Nearly a third of the ACT English section tests a competency known as production of writing, which is broken down into two subcategories: topic development and organization, unity and cohesion. Three types of question comprise topic development items:
- Identifying the purposes of parts of texts.
- Determining whether a text or part of a text has met its intended goal.
- Evaluating the relevance of material to a text’s focus.
Here are some suggestions for tackling this complex skill set along with examples from a past exam that is now a free practice test.
Identifying the Purposes of Parts of Texts
The purpose of a text is simply the author’s reason for writing it. The purpose of a text, or even a part of a text, can be summarized with a single verb – such as describe, discredit, entertain or inform – followed by one or more details. Consider this example from page 15 of this free practice test:
“Piles of corks threatened to take over Pollack’s apartment. He used a foam template to assemble a group of corks into a pretty interesting shape. He then fastened each cluster of corks with multiple rubber bands and encased each cluster in fishnet. To bind clusters together and shaping them into flexible columns proved to be both efficient and architecturally sound. Dozens of friends expedited this proper process by volunteering to help with the construction of the boat.
21. Which choice most effectively introduces the paragraph?
A. NO CHANGE
B. Over the course of many months, Pollack convinced people to help.
C. Pollack was afraid that he would have to put his cork boat dream on hold.
D. After a series of trials, Pollack devised a workable strategy.”
This question asks you to select the best topic sentence for the paragraph. To do this, you must read the entire paragraph and determine its purpose. Ask yourself, “What does the paragraph accomplish?” It describes the tedious process through which Pollack built a boat made purely of corks. Thus, choice D is the best answer.
Choice A is incorrect because it is unrelated to the purpose of the paragraph. Choice B is incorrect because Pollack did not have to convince anyone to help. The text says they volunteered. Choice C does not work because this idea is not suggested anywhere in the paragraph.
Determining Whether a Text or Part of a Text Has Met Its Intended Goal
This skill is an extension of the first competency: identifying the purposes of parts of texts. Only when you know the purpose or goal of a text can you determine whether it has been met.
From that point on, you should be able to answer with either a decisive “Yes, it has been met” or “No, it has not been met.” When the answer is yes, the correct choice will likely be the no change option. When the answer is no, the correct choice will likely be one of the other answer choices. Review this example from page 12 of the practice test:
“Between March and November of 2011, an anonymous donor left intricately crafted paper sculptures at various cultural institutions in Edinburgh, Scotland.
1. Which choice most effectively emphasizes the complexity of the paper sculptures?
A. NO CHANGE
The question stem directly states the purpose of this part of the text: to emphasize complexity. Intricately is a synonym of complexly. However, you may want to consider the other answer choices to reassure yourself. Impressively, terrifically and superbly are synonyms that denote a positive emotion, but they do not imply anything about complexity. Therefore, A is the right answer choice.
Evaluating the Relevance of Material to a Text’s Focus
This skills set requires you to assess how a piece of information is related to the text’s focus, or main idea. Consider this example from page 13 of the practice test:
“The creator of these sculptures are not known because no one has claimed responsibility. So far, that is. The last gift came with a note in which the mystery artist reveals her gender. Whatever: whoever created the art, your intention is clear. Each gift came with a note expressing special gratitude for “libraries, books, words, ideas.”
13. If the writer were to delete the preceding sentence, the paragraph would primarily lose a statement that:
A. suggests the essay writer knows the identity of the artist.
B. explains why the artist created the sculptures.
C. proves the artist is a woman.
D. indicates the artist is a librarian.”
The way the question stem is written tells you that the last sentence is essential to the paragraph’s focus. To evaluate how removing it would affect the paragraph as a whole, you must first understand what the sentence itself accomplishes. Ask yourself, “What new information does it provide?” In other words, why does the author include it? Remember to lead with a verb and then include details.
In this case, the last sentence reveals the motivation – or, as the second-to-last sentence states, the “intention” – behind the artist’s sculptures. Choice B is therefore the right answer. A is incorrect because “no one has claimed responsibility” for the sculptures yet, so the artist’s identity is unknown to the author. C is incorrect because it is already stated that “the mystery artist reveals her gender,” and D is wrong because there is no evidence to suggest the artist is a librarian.
Topic development is a tricky yet important component of the ACT English section. You can prepare for these questions by taking past ACT exams and checking the answer key for questions marked as production of writing.