Grading Creative Writing: What’s an A?

For the past several days, I’ve been working through a stack of critical analysis essays and printed slides of accompanying oral presentations as well as revisions of short stories and personal essays. Every semester I struggle to come up with rubrics that will help guide students toward successfully completing assignments in my creative writing courses. It’s not so hard to grade the critical analysis essay. I provide clear guidelines outlining how many pages the paper should be, how many sources the writer should cite, how the paper should be formatted. I provide a list of topics and then offer a fairly extensive list of examples of ways a student might tackle each of the topics. For instance:

In response to prompt #1:

a. Choose one short piece of work (fiction or CNF) and pore over it for clues to how the author employs one specific aspect of craft. You may choose to study how character is used in the piece. Or perhaps setting, POV, plot, voice, or theme. You may examine the way conflict is used; how does it move from desire to conflict to climax to change? Isolate moments of internal and external conflict. How does the author build suspense? Perhaps you’d rather examine a piece for meaning. What is the author saying about the human condition? And just as importantly, why is he/she saying it? More important even yet, how does he/she incrementally and skillfully weave these thematic threads throughout the piece?

The same is true for the accompanying oral presentation. Guidelines clearly stipulate that students should speak for 10-15 minutes without reading from their essays. The presentation should include at least one visual component, either a PowerPoint presentation, notes written on the dry erase board, or handouts.

Grading work like this isn’t too difficult. I’ve done most of the heavy lifting for myself when it’s time to grade, but I’ve also made the student’s job easier. There’s no ambiguity. The rubrics I use are cobbled together from similar ones I’ve found online or gotten from other instructors. Four points are awarded for content if: “inferences, analysis, and interpretation of the selected works are sophisticated rather than simply competent,” for example. There is some measure of subjectivity (what’s competent or sophisticated?) but a tally sheet of this kind satisfies many educators, and since I’m not an expert in learning theory, I’ll take their word for it.

Much more difficult is assessing a piece of fiction or a personal essay. I stress the importance of revision. All semester, I remind students that nothing they write for class will be anywhere close to finished. They should not get the impression that an A or B means a story or essay is perfect. I tell them their endings, in particular, are probably not going to work, that it’s going to take a long time to get their endings. For some, it may be their beginnings that won’t work. Or something else will be utterly impossible. Many things will be missing. Too many irrelevant things will be included. Characters won’t be sufficiently developed. There will be plot holes. Some students will note even write stories; they’ll write vignettes. All of these problems will be pointed out in my written comments, and this is essentially what I consider a student’s grade, this feedback, even though I’m perfectly aware of the fact that nothing matters much to students, not even creative writing students, except the almighty letter grade. And it isn’t their fault. Getting into graduate school, the programs of their choice, hinges on those grades.

So.

If the writing is not confusing — and believe me, most students make the mistake of thinking that confusing prose is more sophisticated than clear prose — if it’s clear and engaging and shows adequate skill in using images and fresh language. If there’s evidence the writer understands how to develop a character, to create a setting, to string together a story that’s plausible, and knows how to write a scene that dramatizes the action directly rather than summarizes events using only exposition, I will give the writer an A-, stressing again that this is merely a very rough first draft.

Some of you may do it differently. One writer I know tells the story of a writing instructor who gave out one single A per semester because he felt that in order to be called exceptional, a piece of work must be singular. Nothing else should come anywhere near it. Makes sense if logic is what matters most to you as an instructor, I suppose. But I’m more concerned with the effect it has on a student’s attitude. My end goal as a teacher is to improve each of my students’ writing at least three-fold and at the same time, keep them motivated. Writing is hard enough. We all want to quit sooner rather than later. There will be lots of ways their work will be sorted out and labeled down the road. Some will find success, perhaps. Others won’t. My job, as I see it, is to keep them trying long enough that they might have a chance.

In the Army, I was graded on a Go/No Go system, and that would be my preference for grading creative work as well. Properly administering an antidote for exposure to nuclear or biological chemical agents is pass or fail. Setting up, arming, and remotely discharging a claymore mine is either done correctly or it’s not. So it goes with writing stories. The degree to which our mistakes are evaluated does not change the fact that we’re missing a leg. Grades tell their own stories and are often based more in fiction than reality. You’re an exceptional student. You’re a solid, hardworking, good student. You are an average student. You’re trailing behind your peers. You’ll never make it, not ever. These are lazy and vague generalizations. I’d rather be told I’m missing a leg. You blew it off on page 4. This is information I need, even if I can’t fix the problem. At least I’ll know where I stand, what my weaknesses are and maybe I can figure out ways to compensate for missing that leg. If I truly graded short stories on this outmoded academic scale, they’d all be Cs or Ds. And what would that tell students? Worse still, how would that kind of grade discourage them from taking other creative writing courses?

Maybe I give out a few easy As, become known as being soft, let a few slackers through just fulfilling a humanities requirement. Not the reputation I’d prefer. But what if I let a D writer move through, a real hack but one with guts, one with fire in her belly? A lot of people don’t know it, but this is the genius thinking used by the military. Level the playing field. Everyone’s a maggot, but everyone has equal opportunity. You see the weak get stronger for a reason.

Why do I think this way? Because I’ve seen lots of writers with that thing we call talent give up the minute they feel push-back while their far-less gifted peers plug away and figure out what they’re doing. Those who don’t quit have a chance. Talent is a beautiful thing to come across as a teacher. It’s exciting. But it scares me a little, makes me worry and do what I can to protect a student from expecting too much too soon. It’s a matter of 10,000 hours, I try to make them all understand. Put your time in. Measure yourself only against yourself until you get those hours behind you. And whatever you do, don’t quit.

So I give A minuses to first drafts unless one is obviously lacking or shows signs of having been slapped together at the last minute, and then I grade accordingly. Revisions are treated differently. Here’s where students can really begin to learn what it means to be a writer. No easy A- here. I’m careful to point out that revision is not correcting typos but completely re-imagining their work. When I was an undergraduate, we were asked to turn in a portfolio of our best pieces of writing. Which meant that I fixed a few typos and turned in the work that had already been awarded As and called it done. Portfolios discourage revision. I’ve stopped requiring them and opted instead to make students choose their weakest piece of writing and study it. What’s wrong with it? Why isn’t it working? What did your peers say was off about this piece? What did I suggest needed improvement? What do YOU know better than anyone else about why it maybe isn’t working? I tell them they’ll be rewarded for making more changes, big sweeping changes, rather than fewer. I remind them to save their original drafts and then to really go for it because there’s nothing to lose. Any changes they make for their graded revisions can later be abandoned. There’s no commitment required. Only an open mind to what else could happen. If the writer is daring in her revision, she too will get an A-. If she is convinced the piece is perfect, that’s not so good.

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