Points and marks

Did you know that ancient texts were often written as a continuous line of letters, without any punctuation or even spaces between the words?

The longest word?

The longest word?

Fortunately, someone saw the madness of the situation and began to invent punctuation. People complain about having to correct commas, semicolons and other jots and tittles on the SAT and ACT, but can you imagine trying to find an error in a sentence that didn’t even have a clearly marked beginning and end?

In my end is my beginning

I am terrible at saying goodbye. Just last week I was on vacation, and not once did I have a proper farewell. Every time I rushed to convey thanks, the sadness of departure, the relief of going home, the dread of the journey, and the joy of the visit. Generally, that involved a quick wave as a door closed in front of me.

The SAT essay, however, is much easier to bid farewell to. With a little practice, you’ll wave with the practiced elegance of the Queen of England.

Goodbye to all that!

Goodbye to all that!

The first strategy is the opening concession. Basically, this gambit forces you to offer something that sounds like it agrees with the argument that you oppose. For example, remember those body paragraphs about Napoleon and Nixon from the previous post? They were all about the potential disaster that success can lead to.

For your conclusion, though, you would acknowledge that success can, in fact, be a good thing:

Having goals and achieving them is important…

Notice that this is in my own voice, not in the voice of “many people” or “society” or “the culture,” as the opening of my introduction had. This is important: instead of showing that you disagree with others, this opening concession actually shows a point of agreement with others, indicating a complexity of thought that the readers appreciate. But you don’t want to veer too far off course, so complete the sentence with a contradiction that restates the essential truth of your main idea:

Having goals and achieving them is important; however, we must also bear in mind the pitfalls that success lays in front of us so that we may do our best to avoid them. As the examples of Napoleon and Nixon show, the light of achievement can blind you, leading you not to further success but to ultimate failure.

Notice how this conclusion ends. Now, look at this introduction to the same essay:

Our culture worships success, publishing books about how to prosper and lionizing those that have reached the heights of their careers. However, this constant stare into the sun of success has left us blinded to its dark side. In many cases, success can cause changes in personality–or merely aggravate existing traits–to the point of disaster. Most commonly, success is disastrous because it causes either overweening arrogance or dangerous paranoia, as in the cases of Napoleon and Richard Nixon, respectively.

Look how the conclusion concludes with the same image that the introduction began with. Ending with something that calls back to your beginning makes your essay feel like a unified whole. It’s not necessary to write a conclusion like this, but it does provide a satisfyingly complete experience for your reader that may lead to a 12.

The dismount

Don't end your body paragraphs like this.

Don’t end your body paragraphs like this.

Some people write their body paragraphs, providing a great topic sentence and a relevant, interesting example. And then they just stop and move on to the next paragraph. This is not a strategy; it’s a stumble. When you reach the end of your example, your body paragraph is not over; you need to signal to your reader that you have some level of skill with a graceful dismount.

Again, I have two elegant strategies for this, as it so happens! The first is

The Counterfactual: This simple dismount allows you to deploy a complicated grammatical structure which, if used correctly, will impress your grader. Basically, a counterfactual argument tells a hypothetical past situation. For example, look at this body paragraph:

Nothing arrogant here.

Nothing arrogant here.

 Success can cause a sense of arrogance, creating a feeling of invulnerability that inevitably leads to failure. One prime example of this process is Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia. After a marvelously successful campaign throughout Europe, which he used to create new governments across the continent, Napoleon believed that he was invincible and set his sights on the land of the czars. Gathering his Grand Armee, he marched on the Russian Empire. Though he was victorious at first, he faced only token resistance from the Russian Army, which fell back instead of engaging, hoping that the vast expanses of their country, as well as the illness that followed any army in those days, would defeat Napoleon. The Russian generals were right; despite having taken Moscow, Napoleon’s army could not impose its will over the colossal Russian empire, and he fled, his army reduced by about 90 percent by disease and desertion. This was the beginning of the cascade of defeats that culminated in the Battle of Waterloo, when he was finally defeated, dethroned and exiled to St. Helena, where he died. If Napoleon had failed in a few more of his earlier battles, perhaps he would have had a more humble  sensibility, saving himself from the massive disasters of Russia and Waterloo.

Notice how the last sentence provides a different possible outcome based on a slightly different set of actions? This type of concluding sentence shows critical thinking (asking “What if…?”) and a fairly complex (though simple, with practice) grammatical structure, both of which tickle your readers in all the right spots. Here, practice it yourself with this paragraph:

Success can cause an arrogance that leads to impulsive actions that eventually result in disaster. My uncle Tom’s story epitomizes this idea. As a college student, he inherited a bit of money from his grandfather, and he invested it in the stock market, generating some impressive returns during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. However, this early success made him proud, and caused him to believe that he had a preternatural ability to choose winning securities. He began trusting his intuition instead of doing diligent research, investing in companies like Pets.com, Webvan and Kozmo.com. Although these sites were popular for a time, in the long run they were a flash in the pan, wiping out my uncle’s previous gains and a big portion of his savings when the dot-com bubble burst.

How would you finish this paragraph using the counterfactual method? Leave your attempts in the comments!

Impress me.

Impress me.

Spring Break!

This week on Modern FamilyAlex says she has to skip a Spring Break trip with her friend because she has to study for the PSAT.

The PSAT is in October. If you, dear reader, are tempted to forgo a vacation in April to study for a test that is happening in October, you are working way too hard. Go to the beach. Watch the sea filling the shore with its roar of bubbles rather than filling in bubbles on a test sheet.

I can’t tell if the writers know when the PSAT is, and are characterizing Alex as a crazy person who studies for tests at every possible moment even when they are 6 months away, or if they don’t know when the test is, and are just vaguely characterizing her as someone who is making a reasonable, if boring, Spring Break plan.

I’m assuming the latter.