Tips for ACT Essay Writing

pen“According to Patrick Farrell, Wells’s usual editor at the Times, Wells sometimes e-mails around deadline to say that he’s forgotten how to write.”

The quotation above is from a recent article in the New Yorker, about New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. Worried emails to his editor aside, Wells is a very accomplished writer, and his finished work never suggests that he’s forgotten how to do it. This anecdote reminds us that writing can be a somewhat mysterious task even for people who do it every day. In much the same way, students who have a good handle on the basics of ACT essay-writing sometimes aren’t sure what they can do to bring their work to the next level. Today’s blog post is all about facing this challenge. It offers some tips and ideas for students who are comfortable meeting the requirements of a 3/3/3/3 essay, but want some guidance on how to do even better.

Before we go any further, though, let’s review what the ACT essay basics are.

In The Will to Believe, the nineteenth-century American philosopher William James makes an interesting distinction between “seeking truth” and “avoiding error.” In general, the essay’s basic tasks are in the “avoiding error” category. Students need to write an essay with a sound structure (a beginning, a middle, and an end), avoid making lots of major grammatical and spelling errors, clearly take a position on their topic, and steer clear of big logical errors. These are all valuable and important skills in their own right, and higher-scoring essays effectively use them as a foundation for the trickier tasks we’ll discuss today.

The following ideas will help you turn a decent, but not high-scoring essay into a strong one:

1. Imaginative Examples

Essays that score in the middle of the ACT’s range sometimes rely on examples that are a little too vague for the task at hand. Alternately, they might use a concrete example (from current events, for instance) that nevertheless isn’t a good fit for the point being argued. Yet another risk is using an example that’s so cliched, it has lost its ability to persuade people. The trick is to find an example that’s both detailed and suitable for your particular argumentative goal. How do you do this? One of the most helpful things you can do, as you prepare for the ACT, is read widely. If you seek out diverse books and articles that interest you, (this detail is really important; it’s so much easier to remember things you’re interested in) then you’ll have a ready stock of examples to use on test day (this detail is really important; it’s so much easier to remember things you’re interested in). When you use your example, make sure that its place in your argument will be clear to your readers.

2. Using Your Own Words

Another thing that decent, but still-improvable essays often do is restate the language of the prompt and perspectives too closely. This not only makes for repetitive reading; it can also hinder your ability to formulate your own original analysis. Think about it this way: if you’re analyzing an idea, and you only ever repeat terms that were already stated in the prompt, then you’re not giving yourself a chance to make your own argument! You’re letting the test-makers write your argument for you. If you try to frame the argument in your own terms, you might see productive lines of analysis that wouldn’t be as clear otherwise.

3. Replacing Fluff With Purposeful Language

What’s “fluff?” Well, since the beginning of time, there’s been fluff. Fluff is very important and the following reasons show how important fluff really is. Who knows when fluff is ever going to go away? … As you can see, fluff is wordy writing that doesn’t add to your analysis. Since you have such limited space and time to write your essay, make sure that the words you write have a definite purpose.

4. Learning about Organization from the Reading and English Sections

Earlier we suggested that, when it comes to forming good examples, it helps to read widely. This is also true when you’re familiarizing yourself with effective essay organization and structure. Fortunately, you have many useful reading materials already at hand: if you look at practice ACT Reading and English sections, you can start to get a sense of how working writers organize their ideas.   

This post is by no means the last word on the subject, but we hope that it’s made the ACT Writing Test a little less mysterious! Feel free to ask us for further advice in the comments section below.  

~ Geoffrey Morrison, Editor

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