Most common essay mistakes: Add more detail to your writing

In general, it is important to include details in your writing to give your ideas more impact and make your writing more interesting. This is especially important for personal narratives and persuasive essays. (Actually, it's hard to think of a type of writing, aside from perhaps a research paper, that wouldn't benefit from ample but relevant detail).

Can you hear the fizz?

Why are details so important? For one, your goal as a writer is to create a vivid image in your reader's mind so that your main points are made more forcefully. It is hard to do this with vague information.

Compare the following two samples of writing to see the difference:

(1) Although college is important for many people, it is not absolutely vital in all cases to become success or to reach one's goals. Bill Gates is an excellent example of someone who is not just successful, but also highly accomplished and influential in his field of work. Bill Gates famously dropped out of Harvard College, one of the most prestigious universities on the planet, to found a little software company called Microsoft in the 1970s. At one point, with a fortune of over $40 billion, Gates was the wealthiest human alive. While one could argue that Harvard played a pivotal role in Gates' later success, it is self-evident that the entire four-year undergraduate program at Harvard College was not necessary for Bill Gates.

Boy did you ever feel good when you were able to get something done on DOS.

Okay, now let's look at the same ideas expressed with less detail:

(2) It is not important to complete college in order to be successful. Take Bill Gates as an example. He didn't finish college, and now he is extremely wealthy, even though he doesn't have a college degree. Bill Gates had what it took to be successful, and he didn't need college at all.

Which sounds better to you? (1) of course! Why? Because it has more detail and is more specific. Try to do the same in your own writing as well.

Most common SAT Essay mistakes: How to use the author’s name

When you're writing your SAT essay, you'll naturally need to make reference to the author or speaker throughout the essay. In my students' essays, I've seen many different ways of doing this, but there's really only one convention that we follow in college-level, formal writing in the US.

Handwritten SAT essay with comments (blurred for obfuscation)

Rule: In general, use the author's or speaker's full name the first time you need to mention her or him. After that, use her or his last name.

(Side note: Ugh. I wish I had a gender-neutral pronoun other than their.)

First, let's look at an example. Imagine you're reading an essay written by Zadie Smith about public libraries. You'll need to refer to her throughout your writing. (Note: The instructions state that Smith is a female; you should be sure to refer to her appropriately when you write.)

I have read essays with several different methods of referring to Smith. The first, and best, is simply to say "Smith." For example, "In her essay, Smith argues that public libraries are important centers of culture." This is the correct way–using Smith's last name (also referred to as the surname or family name).

Examples

Best: "Smith claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

This is correct–here we use Smith's last name.

Avoid: "Zadie claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

This is not standard. To my ears, when I hear this (or read it, as it were), I feel like the author is a friend of the writer.

This mistake isn't terribly common, but I do see it, so if you're using this format, you should know it's not considered standard for formal essays.

Avoid: "Zadie Smith claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

I also see this form from time to time–using the writer's full name. We generally don't do this in formal writing mostly because it's just too time-consuming to write out the full name.

What about authors with titles? Or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

View of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial and over the "I Have a Dream" inscription (in Washington, D.C.)

I have read many effective essays that use titles, such as Dr. Nip, Professor Nguyen, and of course, Dr. King.

In an SAT essay, this is acceptable in my opinion, though MLA and APA formats omit titles for in-text citations.

Final note: Be consistent, do your best

Finally, the cardinal rule, as always, is to be consistent. If you go back and forth between using the author's first name and last name, you'll appear inconsistent. Inconsistency shows an undesirable lack of control that also reduces credibility. ("Why should I believe what you're writing if you're just spouting out random words?")

That said, SAT essay readers are hired from pools of teachers, and every single educator I've known has tried to find the good in students' writing; if it appears that you're doing your best (under SAT's timed conditions) to cite the author, I think most teachers would be inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.