Education Letter to the Editor

SAT Writing Exercise: ‘Dig It Out, Say It Fast’

February 23, 2005 2 min read

To the Editor:

In this zippy age of fast foods, pay-at-the-pump gas, drive-in pharmacies, and, of course, e-mail, the College Board’s adoption of a 25-minute writing exercise for the revised SAT is hardly a surprise (“Educators Hope SAT’s New Essay Will Bolster Writing in Schools,” Feb. 2, 2005). And, one can say, that unlike the first batch of hurry-up accommodations that seem to have no purpose other than saving time so one can scoot from one quick fix to the next, some practical intentions can be seen in generating a hasty writing sample.

First, minimizing the time allotment reduces the size of the bite taken from the regular curriculum to complete the battery of SAT exercises. Second, it recognizes that many students would not use additional time to make substantive revisions on their first drafts.

Clearly, what is being taught, however, as one of my college classmates who went into advertising would put it, is the ability to “dig it out and say it fast.” Indeed, some of the educators interviewed for your article have already begun to train students to express their written ideas in quick bursts.

Apparently, they have conceded to the College Board test-makers the ideas that contemplative thought, a more precise word selection, and even a smoother flow of sentences are not integral to passable writing. These omissions set the bar pretty low, an inevitable outcome of the time limitation.

This writing sample, prepared in a one-shot opportunity, with virtually no time for editing, may flag most of the rock-bottom writers. But it also may ensnare some able writers who are frustrated by the time constraint or distracted by personal issues more germane to their well-being than producing a writing sample on a topic they have no affinity toward.

The rationale seems to echo the point made in Malcolm Gladwell’s current nonfiction best seller, Blink, in which Mr. Gladwell contends that spontaneous decisions made on the spur of the moment are frequently as valid as those reached after a considerable amount of thinking. I can’t comfortably transfer this notion to writing. James Thurber revised his manuscripts dozens of times, and his prose sparkles because of this discipline.

So what might I do with the sample topic given in the article? “Do people have to be highly competitive in order to succeed?”

You betcha people have to be highly competitive in order to succeed. I need to be able to go from zero to 25 faster than the other writers, without blowing a tire or having an accident—say, messing up a subjunctive—or those other kids will get a higher SAT score than I do, thus jeopardizing my college-admission potential.

(I’d write more, but I’ve already spent 40 minutes on this, and the proctor is giving me a gimlet-eyed stare while rapping her swagger stick menacingly on her hand.)

Henry B. Maloney

English Teacher

Bishop Foley Catholic High School

Madison Heights, Mich.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as SAT Writing Exercise: ‘Dig It Out, Say It Fast’