SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The Best Approach for Improving Paragraphs on SAT Writing

Posted by Mary Ann Barge | Jun 22, 2015 9:00:00 AM

SAT Writing



Every SAT test has 6 special questions in the writing section that test not just your grammar skills, but how well you are able to use them in context. Can you tell which correct version of a sentence best suits the paragraph that it’s in? Are you ready to tackle one of the most unique parts of the SAT?


Why does the SAT have Improving Paragraphs Questions?

Before 2005, the SAT could only measure your ability to find errors within a single sentence. This was a problem because - obviously - very little college-level work focuses on your ability to correctly write indiviudal, unrelated sentences.

Hence the Writing SAT was born! While there are obviously some issues with this section of the test - such as the essay - which are being addressed in the new version of the test, there is a consensus that the ability to create strong paragraphs is a more important skill than being able to recognize tricky grammar errors in isolated sentences.

In fact, the new version of the SAT that will be introduced in 2016 will place an even greater emphasis on passage-based, grammar-in-context questions.


What concepts does this section test?

Time to put your editing cap on! This section is all about your ability to proofread, edit, and revise, as you would with an early draft of an essay. 


The test covers a few main editing concepts: how to correctly use transitions, good organization, conciseness, eliminating and adding sentences, meaning and purpose, how to improve sentences, and specificity. Later, I will give you specific strategies for attacking each of these question types. If you want to learn more about these different kinds of questions, see our guide to the concepts tested on the SAT Writing.

But first...


How should I approach Improving Paragraphs questions?

When you hit this section of the test, follow these rules for the correct approach. 

Remember that while some of the questions look similar to Improving Sentences or Critical Reading questions, they differ in some important ways!


Step One: Skim the Passage

You will usually notice that the passage is not very well written: it is meant to look like the first draft of a hastily-written essay.

You do NOT need to read the passage carefully at this point. Unlike in the Critical Reading portion of the test, you are not being asked to understand the purpose or deeper meaning of the passage. You only need to be able to notice mistakes in logic and grammar.

If an obvious grammar error jumps out at you, underline it. 


Step Two: Check Your Basic Comprehension

After reading, quickly ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is the author's argument or purpose in writing this piece?

2. How is the piece organized? How do the paragraphs relate to each other?

3. Was anything confusing - either because it could have been explained more clearly, or because the way it was worded made it difficult to understand? If so, mark it.

4. Did anything seem glaringly out of place or unnecessary? If so, mark it.

While these seem like basic questions, the majority of the questions you will be asked will revolve around these concepts. 


Step Three: Understand the Types of Questions

The Writing SAT asks the same types of questions over and over again. Below, I have broken down specific strategies for each of the main concepts the SAT likes to test. Make sure you are familiar with these concepts so that they do not come as a surprise on test day.


Step Four: Start Answering the Questions

If the question refers to a specific sentence in the passage, go back and read that sentence more closely, along with the sentences before and after it. This is because this section of the test focuses on context.

Without understanding the context, it will be much more difficult to weed out incorrect answers. Any answer you choose has to not just be grammatically correct, but also has to fit in with the sentences that surround it.


Step Five: Make sure that your answers are both CONCISE and GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT

Does you answer meet these standards approved by the SAT?

  • Not a fragment
  • Not a dependent clause
  • No unnecessary prepositions or articles
  • Antecedents must have clear pronouns
  • Use fewer gerunds and participles if possible
  • No dangling or misplaced modifiers

Remember, if there are several grammatically-correct options that work equally well in context, choose the most concise option.


Specific Strategies by Question Type

1. Improving Sentences

The SAT is testing two things with these questions: can you identify and correct grammatical errors, and can you understand how sentences work in the context of the paragraph?

If the question asks about improving a certain sentence or combining two sentences "in context", make sure that you go back and read the sentence in question as well as the sentences around it. Your answer should make a concise and direct sentence that is both correct indiviudally, and also works in the paragraph.


If the question asks about the best way to improve a sentence or combine two sentences, but does not say "in context", this is going to be very similar to the Improving Sentences questions in the writing section. Pay particular attention to your grammar rules, including dangling modifiers, antecedents of pronouns, and subject-verb agreement. As ever, also look out for the most concise and direct way of saying the information.



2. Transitions

Improving paragraphs questions will often test your ability to add transitions. Sometimes these will be single-word or short phrase transitions (do you know when to use "furthermore" as opposed to "therefore"?). Other times you will be dealing with full-sentence transitions. 

With these kinds of questions, the SAT is looking to see if you know how to lead smoothly from one idea in the paragraph to the next.



When asked to add a transition word or phrase, go back and look at the sentence in question and the previous sentence. Try to understand the relationship between the two setnences. Does the second explain the first? Does in contradict the previous sentence? Does the sentence in question reach a conclusion?

The table below reviews some common transition words and what they are used for:

Agreement/Similarity also, in addition, as a matter of fact, in the same way, equally important, and, then, moreover, as well as, of course, likewise, similarly, furthermore, additionally, actually, too
Opposition/Contradiction although, in contrast, different from, on the other hand, ont he contrary, in spite of, even so, though, but, unlike, yet, while, instead, despite, conversely, actually, otherwise, however, nevertheless, regardless, ironically (specifically used for unexpected contrast)
Example/Emphasis in other words, in this case, for this reason, notably, including, like, namely, certainly, particularly, for example, for instance, to emphasize, indeed, especially, to explain, basically
Cause/Purpose granted that, for this purpose, so long as, in order to, to that end, if, then, unless, because of, since, while, lest, in case, provided that, owing to, due to
Effect/Result as a result, in that case, for that reason, in effect, for, consequently, therefore
Conclusion/Summary after all, in fact, in summary, in conclusion, in short, in brief, to summarize, ultimately, on the whole, finally, therefore, at last


At other times, you will be asked to add a whole sentence between two other sentences or at the start of a paragraph. In these cases, you are looking for full transition sentences. Read the sentences that will surround the new sentence and chooise the option that best relates the idea in the first sentence to the idea in the second sentence.


3. Organization

Some questions will ask where a sentence best fits within a paragraph. This is all about logic. If a sentence is breaking up two other sentences about the same topic that should be together, then it needs to be moved. If the sentence is giving more information about a topic that has not been introduced yet, it needs to be moved.

32. Where is the best place for sentence 4?
     (A) (Where it is now)
     (B) After sentence 2
     (C) At the end of the second paragraph
     (D) At beginning of the third paragraph
     (E) After sentence 10


4. Conciseness

Frequently, the SAT will ask you the best way to combine two sentences. This means that as they are, the two sentences are too wordy. Is there a way that these sentences could be joined together that is more effective?

Other times you may be asked the best way to re-write an overly-wordy sentence. If the sentence has extra words that are adding no benefit, then you can get rid of them.

Think: what is the most direct way to say what the author is trying to convey?



5. Meaning and Purpose

Can you understand why the author wrote something in a certain way? If the author has written something non-serious, do you understand that it is meant to be humorous? Do you recognize that a certain sentence is giving an example, or introducing a new argument?


If the question asks about the author's goal in writing a sentence or group of sentences, go back an re-read the section carefully.

Choose the answer that you can relate directly back to the passage in question. 

These questions are a bit similar to Critical Reading questions - remember that there will ever only be one correct answer and you need to be able to find it in the text!

Be careful when looking over the answer choices and remember that if even one word in the answer choice doesn't match the section, then you have to rule out that answer.


6. Eliminating and Adding Sentences

The SAT will often ask if a sentence should be eliminated. If the sentence is about a new concept that otherwise is not discussed in the essay, can you tell that this information is irrelevant?

On the flip side, do you understand that some ideas should be fleshed out with an example or two? Can you recognize where it's best to add an extra sentence to describe something previously discussed?




If it asks you to add a sentence, choose the one that best builds on something that has already been discussed. Try to find a sentence that gives a good example of whatever the previous sentence had to say. Never introduce a new topic or subject matter in an added sentence.


If it asks you if a sentence should be deleted, see how well it relates to the information around it. The SAT often thinks that sentences should be deleted if they are too different from what else is around them, or if they discuss information that is not discussed elsewhere in the essay. If it's not relevant, get rid of it!


7. Specificity

Many of the passages will use vague words that could be interpreted in several different ways, depending on the context. Can you understand how a word is being used in the passage?

33. In context, which of the following is the best word to
      use instead of "adulterated" in setence 4?
      (A) contaminated
      (B) ruined
      (C) mellowed
      (D) eliminated
      (E) abused

If it asks about the meaning of a word in context, go back and see what the sentence is about. You may also need to read the sentence before it. 

Try mentally substituting the answer words into the sentence if it is not immediately clear.


Let's Put the Strategies into Action!

Here are some example passages and questions. Let's work through these questions to see how the guidelines above should be used.

Questions 1 - 5 refer to the following passage:

(1) Many people consider reality television vapid and a way to perpetuate bad stereotypes. (2) The current season of The Bachelorette elicited harsh reviews from feminists, they are people who believe in the equal representation of men and women. (3) The most condemning ones claimed that gender relations were being set back by decades because of the new "twist" of having two bachelorettes. (4) Wouldn't young girls watching the show internalize the inherent message when having men pick the bachelorette based on looks, before the bachelorette could pick a spouse based on his personality? (5) And WifeSwap, the television show in which men trade wives for a week. (6) Imagine the horror at having women portrayed as a belonging that can be borrowed!
(7) I see nothing wrong with reality television, whether low-brow or of the skill-based competition variety. (8) After all, isn't the drama of our daily lives the most entertaining thing of all? (9) For example, my friend's love life has enough ups and downs to be an award-winning drama. (10) Reality television would never have become so popular if we did not naturally like watching the struggles of every day life. (11) No doubt, in The Bachelorette we recognize the desire for connection and love, this is reminiscent of the plots of classic movies such as Casablanca, directed by the late Michael Curtiz. (12) Curtiz will see traces of his own love triangles in the contestants on these shows. (13) The bachelorette woos the main contestant, before finally breaking his heart on the final episode and leaving him for someone else.
(14) Human drama and competition have been the main compelling forces in all entertainment for centuries, and we should not forsake them in favor of something more predictable but safer.
1. Which of the following is the best version of the underlined portion of sentence 11 (reproduced below)?
    No doubt, in The Bachelorette we recognize the desire for connection and love, this is reminiscent of the plots of classic movies such as Casablanca,      directed by the late Michael Curtiz.
    (A) (as it is now)
    (B) love, this would be
    (C) love; they are
    (D) love for being
    (E) love as
You may notice that this is not too different from an Improving Sentences question. Context does not matter here - instead, we just need to fix this to make it as grammatically and stylistically correct as possible. As it is now, we have a comma splice, which needs to be fixed. Therefore, (A) is incorrect. (B) also present a comma splice and so is also incorrect. (C) technically makes a grammatically correct sentence because the independent clauses are separated by a semicolon. However, the pronoun "they" is incorrect and does not work in context. The original sentence uses a singular pronoun referring back to "desire", but "they" is a plural pronoun so cannot refer to desire. (D) is awkward and uses a gerund where it is not necessary. (E), therefore, is the correct answer. Of the grammatically correct choices, it is the most concise.
2. In context, which of the following is the best word to use instead of "ones" in sentence 3?
    (A) instances
    (B) shows
    (C) reviews
    (D) sections
    (E) characters
Your key words here are “in context”, which means that you need to not only read sentence 3, but also the sentences around it. Sentences 2-3 say, “The current season of The Bachelorette elicited harsh reviews from feminists, they are people who believe in the equal representation of men and women. The most condemning ones claimed that gender relations were being set back by decades by the new "twist" of having two bachelorettes.” Here it is clear that “ones” is referring back to the reviews, some of which were particularly critical. Therefore, (C) is the correct answer.
If you were uncertain about this, you could easily sub in the other options and you would see that they would not make sense in the context of sentence 3.
3. An important strategy used in the first paragraph is to
    (A) elaborate on a view that contrasts with the essay's argument
    (B) use descriptive detail to elucidate a personal experience
    (C) provide a thoughtful, objective analysis of feminism
    (D) introduce an unconventional response to reality television
    (E) reveal the sense of playfulness implicit in feminist theory


From skimming the full essay, you should see that the author starts by saying that some people do not like reality television, but the author of the essay thinks there is nothing wrong with it. Therefore, the correct answer is (A). The first paragraph goes into detail about why people do not like reality TV, which is a contrast to the author’s point of view that is argued in the rest of the piece.

What if you weren’t sure? (B) is incorrect because no personal experiences are mentioned in the first paragraph. (C) and (E) are incorrect because there is no discussion of feminism. (D) is incorrect because the first paragraph tells that the dislike of reality television is not an unconventional response - it contrast, it is common. 
4. In context, which of the following is the best way to revise the underlined portion of sentence 12 (reproduced below)?
    Curtiz will see traces of his own love triangles in the contestants on these shows.
    (A) Curtiz could have seen
    (B) Curtiz, too, would see
    (C) However, Curtiz might have seen
    (D) In addition to this, Curtiz will see
    (E) Likewise, Curtiz can see


Key words, once again, are “in context.” So let’s go see the context: “No doubt, in The Bachelorette we recognize the desire for connection and love, this is reminiscent of the plots of classic movies such as Casablanca, directed by the late Michael Curtiz. Curtiz will see traces of his own love triangles in the contestants on these shows.

The context shows us that we need a way to link the recognition that we have (of the desire) with Curtiz's would-be recognition of love triangles. This calls for a transition.

Option (A) does not give a transition at all, so it's out. (C) uses a transition ("however") but this is not the correct one - this implies a contradictory idea, and we need something that shows agreement. So (C) is out. (D) and (E) are both out because of the tense of the verbs. Though they use good transitions that show agreement, Curtiz is dead and will not be doing anything in the present or future tenses. 

That leaves us with (B), which uses an appropriate transition, and also uses a form of the verb that implies a hypothetical situation. It is also direct and concise - note that it is the shortest of all the options.


5. Paragraph one would best be improved by

   (A) An explanation of what The Bachelorette  is

   (B) A quotation about why one viewer loves reality television

   (C) An explanation of why seeing "real-life struggles" on television resonates with viewers

   (D) A reference to other types of television programming

   (E) A brief explanation of Michael Curtiz's career

This question is asking what we should add to the first paragraph, which means that we need to go back and read it. Remember, we should not add information about anything that is not directly relevant. 

Let's start by reviewing the purpose of the first paragraph. In this paragraph, the author writes about why certain people object to reality TV, and tells what some of those objections are, using The Bachelorette as an example. 
Therefore, a quote about why someone loves reality TV would not fit well in this paragraph. (B) is out. Paragraph two discusses watching real-life struggles on television, and also mentions Michael Curtiz's. However, neither of these are mentioned in the first paragraph, so (C) and (E) are out. 
Other types of television programming would be completely off-topic, because this passage is specifically about reality television. Therefore (D) is out.

In contrast, a reader who is unfamiliar with The Bachelorette may be helped with an explanation of how the show works, since the show is discussed for much of the first paragraph. (A) is the correct answer.


What's next?

Now that you know the rules to master the Improving Paragraphs questions, a perfect score on the Writing section is one step closer! Check out our advice on how to get a perfect score.

Want to test yourself out on some of the trickiest questions on SAT Writing? Here are some of the hardest questions for this part of the test.

Need a refresher on pronouns or dangling modifiers? Check out our grammar guides for the SAT.

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points? 

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Mary Ann Barge
About the Author

Mary Ann holds a BA in Classics and Russian from the University of Notre Dame, and an MA from University College London. She has years of tutoring experience and is also passionate about travel and learning languages.

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