How to hook your reader blog - SAT
Part I - The SAT and literary analysis.
There is no way to be absolutely sure of pleasing your essay reader. Whoever reads your essay, of course, will be guided by an extensive rubric, but there is no way around the fact that good writing is largely a subjective judgement.
Just read a few “great” authors talking about other “great” authors. Mark Twain said that it seemed “a great pity that they let Jane Austen die a natural death.” He also said that reading Pride and Prejudice made him want to dig up Austen and “hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.”
Michael Crichton said that he became suspicious of a English professor’s skills - or maybe motives - when he received C’s on every one of his papers. So he tested his theory by putting his own name on a George Orwell essay on Gulliver’s Travels and turning it in. Orwell got a B-, and Crichton switched to anthropology.
Now, there is a question to be answered first before you spend a minute prepping for your essay: Should you even sign up for the essay?
A recent op-ed in the LA Times said that only 27 colleges even require an essay score. Harvard and Dartmouth have both dropped the requirement, and that seems to be the way the trend is going. So if you’re sure that none of the colleges you’re applying to will ask for an essay score, why bother?
The other side of the coin, though, is that you never know when things might change. You might find yourself interested in one of those 27 schools after you’ve taken your test, and you’d hate to have to go back to the drawing board if that happened.
OK, so back to hooking your reader. If you do decide to write an essay, there is a sort of best bet when it comes to writing it: Don’t be a slave to the rules.
In general, high school English classes will teach the skills required to write a literary analysis that will satisfy the SAT standards. But it will help you decide the tone of your work if you think of who will be reading your essay, and what they’re going through. These people have to read hundreds of these things, and most of the entries will not be sparkling with interesting prose; It’s very likely that they’ll be worn out by the time they see your work. So help yourself and your score by making things interesting and bending the rules a bit.
We have a friend who teaches six periods of English classes. He dreads the days when all of the essays come in. Forget the bad writing. That’s relatively simple to grade. The ones that give him a headache are the ones that are technically correct, but lifeless.
This doesn’t mean you need to put on a clown suit and become a full blown entertainer. But it sure can’t hurt to be sure that your writing is interesting.
In other words, hook your reader. Give them a great first impression of you before they have a chance to start heading for the aisles.
In your classes, you might be lucky, and have a really vivacious teacher who spends time weeding out the dull, and pushing students toward verve and panache. But probably not. Most of them, even the good ones, have their hands full just covering the basics of good writing in the course of a 55 minute class for five days a week.
So if you don’t feel well schooled in hooking your reader, then there is a really great way to learn if for yourself: Find the kind of writing that always hooks you.
Here’s how Gabriel Garcia Marquez made his reader feel like his Chronicle of a Death Foretold would be worth reading past the first page:
“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.”
How’s that for getting hooked?
Or how about Chuck Palahniuk’s opening line in fight club?
“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”
And here’s his opener from Choke:
“If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.”
Or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, not straying far from the title, but still catching your attention.
“I am an invisible man."
Don’t these lines make you want to find out what happens next, rather than making you feel you’re in for a chore? It doesn’t matter who your reader is, no one wants to spend time reading something that won’t feel worth the time.
Here are a couple of college essay openers we culled from a few Internet lists:
"Who else’s identity can really be constructed by the calculus of fragmented memories? Not mine!
“I change my name each time I place an order at Starbuck’s.”
Or try the opening paragraph from an essay by Mary Ruefle, a poet:
“I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility. Part of what I mean—what I think I mean—by “imbecility” is something intrinsically unnecessary and superfluous and thereby unintentionally cruel. It was a Master who advised that we speak little, better still say nothing, unless we are quite sure that what we wish to say is true, kind, and helpful. But how can a poet, whose role is to speak, adhere to this advice? How can anyone whose role is to facilitate language speak little or say nothing?”
Of course you are writing for academic readers, so there will be rules to follow. But they’re also human, and like other humans they want to be interested, to have their curiosity aroused.
And go into this knowing that you can both hook your reader brilliantly, and still follow the rules. Loosely. If you’re a little shy about putting your reader off by making your writing too spicy, then find your comfort zone by dialing it down a bit, and adhering a little more closely to the rules. But remember, if your reader is bored - even by the most technically perfect essay - they probably won’t be in a great mood when deciding what score to give you.
Next time we’ll talk about the differences - the huge differences - between the SAT and ACT essays. They’re large enough, in fact, that the type of essay you prefer to write could help you decide which of the tests you would prefer to take.