How To Evaluate Writing Skills (Without Being a Jerk About It)
There were two reasons why I stopped teaching college writing after nine years in the classroom. First, as an adjunct instructor, I grew tired of being paid primarily in dry-erase markers. Second, I moved in with my then-boyfriend (and now-husband) and realized just how much of my time I spent grading student papers. (Spoiler alert: Pretty much all of it.) The upside of all that time hunched over my kitchen table like Quasimodo? This chick knows how to evaluate writing skills, and for just three dry-erase markers, I can share that knowledge with you!
How To Evaluate Writing Skills in 3 Steps
Evaluating other people’s writing can be intimidating. How do you tell a person he or she did 11 things wrong in a single paragraph without sounding mean? What if you miss a mistake or give bad advice by accident? How do you even know where to begin?
Like most things — making a sandwich, cleaning your apartment, sequencing the human genome — evaluating writing skills is made easier by breaking down a big process into smaller, more manageable parts.
1. Develop a Clear Rubric for Assessments
If you’ve ever played a board game without fully understanding the rules only to get frustrated and throw the game board out a fourth-floor window (just me?), then you know how important it is to establish the criteria for success upfront.
Before you assign an article or essay, you need to know what you’re looking for as an evaluator — and you need to share this rubric with the writer before he or she starts putting fingers to keyboard. If strong supporting details are high on your wish list, your writer should know that. If you’re assessing the writer’s subject-verb agreement skills, he or she should know that. If you want your writer to make sure “Speed 2: Cruise Control” is mentioned once every 100 words, that should be clear from the jump. The first part in learning how to evaluate writing skills is learning how to communicate your expectations.
To reduce headaches for everybody involved, your rubric should take into account the writer’s experience (or lack thereof). A junior high school teacher wouldn’t use the same rubric for her 7th graders that she does for the grad students she teaches during the summer, for example. I mean, she could, but that would mean a lot of work for her, and it wouldn’t benefit her pimply little writers much, if at all.
Your rubric should also reflect what you want the writing to achieve. For example, if you’re an editor looking for a succinct article that shares just the facts, then your assessment will likely place a higher value on precise, effective language that’s appropriate for a broad audience than it does on colorful supporting details.
2. Evaluate the Writer’s Use of Conventions
The vast majority of professional and academic writing needs to adhere to certain conventions in order to get the job done. These include everything from using coordinating conjunctions right to avoiding clichés. It’s a long list that can be broken up into three Jeopardy-ready categories, each of which you should take into account when evaluating writing skills:
Grammar includes the nitty-gritty, sentence-level elements a writer needs to be understood. Think punctuation, capitalization, subject-verb agreement and syntax. Many rubrics also stash spelling into this category, too, because we English teachers and editors are A WILD ‘N’ CRAZY BUNCH.
Writing for most academic or professional settings should have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. Concerns about the overall structure of an article or essay should be addressed here. The writing should kick off with an introduction that grabs the reader’s attention and establishes the main point. Body paragraphs full of supporting details should follow, and the whole shebang should wrap up with a conclusion that sends readers on their way without surprising them with any new information at the 11th hour.
Issues with transitions also fall under this category, as do any purpose-specific concerns. For example, an argumentative writing instructor may require that all assignments feature a counterargument in the penultimate paragraph.
After evaluating a work of writing for solid organization and a firm grip on the conventions of the English language, it’s time to dig into the fun stuff: Style, baby!
A variety of criteria fall under the umbrella of style. Fortunately, none of them involve tight-rolled jeans or man buns. Instead, they’re elements such as:
- Word choice
- Energy and engagement
This is also where you can assess how well the writer hit any style requirements you created:
- Word or page count
- Line spacing
- Font choice
- Formatting, such as MLA, AP, etc.
If it seems like a lot falls under this category, that’s because it does. Just like winning “Survivor,” evaluating writing skills is a complex process that requires patience, attention to detail and occasionally lighting a fire under somebody’s butt. It can also be a personal process, which brings us to our third and final step.
3. Provide Constructive Feedback
If you’ve ever played organized sports, I don’t have to tell you that there are a lot of ways to give feedback, and some are more effective than others. Some coaches treat their players like family; others hurl chairs at them.
When you think about how to evaluate writing skills, it’s best to remember ye olde Golden Rule, which my grandmother lovingly embroidered on a pillow that sat in her living room for decades: Don’t be a jerk, OK?
Act Like the Audience, Not Like an Executioner
Even if you’re slapping a letter grade on a piece of writing when you’re done with it, it’s better to read that writing as an audience member than as an evaluator. Think about it: If you’re filming an animated movie aimed at preschoolers, who do you want in your focus group? You want sticky-faced little movie lovers because they’re your target audience. To be the best sounding board as an evaluator, be an audience member, not an instructor or editor.
This doesn’t mean you need to go “easy” on the writer. It just means you need to recognize that, as someone qualified for evaluating writing skills, you’re probably not the writer’s peer. By channeling the intended audience, you can provide more useful, realistic feedback and also keep things from getting personal. Instead of saying, “This sentence doesn’t make sense and needs to be revised,” for example, you might say, “As a reader, this line tripped me up, and I had to re-read it a few times. What if you change the order of ideas in this part?”
Give Useful, Doable Suggestions
Here’s a scenario: You go to the doctor because you’re dizzy a lot. She runs some tests and tells you that you have vertigo.
“I do?” you ask.
“You do,” she replies. “OK, great. Have a good a weekend.” She pats you on the knee and leaves the office.
I think we can all agree that this doctor isn’t great, and here’s why: It’s not enough to just diagnose problems. You also need to offer solutions. A doctor should share exercises with you that can help your vertigo go away or, at a minimum, tell you to stop spinning around in your office chair for hours at a time.
The same basic idea applies to evaluating the health of an article or essay. Telling a writer that his or her introduction isn’t engaging is kind of useful. You know what’s really useful, though? Giving the writer unambiguous, concrete suggestions for how to improve it.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that personally fixing things is part of understanding how to evaluate writing skills. If that intro needs a hook, for example, you don’t need to write one. You should, however, give the writer some specific ideas for how to create a better hook, such as employing a powerful quote or stapling a $20 bill to the top of the paper.
Tact matters when you’re evaluating writing skills. Nobody likes to be told they’re doing it wrong, and it can be hard to avoid dishing up a hot plate full of hurt feelings when you’re covering someone’s paper with red pen.
Here’s the simplest hack I can share with you to avoid sounding like a jerk when offering criticism: Ask questions. By reframing your criticisms as queries, you can make almost any note sound more positive and impersonal. Check it out:
Less Helpful: This line about salami doesn’t belong in this paragraph.
More Helpful: What if you bumped this detail about salami up to the paragraph about unusual weapons?
By putting your feedback in the form of a question, it removes a potentially accusatory tone from your feedback and honors the writer’s ownership of his or her work, too. It’s also courteous. Just ask Alex Trebek. (RIP)
Learning How To Evaluate Writing Skills Takes Time
Much like performing the perfect jump shot or teaching your parrot how to recite all the lyrics to “Motownphilly,” understanding how to evaluate writing skills ultimately boils down to two things: practice and patience. The more writing you assess, the more comfortable you’ll be whipping up rubrics and doling out the feedback.
Got any tips for evaluating writing skills? Want to share your favorite rubric? What’s your Boyz II Men jam? Sound off in the comments below!