Writing Lecture One

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This course will improve your writing skills and your ability to do well on the SAT I verbal exams. Let's start by looking at the importance of writing and also explain what these exams are.

Writing is important in nearly every job that you might do as an adult. Almost everyone has to write summaries of their work or memos to other workers in their companies. Most college courses have writing assignments that must be completed. In many areas of study, it is a requirement to write a "thesis" in order to graduate and earn a college degree.

Writing is essential to Christianity. Many Christians read the Bible daily, or several times a day. Each week in church there are readings from the Bible that help enlighten everyone and strengthen our faith. People wrote the books in the Bible to make this possible.

Preachers often write out their sermons, or outlines of it, in order to make them more effective. Public speaking consists of saying words that have been written down, or could be written.

Writing often has a very calming and beneficial effect on the person doing the writing. Reading a book is good, but one learns even more by writing a book. The activity of writing sharpens the mind and helps improve understanding. If you are upset about something, try writing about it. You'll find it makes you feel better afterward. One hundred and fifty years ago, Americans would spend much of their free time writing letters or diaries. Writing is a form of mental exercise that has a positive effect on the person doing the writing.

Writing is free. You do not need to buy anything new for it. You can use the computer you already have, or pick up a pen and paper from around your home. You don't have to listen to commercials or travel anywhere. But because it is free, no one profits by encouraging you to write. The result is that you will rarely hear someone recommend that you write a book, a poem, a letter, or anything else. You have to take the initiative on your own. If you learn to write well, then people will pay you for your work.

Writing can be done anywhere: at home or away, while standing in line, while waiting for an appointment, or out of boredom. It can be done any time of day or night. As you'll see in the example below, it can even be done well in darkness. People who are paralyzed, or blind, or deaf, or mute, or without arms or legs, can all enjoy and benefit from writing.

Writing is the most creative activity possible. It is the human activity that is closest to the pure creation of something out of nothing, like the creation of the world. Writing takes a set of infinite possibilities and crafts something meaningful and finite. Writing converts the chaos of random thoughts into the perfect order of ideas, logic and expression.

Writing has changed the world for the better. "The pen is mightier than the sword" is a famous insight. Thomas Paine's pamphlet entitled Common Sense helped win independence for the American colonies from Great Britain; Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin started the Civil War, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic helped inspire the Union to victory. Many of the most influential people in history were writers, including Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the authors of the four Gospels.

Like the Bible, many of the greatest writings in history were inspired - and you might be too. But such great writing cannot occur unless you give it a chance and put pen to paper, or start typing on your computer. Here is how the author (Julia W. Howe) of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" describes her inspiration for the lyrics ("Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored ...."):[1]

I awoke in the grey of the morn­ing, and as I lay wait­ing for dawn, the long lines of the de­sired po­em be­gan to en­twine them­selves in my mind, and I said to my­self, "I must get up and write these vers­es, lest I fall asleep and for­get them!" So I sprang out of bed and in the dim­ness found an old stump of a pen, which I re­mem­bered us­ing the day be­fore. I scrawled the vers­es al­most with­out look­ing at the p­aper.

Learning to write, and write well, will open more opportunities for you than any other skill. It is better even than learning how to swim, or ride a bicycle, or fly a plane, or become a good debater, or speak many languages. Once you develop the talent of good writing, there is almost no limit to what you can achieve, and most jobs and activities become much easier. While your college classmates or co-workers are struggling with a writing assignment, you'll be finishing it with skill and ease.

What is Good Writing?

"Brevity is the soul of wit." That famous description of good comedy is true indeed. Brevity, or economy of expression, is most likely to hold the attention of the audience and bring it to laughter. When a joke takes too long to tell, or is explained with too much repetition, or is diluted with too much narrative, then it loses its humorous edge. We'll be discussing humor more later in this course.

Good writing is also concise. Sharp, clear sentences hold the reader's attention better and are easier to proofread for mistakes. More words do not mean greater quality. Usually the opposite is true. One person remarked, "I'd prefer to write you a short letter, but I don't have the time to edit this long letter into a clearer and more concise version." The best written works result from distilling and reducing many ideas and sentences into only the very best.

What is considered one of the greatest works in American History, the Gettysburg Address, is only 246 words long. Its short length made it possible to carve all of it into the side of the inner wall of a monument in Washington, D.C., the Lincoln Memorial.

Testing Writing

Good writers are in big demand: everyone wants them. Colleges want them; employers want them; churches want them; Hollywood (movies) want them; comedians want them; and even your family and friends will want you to write or say something for them.

Our focus on this course will be on how colleges test for good writers: through the SAT I verbal exams. Two of its sections -- "critical reading" and "writing"—test your writing-related skills. The more you can develop your writing abilities, the better you will do on these exams and the more opportunity you will have for college scholarships.

When to Take the SAT I

The two verbal SAT I exam sections are called "critical reading" and "writing". They are what many colleges look at most in determining admissions and scholarships. This class will help you master the skills that these exams assess.

The exams are offered by the "College Board," and cost only $45 for all three sections (including math). The exams are offered at local high schools in early March, early May and early June. Then, in the fall, the exams are offered in early October, November and December. Registration deadlines are a month before the test dates, but the sooner you sign up the more likely you will obtain your preferred location for testing. All the information and the process for registration are available online.[2]

Students who are juniors in high school should take the SAT I once or twice in the spring (March, May or June), and then again once or twice in the early fall (October and November). But they should begin preparing long beforehand. Students should consider taking the SAT I earlier, such as December of their junior year, so that there is time to improve and retake the test well before applications are required by colleges.

Many students—particularly homeschooled students—make the mistake of postponing taking the SAT I until it delays consideration of their application by colleges, which hurts their opportunity to be admitted and earn scholarships. If a college starts considering applications in November of a student's senior year, then the college needs to see the student's SAT scores at the same time.

But you'll want to take the SATs several times, so you need to take it once or twice in your junior year to ensure you have maximized your overall score. Procrastination—putting off registration and the taking of the test—will end up costing you a great deal of money and opportunity. It's not just how a student does on the SAT that matters, but how much initiative he showed in taking the test early enough to help him.

You would be surprised how many homeschooled students hurt their chances at scholarships and college admissions simply by being late. Think of this like taking a trip on an airplane ride: the plane is not going to wait for you to arrive. It will take off whether you get there in time or not. And for college admissions and scholarships, there are no "reserved seats"!


College admissions, and scholarships, are based on the SAT I scores. The following are some minimum scores for scholarships at certain schools (not including minority scholarships). Notice how the higher the score is, the larger the potential scholarship will be. Also notice that some schools (like Seton Hall and Moravian) use all three SAT scores (which have a maximum score of 800 times 3, or 2400), while other schools (like Alfred State College and Arcadia) do not use the writing score so their maximum is a 1600 (800 times 2).

  • Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ: 2010 SAT (full tuition scholarships)
  • Alfred State College, Alfred, NY: 1200 SAT (full tuition plus room and board)
  • Arcadia University, Glenside, PA: 1030 SAT (between $3,000 and full tuition)
  • Grove City College, Grove City, PA: 1300 SAT ($5,000)
  • Centenary College, Hacketstown, NJ: 1210 SAT ($10,000), 1030 ($8,000), 910 ($6,500), 800 ($5,000)
  • Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA: 2150 SAT ($22,000), 1850 ($12,000), 1750 ($8,000), and 1700 ($4,000)
  • Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ: 1250 SAT ($17,000 to $20,000)
  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ: 1950 SAT ($21,400)
  • Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA: $3,750 yearly if 1270 SAT or 29 ACT[3]
  • Oklahoma State University: Up to $12,500 per year for SATs of 1330 or more
  • Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO: $9,000 annual award 1150 SAT or 25 ACT
  • University of Connecticut: Half to full tuition 1100 SAT or ACT 24
  • Kean University, NJ: Full in-state tuition and fees scholarships: 1400 SAT
  • Messiah College, Pennsylvania: Full tuition: 1300 SAT or 29 ACT
  • William Patterson University, NJ: $3000 to $7000 for SAT 1050 or higher
  • Gordon College, NY: $12,000 a year for SATs of 2100 or ACT of 31
  • Marymount of Manhattan, NY: $6,000 per year for SAT 1150 or higher
  • NJIT, NJ: full scholarship for SAT scores 1500 and above

The point is this: the higher your SAT scores, the more scholarships are available to you. No one expects you to obtain a perfect score on the SAT, and no scholarships require that. But if you try your hardest, and do your best, then you will be better off and able to help others more than if you do not try. The above list is not an endorsement of any college, but illustrates how scholarships are based on SAT scores.

College Policy Towards Repeat Testing

"Practice makes perfect." This aphorism is so true in so many areas of life. Practice your speeches before you say them and you will do better. Take practice exams before the real one and you will excel. Practice your sports activity or musical instrument and you will improve your skills at them.

The same is true for taking the SAT. Practice before your first exam will help you do better on it. Taking the SAT multiple times will likely give you higher overall scores.

But that raises a question: how do colleges handle multiple SAT scores from the same student who took it two, three or four times? Do colleges average the scores, or take the highest set of three scores, or take the highest individual score for each type of exam (critical reading, writing or math)?

Put yourself in the colleges' shoes. Each college wants to brag that its student body has high SAT scores. Thus each college has an incentive to take the highest possible score combinations, in order to improve its own image. Accordingly, most colleges allow and even encourage multiple test-taking of the SAT in order to boost students' scores to the maximum extent possible.

The College Board, which offers the SAT, makes money every time a student takes its test, so it encourages multiple test-taking also. The SAT allows students the option of "score choice," which enables students to pick and choose which scores for which test they want sent to which college. Most colleges participate in this program.[4]

Here are some specific examples among homeschool-friendly colleges:

  • Abilene Christian University allows you to submit your best scores from all three sections of the SAT.[5]
  • Wheaton College takes the highest of the three scores from all of the SATs that an applying student submits.[6]
  • Houghton College in New York recently started taking the highest critical reading and math scores for the SAT.
  • James Madison University takes the highest scores from the reading and math sections on the SAT.[7]
  • The most popular homeschool colleges, Grove City College, Liberty University and Patrick Henry College, have their own policies and you should contact them directly if you are interested in attending there.

Importance of Vocabulary

Vocabulary provides the tools for writing. The bigger your vocabulary, and the better you use words, the more effective your expressions will be. You can be more precise and you can raise the level of thought to higher levels.

The SAT I used to ask directly about vocabulary, but has dropped that portion of the test. Now the SAT I asks about challenging words only in context, as in sentences and paragraphs. Develop the talent of figuring out the meaning of an unknown word based on how it is used. That is a skill that will bring you many more points on the SAT I exam than you would obtain otherwise, and also help you learn new words as you hear them.

Let's try some examples of learning word meanings from context (SAT questions are a bit more complicated than this, and as we'll learn in future classes):

Example 1:

"I abhor all the paperwork that government makes people fill out these days!" What does the word "abhor" mean?
(a) love
(b) encourage
(c) don't feel strongly one way or the other
(d) welcome
(e) dislike intensely

Even if you don't already know what the word "abhor" means, you should be able to figure it out from the context. Only answer (e) fits the sentence well. As to answer choice (c), why would someone say that "I don't feel strongly one way or the other about all the paperwork that government makes people fill out these days," followed by an exclamation point? That would be unlikely. Note also that answer choices (a), (b) and (d) are similar to each other, and they cannot all be correct. Answer choice (e) stands alone as the most likely meaning.

Example 2:

In the beginning was the "λόγος" (logos), and the "λόγος" was with God, and the "λόγος" was God. (John 1:1). What does the Greek word "λόγος" mean?
(a) evil
(b) light
(c) universe
(d) chaos
(e) word

In this example you can figure out what this ancient Greek term means. Starting with answer choice (a), the phrase near the end of the sentence would be "evil was God," and that does not make sense. So eliminate (a) as a possibility. Similarly, strike out choice (d) as a possibility because "chaos" was not God. How about choice (c), "universe"? It would not make sense for the "universe" to be in the very beginning along with God, and the "universe" was certainly NOT God.

The only possible meanings among the choices for "λόγος" (logos) are (b) and (e). If you do not know at this point, then you have at least a 50/50 chance. "Word" fits the expression "was God" better, and is the correct answer.

And if the "word was God," then what does that say about writing? Writing, as the expression of words and concepts, is a very special activity that has unlimited potential. Let's master the use of words.

Other fun words:

  • laconic (pronounced: luh-KAH-nik), meaning "very concise in expression"
  • cantankerous, meaning "irritating to deal with"
  • truculent (pronounced: TRUH-kyuh-lent), meaning "cruel, savage, aggressively belligerent"
  • insouciance (pronounced: in-SOO-see-ens), meaning "nonchalance, lighthearted lack of concern"
  • martinet (pronounced mar-tuh-NET), meaning "an overly strict person who demands rigid compliance with forms and methods," named after France's King Louis XIV's Lieutenant Colonel Jean Martinet

Develop the habit of welcoming new words into your vocabulary, and using them. Beware of the "dumbing down" by others of the vocabulary level of speech, whereby some people only use a few hundred words over and over in order to communicate. Some public school students have a total vocabulary of at most a few thousand words. Build yours to where you know and use tens of thousands of words. You'll obtain better jobs, better friends and greater happiness by learning to enjoy all the powerful words that are out there for our benefit.

Always know where a dictionary is, or how to look up the meaning of new words online.

SAT I Format

The SAT format is as follows.

Critical Reading Section

The "critical reading" portion of the SAT is composed of 67 questions, with roughly 1 minute per question. 48 of the 67 questions are passage-based reading questions and the remaining 19 are sentence completion questions. The "critical reading" portion of the exam is broken into two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section, for a total of 70 minutes overall.

The critical reading section is split into three general categories:

  • Extended reasoning, with 42–50 questions
  • Literal comprehension, with 4–6 questions
  • Vocabulary in context, with 12–16 questions

The topics for the passage-based reading are from natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, and literary fiction. Passages range in length from about 100 to 850 words. According to the College Board that writes the exam, students are asked to: identify the meanings of words from their context, answer questions about information directly stated, including the main idea, and synthesize and analyze information such as identifying cause and effect, drawing inferences, understanding logic of analogies or argument, and evaluating the assumptions and techniques in the reading passage.

The other part of the "critical reading" portion of the SAT consists of sentence completion questions. These require students to determine the meaning of words and use them appropriately, and to evaluate how the different parts of a sentence fit together. Each question has one or more fill-in-the-blank type answer choice. The student is required to choose the word or words that best complete the sentence.

Writing Section

The writing section consists of 49 multiple-choice questions and one essay question. The student has 35 minutes (one 25-minute section and one 10-minute section) for the multiple-choice questions, and 25 minutes for the essay, for a total of 60 minutes.

The multiple choice topics include: improving sentences (25 questions), identifying grammar errors in sentences (18 questions), and improving paragraphs (6 questions).

The essay is the first question asked on the SAT I and must be written out longhand with a number 2 pencil. Students are provided with a quote or statement that is no more than 80 words. Each student should take a position about the quote or statement by developing his or her own point-of-view, and supporting that point-of-view.

Math Section

We will not be covering math in this course, but for information purposes the math portion of the SAT consists of 54 questions in 70 minutes. There are two multiple choice sections totaling 44 questions, and a student-produced response section where the student writes the answer rather than choosing from options, which has 10 questions. The timing on the math exam is 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section.

There are four general categories covered by the math portion of the SAT:

  • Numbers and operations with 11–13 questions
  • Algebra and functions with 19–21 questions
  • Geometry and measurement with 14–16 questions
  • Data analysis, statistics, and probability with 6–7 questions.

For the student-produced response question, the student must solve the math problem and fill in the answer on the grid. It is easy to fill in the grid incorrectly, so students should read the instructions very carefully for these student-produced response questions.

Homework Assignment

Find a dictionary in your home, or learn how to look up words online.[8]

Write an essay of at least 300 words about any topic you like. It could be about a personal experience, such as the March for Life trip, or the tragedy in Haiti, or a song that you like, or anything else.

In your essay, use at least one new word that you do not ordinarily use, and underline it.

Give your essay a catchy title.


  1. http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/b/h/bhymnotr.htm
  2. http://sat.collegeboard.com/register/sat-dates
  3. The "ACT" is a national exam for high school students that is an alternative to the SAT.
  4. http://professionals.collegeboard.com/testing/sat-reasoning/scores/policy
  5. http://www.acu.edu/admissions/freshmen/info/actsatfaq.html
  6. http://www.wheaton.edu/admissions/UndGrad/applying/admissFAQ.htm#q14
  7. http://www.jmu.edu/admissions/process/freshman.shtml
  8. See, e.g., http://www.m-w.com