The SAT will throw many types of passages at you, ranging from personal narratives to scientific essays. Some of them will hardly involve the author’s point of view – for example, those that simply explain a phenomenon or tell a story. The majority, however, will be those in which the author plays a much bigger role, injecting his opinion here and there, sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly.
To do well on the Critical Reading section, you must be able to detect those places where the author’s opinion reveals itself, in between the background information, the evidence, and the references to other people’s opinions. I like to call those places pivots.
Let’s take a look at a few SAT-level passages to see how pivots help us understand the author’s point of view.
To figure out what the author is saying here, we must first distinguish it from what other people are saying. What!? It’s only the author talking here…he wrote the whole thing. What do you mean other people?
All too often, we assume that because a certain passage is the author’s, everything in it reflects that author’s voice and attitude. Not true. Writing is a conversation between many people, a back and forth between many voices, even when there is just one author. Just because you’ve written something down doesn’t mean all of it is your own opinion. You could be summarizing others’ opinions, setting up context for what will be your argument, or weaving in information that actually challenges your view.
And in fact, that’s exactly what’s happening in this passage. In the first paragraph, the author does not present his own view but the views of others. By attributing what is said to “Stephen Hawking” and even using quotes, the author makes it clear that Stephen Hawking’s views are not necessarily his own. This distinction is extremely important because a lot of students, after reading this passage, think that the author’s main idea is that “philosophers…should wise up to maths and listen to the physicists.” Completely wrong! Don’t assume that any random sentence you come across reflects the author’s point of view.
The second paragraph still doesn’t give us a clear indication of the author’s true perspective. How do we know? Well, like he did in the first paragraph, the author again distances himself from the views being expressed by attributing them to “philosophers” and “James Ladyman.” Furthermore, he hasn’t injected any language that would implicitly pass judgment on those views. An astute reader should realize that the author is still not presenting his own view but the views of others.
It’s not until the third paragraph that we finally get to the author’s perspective – the pivot. Notice that the third paragraph opens with the word “but,” indicating a strong shift in the passage. Also notice the use of a direct, authoritative, and declarative tone in the third paragraph. Even though the author doesn’t explicitly state “I believe…” or “I think…,”, it’s absolutely clear that the author is taking his stance here: Philosophers need not bow down to the physicists. After all, physics is a mess. This is exactly the pivot you need to pay attention to if you are to conquer SAT passages that test you on the author’s main idea.
Let’s do more pivot hunting. The following two passages are taken from section 7 of a real SAT exam (full test here). There are a ton of author-point-of-view questions and though we won’t do them here, I highly encourage you to do them yourself after going through the analysis presented.
Read through it and see if you can find where the pivot is. If you noticed that the pivot is the short sentence in the second paragraph, “But it is not clear that this is so,” then you’re getting the hang of it. While the first paragraph talks about how King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is harming the rest of his legacy, this point is not the author’s (the author’s references to “Julian Bond” and “one King scholar” make this distinction clear). The author’s view is in fact the opposite – “it’s not clear” that King’s famous speech has damaged his legacy, and the author goes on to explain his point of view in the subsequent sentences.
I hope you are starting to understand why distinguishing the author’s voice from the rest of the voices in the passages is so important. To truly get at the author’s point of view, you must first hone in on those places where he, and not somebody else, takes the stand.
The pivot here is quite easy to spot – it’s simply the first sentence of the first paragraph, which starts to draw a sharp contrast between Martin Luther King and the way he’s portrayed today. The author finalizes his point of view by stating, “King’s true legacy has been lost to cultural amnesia.”
Wow! Without reading the full two passages (I’ve shortened them), we can already start to see the relationship between Passage 1 and Passage 2 (a common SAT question). The author of Passage 2 believes that “King’s true legacy has been lost,” while the author of Passage 1 would say that “it is not clear that this is so.” Of course, we would want to read the rest of the passages to confirm our thoughts, but it’s amazing how much you can tell just by focusing on the places where the author actually expresses his own point of view (the pivots).
In this last example, I’ve highlighted the pivots in bold so that you can think through it yourself.
I’ve included this last example to show you a few things:
- A pivot doesn’t necessarily have to express a sharp disagreement in the flow of the passage. It can simply reaffirm the ideas that led up to it.
- The author’s point of view is expressed both in the pivot sentence and usually right after it. Notice how the author offers even more of his perspective after the pivot in each paragraph. These are the parts you want to focus on when answering questions about the author.
- Pivots can be anywhere. They are NOT necessarily the topic sentences of each paragraph. A lot of students are taught that the topic sentence, being the most important sentence in a paragraph, is supposed to indicate any shift in the main idea. After all, that’s what paragraphs are for, right? While this may be true for your school essays, it’s of no use on the SATs. As is the case with most writing in the real world, SAT passages do not always conform to the rules set by your English teachers (shocker!). Stop treating topic sentences as special, and you’ll be better off. Instead, learn to look for pivots.
- Lastly, there may be multiple pivots in any given passage. Again, writing is a conversation, weaving in and out of what the author says and what others say. Get in the habit of underlining any pivots that you see. That way, should you get any questions that deal with the author’s point of view, you can easily refer back to those pivots and zero in on the author’s perspective.
Although I’ve only presented pieces of certain passages here for the sake of brevity, I strongly encourage you to apply this strategy to full passages and see how you fare on the questions. In particular, there are 4-5 “author point of view” questions in the Martin Luther King section alone (here is the test again). Do them and take note of how much easier those questions become.
Lastly, not every passage will contain pivots, but the ones that don’t – typically narration and expository passages – won’t involve questions about the author’s overall point of view or attitude anyway. I’ll be talking more about those types of passages in later posts, as well as some advanced techniques for answering questions. Stay tuned by subscribing!!
The first passage is an excerpt from Philosophy isn’t Dead Yet by Raymond Tallis at The Guardian.
The last passage is an excerpt from The Search for Life in the Universe by Markus Hammonds at Science Calling!.
All excerpts were taken for teaching purposes only and are not intended as copyright infringement.