also need to sharpen your writing and editing skills and understanding of construction. So how can you develop all the editorial skills you need to excel on SAT Writing? Read on for five useful study tips.

 

#1: Study Rules of Grammar, Punctuation, and Usage

As you saw above, about 45% of your SAT Writing questions will cover Standard English Conventions. Thus, a firm grasp of the rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage is essential for answering these questions. Luckily, there’s a plethora (classic old SAT word) of resources for reviewing these rules, both for the updated and old SAT Writing sections.

Make sure your study materials break down all the important rules, such as parallel structure, modifier placement, verb tense, subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, items in a series, end of sentence and within-sentence punctuation. You can find a decent breakdown of the rules on pages 63 and 67 of College Board's guide to the redesigned SAT.

As you study these rules, you should answer practice questions. You’ll need to recognize what rule a question is testing and how to apply it. With a solid grounding in grammar, you can know why your answer is correct, rather than simply relying on a risky strategy of going with what sounds right.

For the most part, these questions don’t require that you comprehend the entire passage before answering. However, context is important for all these passage-based SAT Writing questions. You should probably at least skim the relevant paragraph before answering these detail-oriented questions.

 

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Did you ever study the "hamburger" structure of paragraphs and essays? It was actually a pretty useful, if hunger-inducing, tool for understanding proper structure.

 

#2: Develop Writing Skills in School

Since SAT Writing questions ask you to improve organization, strengthen arguments, and clarify points, you’ll need to possess strong writing skills. Much of the writing and editing you do in school, whether it’s on your own papers or for peers, should help you grow as a writer. Since the Writing section incorporates argument-based, explanatory, and nonfiction narrative texts, you should especially focus on these types of writing.

It will also help to go back to basics to ensure you have a strong grounding in structure. Remember the “hamburger” structure from middle school? The top bun represented the introductory sentence that spoke to the main point of a paragraph. The lettuce, tomato, and burger stood for supporting details, all of which related to the main topic and flowed logically from one to the next. Finally, the bottom bun symbolized the concluding sentence, which wrapped everything up nicely. This structure describes a paragraph, or can be broadened to represent an essay as a whole.

By recalling this fundamental structure, you can keep a critical eye on the organization of essays you write and read. Then when an SAT Writing question asks about rearranging sentences or adding a topic sentence, you can have a strong sense of what to do and why. It may also remind you to keep an eye out for transitions and how to organize ideas in a logical order.

Improving your writing skills may feel harder to pin down than studying concrete grammar rules, but you should feel confident that the more you read and write, the more progress you’ll make. As long as you pay attention to feedback you get on your writing and keep a critical eye as you read and edit, you’ll gain a stronger sense of the mechanics of the written word.

 

#3: Read Essays and Newspaper Articles

Just as practicing writing and editing will enhance your grasp of the English language, so too will reading widely. Seek out persuasive, informative, and nonfiction narrative texts, like academic essays or news and magazine articles.

As you read, pay attention to structure and flow. Take notes on how an author introduces her argument and what supporting details she includes to build a case or explain a topic. Also, circle transitional words and phrases that allow one point, sentence, or paragraph to flow into another. Circling back to the last point, you can model your own writing based on what you learn from reading expert works.

 

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An SAT word a day keeps the doctor away!

 

#4: Study the Right Kind of Vocabulary 

The vocabulary questions on SAT Writing won’t ask about particularly obscure or high level words. Instead, they’ll test the meaning of more common words that may have different meanings depending on their contexts. Similarly, they may ask about frequently confused words, such as in the example above that asks you to choose between outdo, outweigh, and outperform.

As you study vocabulary, therefore, you should pay attention to nuance and shifts in meaning depending on context. Keep an eye out for words that are used one way in one passage and another way in a different passage. Focusing on more common words that can be used in unusual ways will also help you on the SAT Reading section.

 

#5: Practice Data Interpretation 

The SAT will feature graphs, charts, and tables in all three sections, Reading, Writing, and Math. Just about 2 to 4% of your Writing questions will refer to a graphic, but you want to make sure you’ve sharpened your data interpretation skills.

Some of these questions may ask whether a sentence accurately conveys information represented in a chart. Others may combine skills with a Command of Evidence question by asking if you should insert a sentence based on the graph in order to reinforce a point or strengthen an argument. 

Again, developing your skills of data interpretation from graphs, tables, and charts won’t just help you on SAT Writing; it will also help you do well on SAT Reading and SAT Math. You can practice with SAT practice questions, as well as some questions from ACT Science. Before you start in on your SAT Writing prep, let’s review the main features of this section.

 

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Develop your "eagle eye" for errors in grammar and usage. Fun fact: eagles are one of nature's most literary creatures, second only to bespectacled owls.

 

Key Facts About SAT Writing and Language

The SAT Writing section asks you to be an editor. This section tasks you with reading passages, fixing mistakes, and improving word choice and organization. You’ll need to develop both your little picture skills of grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary, as well as your big picture skills of paragraph construction and argument development.

To answer these multiple choice, passage-based questions, you should develop a strong understanding of the English language, particularly how it functions when constructing an argument, explanation, or nonfiction narrative. Studying grammar rules and vocabulary, along with reading and writing widely, will enhance your facility with language and, ultimately, help you master the SAT Writing and Language section.

 

What’s Next?

What other grammar rules do you need to know besides subject-verb agreement? This guide contains the complete list of SAT grammar rules, broken down one by one.

Are you aiming for top scores in SAT Writing? In this guide, a full scorer shares his tips, tricks, and strategies for achieving a perfect SAT Writing score.

Since your Writing score is combined with your Reading score on the SAT, you’ll have to do well on both sections to achieve a high verbal score. Check out our ultimate study guide for the SAT Reading section to learn about content, reading strategies, and practice questions. 

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.



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