SAT Writing: Concision, Style, & Tone

The new SAT is all about applying real-world skills to the test. One of these real-world skills is the ability to edit writing to improve its concision, style, and tone. These qualities are often a little more difficult for students to grasp because they tend to be less concrete than mechanics. To do well on concision, style, and tone questions, you need to be able to pick up on the overall effect of writing and know how changes will affect it.


Concise language is short and to the point. Questions that involve concision want you to replace the selected part of the sentence with a simpler version that preserves the meaning and important information of the original. Keep an eye out for repetitive words or phrases that could be combined to simplify sentences. Sometimes, the words to be trimmed will be fairly obvious, but sometimes redundant phrases are tricky to spot because they say the same thing but in different ways.


Style questions can appear in several forms, but are all based on the idea of maintaining a set writing style throughout the passage. Look for phrases or sentences that sound out of place because they are too casual or formal, or because they don’t match the surrounding sentences in some way.


The tone of a passage refers to how the language the author chooses expresses his or her thoughts on the subject in question. It can range from very negative or critical, to neutral or even extremely positive. The vocabulary an author chooses helps convey the tone, and it’s your job to pick up on these hints.

Sample Questions

Let’s take a look at an example of questions that involve concision, style, and tone.


Preventing students from leaving their high school campuses for lunch is (1) unnecessary. It is also possibly harmful to the very children such rules are meant to protect. High school is the most formative time of students’ lives, and is meant to be the time for us to spread our wings and learn how the world works as we prepare to enter it. Having the freedom to leave campus on our own for an hour a day would (2) be awesome! {3}  

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Question 1

  2. not only unnecessary, but possibly harmful
  3. unnecessary, and on top of that, it is possibly harmful
  4. not needed and may cause harm


Question 2

  2. make us learn more
  3. allow us to do just that
  4. show that adults actually believe this


Question 3

Which of the following best describes the tone of the passage?

  1. critical
  2. objective
  3. inquisitive
  4. amused


The first selection includes the intersection of two simple sentences. Because both sentences have the same subject, the original includes a redundant “it” at the beginning, which is a good indicator that we should combine the clauses. All the given options combine the sentences in grammatically correct ways, but option C is still too wordy, while option D uses the phrases “not needed” and “may cause harm” instead of the simpler options “unnecessary” and “harmful”. Therefore, the most concise option is letter B.


Question two offers options for replacing the end of the last sentence in the passage. The current sentence is clearly too casual and ruins the formal style of the rest of the paragraph. Choices B and D aren’t quite as bad, but B makes an unsupported claim, while D provides an ineffective conclusion. Option C becomes the best choice because it uses more formal language while also connecting to the ideas in the previous sentence.


The third question simply asks you to identify the tone of passage. Easy, right? It can be, if you know what you’re looking for. The author of this passage is clearly a high school student and is expressing his or her opinion, which means there should be a clear bias or tone present. This means we can eliminate option B because an objective tone has no clear bias. Since the author is not attempting to find out about something, we can also eliminate C. That leaves A, which is negative, and D, which is positive. The author is criticizing a school policy, so A is the better choice of the two.


The answers to concision, style, and tone questions may not be as immediately obvious as those to mechanics- and grammar-based questions, but there’s always a logic to them. Take the time to consider each option within the context of the paragraph or passage as a whole and you’ll usually be able to pinpoint the answer that improves the passage the most.


  • Elizabeth Peterson

    Elizabeth holds a degree in Psychology from The College of William & Mary. While there, she volunteered as a tutor and discovered she loved the personal connection she formed with her students. She has now been helping students with test prep and schoolwork as a professional tutor for over six years. When not discussing grammar or reading passages, she can be found trying every drink at her local coffee shop while writing creative short stories and making plans for her next travel adventure!

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