How to Evaluate Writing (It’s More than Grading Papers)

Grading papers is usually not a favorite chore, but have you ever thought of writing evaluation as a teaching tool? That is exactly what it can be! Every writing assignment can help a student grow as a writer, as long as it is evaluated in ways that are constructive and designed to teach.

Just “grading papers” — putting a number or letter grade at the top — doesn’t offer the student anything useful to grow with, but it’s all many teachers do. Good evaluations help your student learn how to self-evaluate, and that means that learning to evaluate well will make your student a better writer in the long term. You can learn how to evaluate writing and once you do, you’ll be amazed at how much your students can learn from a simple essay assignment.

Start with a rubric

A constructive writing evaluation measures the student’s work against a rubric — a checklist of objective standards. A rubric helps your student know exactly what standards are expected, and it helps you remember all the things you need to check. I’ve put a sample list of standards from a high school rubric at the bottom of the page so you can see the all the areas you will be evaluating.

Evaluation triage

When medics respond to a disaster with a large number of casualties, they “triage” or assign a level of urgency to each problem in order to know what to treat first. In a similar way, it makes sense to evaluate standards in order of importance. One way to think about it is to consider whether the most important part of a paper is WHAT is said, or HOW it is said, or whether everything is spelled correctly.

Because what the paper says is of first importance (if the ideas are muddled and illogically organized, all the style and perfect spelling in the world doesn’t really matter), begin with Content standards, which evaluate Ideas/Concepts and Organization.

Next, look at how the ideas are communicated, including the Style standards of Voice, Sentence Fluency, and Word Choice. Finally, once the content, organization, and general style standards have reached an acceptable level, it will be time to focus on the standards of Mechanics, including grammar, presentation, and so forth.

If a student has many significant areas of difficulty, evaluate only the skills that have been specifically taught, and focus on only a few of the main items in each essay. Be sure the student knows how to consult a writer’s handbook such as the Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers for questions of structure, style, or usage. Use the numbered sections in the handbook, along with the rubric, to provide constructive feedback that helps your student learn.

How to Evaluate the First Draft

After you do an initial read-through of the student’s rough draft, get your writer’s handbook and a copy of the rubric and evaluate the two Content skills, Ideas/Concepts and Organization.

I realize it is counterintuitive for many parents to start with the Content standards, because it’s so easy to see mechanical errors or style problems in the rough draft. However, until the content and organization of the piece are finalized, there is little point in tweaking word choice or sentence fluency. Working only with content at first helps keep attention on the first draft priorities of ideas and organization, and avoids the distraction and discouragement of too much red ink all at once.

How to Evaluate a Final Draft

When you receive a revised draft, read through it quickly to gain an overall impression. Have the changes you discussed in the previous draft been satisfactorily made? Use a fresh copy of the rubric to assess each of the skill areas and provide a feedback number or symbol for each standard listed.

For each draft, return the student’s paper with a filled-out rubric, a brief note highlighting the positive and negative things you noticed about the paper, and handbook section numbers so the student can look up challenging items.

Should You Require More than Two Drafts?

For the essays your student will be writing for Excellence in Literature and for most other high school papers, two drafts — a first and a final — are all I recommend. Writing skills improve with each new assignment, and moving through the assignments in a timely manner ensures that students will not get bogged down and end up disliking or missing one of the classics.

Prerequisites for grading effectively

In order to give constructive writing feedback, it helps to start with some basic principles .

  1. An evaluator must be able to recognize good writing before they can give good feedback.
    1. Lots of reading, a writer’s handbook, a rubric with a list of standards, and the tips below can help with this.
  2. Can you understand what the paper is about? Clarity of thought is essential for good writing and evaluation. Since writing is communication, a reader must be able to easily understand the subject of a paper. The writing evaluator’s job is to be the first reader and identify ways in which communication is not clear.
  3. Use models of good writing to help your students become better readers, thinkers, and writers.

Get familiar with excellent writing: some tips

  • Read On Writing Well by William Zinsser. It will help you understand how to write clearly and to recognize excellent writing.
  • Seek out well-written essays and books. There is beautifully written literature from every age — sample it all! Styles of writing have changed, but reading widely in excellent books will help you recognize good writing when you read it.
  • For everyday practice, you might want to read the syndicated columnists on the editorial pages of your local paper. They often provide excellent examples of persuasive or argumentative writing. As you read about world events and current issues, you and your students can be learning to discern logical arguments and clear writing.
  • The Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers provides extensive instruction, with many helpful examples, of how to construct well-organized sentences, paragraphs, and papers, as well as logical arguments for essays on any subject.
  • Read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style once a year with your students. It’s short, and the rules are pithy and memorable. Have students copy each of the “Elementary Principles of Composition” for a concise list of reminders that will help to improve anything they write.

Writing is both craft and art

Above all, understand that writing is both a craft and an art. With practice, good models, and helpful evaluation, students will become more and more adept at composition. The rules and instructions found in writer’s handbooks will make more sense with each essay, report, and research paper a student writes.

Some students will become competent in the craft of writing and use it as needed, while others will go on to practice writing as art. Whatever a student’s writing goals, writing well starts with the same ingredients: plenty of practice, good models, constructive writing evaluations, and a writer’s handbook.

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,

As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

Sample standards for a high school writing rubric

This list of standards for writing evaluation is excerpted from the Excellence in Literature curriculum for grades 8-12. 

Sample Standards for Content

  • Content: Ideas and Concepts

    The essay contains a strong, easily identified thesis.

    Interesting ideas and a compelling perspective hold the reader’s attention.

    Relevant anecdotes, appropriate quotes, and specific details support the writer’s position and demonstrate understanding of the prompt.

  • Content: Organization

    The structure of the paper enhances the presentation of the thesis and supporting ideas.

    Clear transitions move the reader easily from idea to idea.

    Quotes and textual support are blended smoothly, with correct tenses and formatting.

Sample Standards for Style

  • Style: Voice

    The writer speaks directly to the reader, using an appropriate tone and level of formality.

    The writer’s voice is individual and engaging, providing a sense of the writer’s personality.

    The writer demonstrates awareness of and respect for the audience and purpose of the writing.

  • Style: Sentence Fluency

    Sentences flow easily with graceful transitions.

    Sentences have a pleasant, appropriate rhythm and cadence when read aloud.

    Sentence structure is varied, with appropriate use of simple, complex, and compound sentences.

  • Style: Word Choice

    Chosen words clearly convey the intended message.

    The words used are precise, interesting, powerful, engaging, and natural.

    The vocabulary is vivid and varied, though not necessarily exotic.

Sample Standards for Mechanics

  • Mechanics: Conventions

    Standard writing conventions (spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, usage, paragraphing) are observed.

    Citations are correctly formatted using the MLA standard.

    Mechanical or typographical errors are few; only minor touch-ups needed.

  • Mechanics: Presentation

    Essay is in MLA format: Times-New Roman font, 12 pt., 1” margins.

    Paper header with student, class name, instructor, and date included.

    Essay prompt typed immediately after header and before title.

    Single space following all terminal punctuation (.!?, etc.).

Writing Evaluation Rating Scale: 

5 or + indicates that your essay demonstrated outstanding mastery in this area.

4 indicates that the essay is above average.

3 or = indicates that your essay was average and met assignment expectations in this area.

2 indicates that your essay was below average in this area.

1 or – indicates that you should write down this skill as a goal area for improvement.

Read more about evaluating writing:
Evaluate Writing the Easy Way by Janice Campbell

Evaluating writing is so much more than just “correcting papers.” It can affect your student’s feelings about writing, his or her chance of academic success, and even the relationship you share. In this simple, approachable little book (just 32 pages!), you’ll learn how to become a better writing evaluator.