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Writing Technique Questions

All coherent writing has a superstructure or blueprint. When writing, we don’t just randomly jot down our thoughts; we organize our ideas and present them in a logical manner. For instance, we may present evidence that builds up to a conclusion but intentionally leave the conclusion unstated, or we may present a position and then contrast it with an opposing position, or we may draw an extended analogy.

There is an endless number of writing techniques that authors use to present their ideas, so we cannot classify every method. However, some techniques are very common to the type of explanatory or opinionated writing found in MCAT passages.
  1. Compare and contrast two positions.This technique has a number of variations, but the most common and direct is to develop two ideas or systems (comparing) and then point out why one is better than the other (contrasting).
    Some common tip-off phrases to this method of analysis are
  • By contrast
  • Similarly
  • Just as
  • Likewise
  • On the one hand; on the other hand
  • Whereas
  • Conversely
Writing-technique questions are similar to main idea questions, except that they ask about how the author presents his ideas, not about the ideas themselves. Generally, you will be given only two writing methods to choose from, but each method will have two or more variations.
Some typical questions for these types of passages are
According to the passage, a central distinction between a woman’s presence and a man’s presence is: In which of the following ways does the author imply that birds and reptiles are similar? Based on the evidence in the passage, which method for classifying music is more effective?


Which one of the following best describes the organization of the passage?

  1. Two explanations for divorce-related juvenile delinquency are contrasted, and one is deemed to be better than the other.
  2. One explanation for juvenile delinquency is presented as better than another.  Then evidence is offered to support that claim. 
  3. Two explanations for juvenile delinquency are analyzed, and one specific example is examined in detail. 
  4. A set of examples is furnished.  Then a conclusion is drawn from them. 
  5. The inner workings of a delinquent juvenile mind are illustrated by two equally possible causes.

Clearly the author is comparing and contrasting two criminal justice systems. Indeed, the opening to paragraph two makes this explicit. The author uses a mixed form of comparison and contrast. He opens the passage by developing (comparing) both systems and then shifts to developing just the adversarial system. He opens the second paragraph by contrasting the two criminal justice systems and then further develops just the inquisitorial system. Finally, he closes by again contrasting the two systems and implying that the inquisitorial system is superior.

Only two answer-choices, (A) and (B), have any real merit. They say essentially the same thing—though in different order. Notice in the passage that the author does not indicate which system is better until the end of paragraph one, and he does not make that certain until paragraph two. This contradicts the order given by (B). Hence the answer is (A). (Note: In (A) the order is not specified and therefore is harder to attack, whereas in (B) the order is definite and therefore is easier to attack. Remember that a measured response is harder to attack and therefore is more likely to be the answer.)


  1. Show cause and effect.
    In this technique, the author typically shows how a particular cause leads to a certain result or set of results. Conversely, it may first present an effect and then discuss the possible cause or causes. It is also not uncommon to introduce a sequence of causes and effects: A causes B, which causes C, which causes D, and so on. Hence, B is both the effect of A and the cause of C. For a discussion of the fallacies associated with this technique see Causal Reasoning (page 598). The variations on this rhetorical technique can be illustrated by the following schematics
Some common tip-off phrases to this method of analysis are:
  • Consequently
  • As a result
  • Because
  • Leads to
  • Results in
  • If…then
Thirdly, I worry about the private automobile. It is a dirty, noisy, wasteful, and lonely means of travel. It pollutes the air, ruins the safety and sociability of the street, and exercises upon the individual a discipline which takes away far more freedom than it gives him. It causes an enormous amount of land to be unnecessarily abstracted from nature and from plant life and to become devoid of any natural function. It explodes cities, grievously impairs the whole institution of neighborliness, fragmentizes and destroys communities. It has already spelled the end of our cities as real cultural and social communities, and has made impossible the construction of any others in their place. Together with the airplane, it has crowded out other, more civilized and more convenient means of transport, leaving older people, infirm people, poor people and children in a worse situation than they were a hundred years ago. It continues to lend a terrible element of fragility to our civilization, placing us in a situation where our life would break down completely if anything ever interfered with the oil supply.
George F. Kennan

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

  1. A problem is presented and then a possible solution is discussed.
  2. The benefits and demerits of the automobile are compared and contrasted.
  3. A topic is presented and a number of its effects are discussed.
  4. A set of examples is furnished to support a conclusion.

This passage is laden with effects. Kennan introduces the cause, the automobile, in the opening sentence and from there on presents a series of effects—the automobile pollutes, enslaves, and so on. Hence the answer is (C).


Note: (D) is the second-best choice; it is disqualified by two flaws. First, in this context, “examples” is not as precise as “effects.” Second, the order is wrong: the conclusion, “I worry about the private automobile” is presented first and then the examples: it pollutes, it enslaves, etc.

  1. State a position and then give supporting evidence.
    This technique is common with opinionated passages. Equally common is the reverse order. That is, the supporting evidence is presented and then the position or conclusion is stated. And sometimes the evidence will be structured to build up to a conclusion which is then left unstated. If this is done skillfully the reader will be more likely to arrive at the same conclusion as the author.

Following are some typical questions for these types of passages:

  • According to the author, which of the following is required for one to become proficient with a computer?
  • Which of the following does the author cite as evidence that the bald eagle is in danger of becoming extinct?
Select-In Passage Questions
Select-in passage questions, when they are not description, are most often writing technique questions. This type of question may look like the following examples:
  • Select the sentence that refutes a counter-premise to the author’s viewpoint.
  • Select the sentence that distinguishes two ways of integrating rock and classical music.
  • Select the sentence that answers a question posed early on in the passage.
Once again, having noted key words and phrases on your initial reading of the passage will help you to more easily and quickly locate these sentences.

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