Page 2 Writing and Language Study Guide for the SAT® exam

Types of Questions

Some of the questions in the Writing and Language section of the SAT exam involve the same skills as those in the Reading section, but you will be asked to analyze a piece of writing in terms of making positive changes to it, instead of merely establishing that a component is present. Here are some points you will be asked to evaluate.

Idea Expression

Some of the test questions will be based on the writer’s expression of ideas. You will be tested on your ability to read, comprehend, and analyze a passage, taking particular notice of how the writer developed and organized the passage, as well as his or her use of language. Basically, idea expression relates to the writer’s purpose, and the test questions will require you to make the purpose clearer, sharper, and more logical.


Development is how the writer makes his or her purpose clear throughout a passage. Improving the development of a passage includes revising and updating the content to make the writer’s purpose more clear. The act of development will include the following and you may be required to add, revise, or leave these elements unchanged:

Proposition deals with the important “proposing” elements within a passage, such as thesis statements, topic sentences, and claims made by the writer. All of these elements add up to create the main idea within a passage. The main idea needs to be strikingly clear and can be drawn from the previously mentioned statements and sentences.

Support includes the material used to support the writer’s ideas and claims. Support can mean examples, data graphs, quotes, and more. Within a passage, there must be strong support for any point and you may be required to revise a passage so that claims are better supported.

A passage or paragraph has focus when all the material and support are relevant to the author’s purpose. A passage loses focus when unnecessary or irrelevant sentences are included. You may be asked, for example, if a portion of a paragraph should be kept or deleted. Remember to only keep material that keeps the writer’s purpose focused.

Quantitative information includes graphic data, such as tables, graphs, and charts, that adds more detailed support to claims within the passage. Not every passage will include a graph, but expect to see at least one on your test. You must understand how to read and interpret the quantitative information because you may be asked to change elements in a passage to better reflect the data.


A writer must use organization to make his or her passage logical, cohesive, and effective. When analyzing and editing the organization of a passage, pay close attention to the following elements:

The sequence of a passage is the order in which ideas and topics are presented. The sequence should always be logical, and you may be asked to reorder sentences within a paragraph in order to improve the sequence. A sentence that seems random or irrelevant is most likely out of logical sequence.

Passages with logical sequence should have strong introductions, conclusions, and transitions. When you act as the “editor” of a passage during the test, you may need to revise these elements to make the sequence of the passage stronger. Introductions should introduce the main idea and draw the reader in, while conclusions should quickly summarize and close the topic without repeating everything all over again. Transitions are a great way to lead the reader to each new point and signal what kind of information they are about to receive. For example, the transitional phrase “for example” makes it quite obvious what is coming next, and the transitional words first, second, and finally give the information chronological order.

Effective Language Use

Writers can effectively use language by picking the best word choices, making their points concise, and following the same style throughout the piece. You may have to edit a passage to ensure it has effective language use in the following areas:

Precision is the ability to choose the best word possible within a sentence. Most words have many synonyms and it is a common mistake to think that any synonym will be correct. You, as the editor, should be able to use the context of a sentence to choose the best word choice possible to replace one that may not belong. Remember that some words have certain connotations, which can make them a poor choice in a sentence.

Concision is all about cutting to the chase. Strong writing skills include the ability to be direct without losing vital information. If writers can communicate their point in five words instead of ten, then they should do it. You may be asked to revise sentences to eliminate redundancy or unnecessary details.

Style and tone show how the writer feels about his or her work and influences how a reader should interpret a passage. Style and tone choices should remain consistent for the entire passage, and you may be asked to edit words that conflict with these choices. For example, if a passage has been quite formal overall, you would want to eliminate informal words like ain’t.

Syntax is a literary device that deals with forming sentences correctly to communicate an idea. Well-formed sentences are extremely important in formal writing and can greatly affect the overall tone of a passage. As the editor, you might need to combine or separate sentences in order to improve their flow, or syntax.

Conventions of Standard English

Conventions of English are the broad, predetermined guidelines that have been established for writing and communicating. Following these conventions ensures that readers will clearly understand the message the writer is trying to convey, while failure to follow these conventions will often leave readers distracted or confused. On the SAT, you must act as the editor when reading the four passages. When proofreading for convention errors, pay close attention to structure, usage, and punctuation.

Structure of Sentences

When editing errors in sentence structure, you will spend most of your time on the following:

Proper formation of sentences. This can include the correction of sentence fragments (incomplete sentences, unless a fragment is intentional in order to achieve some rhetorical effect), ensuring proper combination of sentences and words (be sure to review subordinating and coordinating conjunctions and their uses), making sure all sentences are parallel (when clauses are grammatically equal a writer has achieved parallelism), and the correct placement of modifiers (be wary of dangling or misplaced modifiers).

Shifts in sentences. Watch out for sentences that incorrectly shift tenses, which would require you to edit the verb into the correct form. For example, you may have to change a verb from present continuous (studying) to past tense (studied) in order to follow the pattern already established in the sentence. Incorrect shifts can also occur with pronouns and numbers, such as a writer changing from first-person to third-person in the same passage.