In all higher education, writing is an important skill to learn. Much of our record of progress we have made in the humanities would be lost to us, if this had not been so. There are numerous reasons for this, but an adequate explanation is beyond the scope of this present work. Suffice it to say for the present that the importance is established and will not change while present students are going through the university system, if ever.
The second thing that needs to be said in this regard is that it is important for students completing a university education to learn to write well, even though this requires significant effort. High importance is not placed upon writing because it is easy. Writing is the most difficult skill of communication common to us. Most people write poorly, and even many well-educated people could write much better than they do. Students may be wondering at this point what the difference is between good writing and poor. In part, we could say that its the difference between a text you want to read and one you don’t. However the issue is more complex (much, much more complex!) than that.
Good writing possesses four main characteristics. These characteristics are the focus of this present written work. The way these characteristics will be discussed is as the criteria that will be used to evaluate your essays in courses.
If good writing possesses four main characteristics, then we would hope that essays would be evaluated according to four main criteria. This, in fact, is the case. First and foremost, the essay is evaluated according to the quality of the ideas expressed in it. This quality is best understood to be a combination of research and reflection upon a topic. Secondly, essays are evaluated based upon the structure and clarity of the argument presented. This area is only a little less significant than the first criterion. Ranking third in importance (about half the weight of research/reflection) is the overall organization of the essay. This criterion examines the order and flow of the consideration of sub-topics within the larger work. Finally--still important, but only half that of the third criterion--is the element of lower-level style and language mechanics. The following discussion will consider each of these criteria in more detail, giving facets of each that have relevance as written work is evaluated academically.
Research and Reflection
Generally, essays require students to think about issues and read the work of others on topics of interest to them. One of the main criteria whereby essays are evaluated is that of research and reflection.
Usually most written assignments will require students to reflect upon the topics at hand, describing the personal relevance, engagement, effects, and importance of each topic. Likewise, these assignments require students to consider not merely their own thinking but also the thinking of others, particularly others whose writing has been published, comparing and contrasting their own work with that of the others they have read. Both research and reflection are important to the essay, though the exact ratio of research to reflection may vary from one assignment to another. Research assignments may require students to begin work by finding out what has already been written on a topic or by performing some field research either in a given situation or on a given body of data. After this period of research, students consolidate their findings and assess the results. Assignments that focus upon reflection as a starting point will require students to assess their own experience or background as the basis for writing. In some assignments, this assessment is not merely the starting point, but also the finished product for the assignment. In other assignments of this type, students are required to build upon their initial and focal assessment by searching the library and online to find scholarly confirmation of their initial impressions.
On any one topic, there is usually a considerable body of work and essay lengths usually prohibit exhaustive inclusion of everything that students find on any topic. Therefore, a major skill concerns the use of research and the ability to reflect upon the mass of information available in order to present the most important ideas in what is written for the assignment. There are five qualities that good research and reflection exhibit, the scope of the research, the sources used, quotes and ideas used, the quality of reflection evident, and the understanding displayed; these are discussed below.
Scope of research
The scope of research criteria evaluates how diverse the topics within the issue were and the sources of research. If the total discussion available to students were represented as a circle, a broad scope of research would entail that students considered the entire circle, as opposed to only limited parts or spotty areas within the circle. Work worthy of an exceptional mark would have surprising diversity, while competent work would have a broad range of sources. Inadequate work would have few sources drawn upon or sources in only a limited topic range.
If students only consider part of a topic and not the whole topic of discussion, they may fail to have a proper scope of research and may lose marks because of this, However, there are several other factors that can affect grades in this area, as well.
Use of sources
Once sources throughout a broad range of consideration are identified, it is important to use those sources well. The use of sources indicates how students are making use of named sources in their work. Excellent work discerns both positively and negatively regarded research, using and critiquing these diverse positions with understanding and insight. Relatively competent use of sources presents the ideas found that relate to subject areas, but reflects a more dependent use of these ideas, without the creativity and relative independence of the more excellent scholar. Inadequate work in this area either presents only a single line of argumentation without critical examination, or provides sources for only a portion of the topics or issues considered, leaving gaps in the discussion.
Coverage of a broad scope of discussion and proper use of diverse sources lays down a good foundation for excellent written work. However, there are still some other factors that are relevant to students’ marks for research and reflection.
Use of quotes
One of the main differences between inexperienced writers and their more experienced colleagues is that better writers know when quotes are necessary in using the ideas of others. One of the marks of well educated scholars is that they know when to summarize the ideas found in research in their own words and when it is best to use the original authors’ own words in a quote. Excellent writers work hard to find the right way to fit the right sort of quotes into their own work with careful explanations and evaluations both before and after each quote. They make it clear why the quote is necessary for them to use in their own work. Competent work in this area will use quotes accurately and for the right reasons, but may lack the sophistication of more excellent work, or may “miss the mark” with a quote sometimes. Inadequate work with quotes sometimes presents the quotes without commentary, often leaving the reader to figure out the relevance and value of quotes used. In addition or as an alternative, inadequate work often depends so fully upon other authors’ work that one may rightly wonder whether the present student understands any more of the issue than how to quote other scholars. It is exactly at this point that the next factor of evaluation becomes most relevant.
Evidence of reflection
One of the main educational goals of essay writing generally is to provide an opportunity for students to think seriously about an issue that interests them. Excellent writers know how to show that they have done some independent thinking about the topics they discuss, rather than merely “parroting” the ideas of experts on subjects. Competent work in this area may demonstrate reflection only on some of the essay’s sub-topics, or only superficially at times. At other times, writers may have difficulty maintaining constant intensity throughout their examination of a topic. Thus, they may explore one or a few topic areas thoroughly and leave others out completely or mostly. In such work, it is evident that the writer thought a lot about the topic, but did not think about it “evenly.” Inadequate work in this area will leave the reader wondering what the writer thought about beyond what was read and the research that was found. It will often appear in inadequate work that the writer was merely reporting the ideas of others and made no significant contribution to the writing other than the merest juxtaposition of multiple scholars’ works.
Understanding of topic
As well as reflection, opportunity is provided in written work for students to demonstrate the level they understand an issue or topic. Excellent writers are keen to demonstrate what they understand by combining careful use of direct quotes with discerning paraphrases of the work of experts that they have researched on the topic. Competent students will often understand part of what they discuss of the ideas of others, but miss certain key nuances of what they study or jump to wrong conclusions by thinking they understand more than they actually do. Inadequate work in this area makes no real attempt to understand the topic or any of its subtleties, preferring merely to provide a record of what seems to be a coherent body of work on a topic done by others.
So far, the discussion has been concerned with factors within the broad criterion of research and relevance that affect the evaluation of essays. This is an important criterion, probably the most significant aspect of the evaluation of an essay. Of only slightly less importance is the issue of the clarity and overall argument presented in the essay. It is this criterion that will be discussed next.
Clarity and Argument
Whether students are beginning with their own reflections on a topic or with research in the library or online or field research with people or in a lab, their work will not ultimately be a simple record of facts, but will be arguing for a way of looking at the world. The structure of this argument is only slightly less important than the quality of ideas found and expressed. In the process of presenting an argument, students need to exercise care in presenting sufficient relevant argumentation and evidence for the claims they are making. This criterion evaluates how clear the argument is and how well supported each claim being made is. Additionally, it evaluates how strong the evidence presented is and how relevant the evidence is to the case being made. Finally, this part of the evaluation considers whether the argument presented shows unreasonable bias. There are five main factors that display an argument force or quality; these are the thesis, the originality of reasoning, the coherence of discussion, the strength of the evidence, and the fairness of the presentation of the argument.
The central thesis (or final conclusion) should be very easy to find and understand in the best written arguments. If the entire work were considered as a single sentence, the thesis would be that single sentence. Such an important idea in an argument should never be left implicit in the discussion. Furthermore, any restatements of the thesis should provide additional clarity, rather than confusion, to the discussion. Adequate work on the thesis should provide reasonable clarity, but restatements may either not be in evidence or may introduce vagueness or ambiguities into the discussion. Inadequate work on the thesis will lead to confusion over the main point being made.
The single most important factor in consideration of an essay’s clarity and argument is whether the thesis is easily discernible and whether restatements introduce vagueness or ambiguities. The next factor in importance is that of originality of argument.
It is not enough for a writer to write an argument that is clear and easily understood by readers; it is also required that writers communicate more than just the thinking of others in their work. The best essay writers are concerned to provide work that is original within the academic community. As a result, their work will represent an original combination of ideas from various sources, rather than merely the progression of thought from a single source or very few sources. Adequate work in this area may follow an accepted line of thinking, when it is in evidence in the majority of widely varied sources. Thus, the discussion will draw upon several sources, but with less of an original contribution to the field of discourse. Inadequate work on this element of writing will lead to dependence upon a single or restricted range of discussion, while ignoring the valuable contributions of those who have different opinions than the one being argued.
The first two factors in considering the clarity and argument of an essay have been the clarity of the thesis and the original thinking of the writer. The next factor in this part of the evaluation concerns the coherence of the argument.
All of the sentences of an essay should be presented in such a way that readers can easily see what part each sentence plays in the overall discussion and can understand that each sentence is vital in providing either a clear statement of the conclusion being argued or some supporting reason for the conclusion. This quality is called the coherence of an argument. In the best essays, every single sentence has its relevance and place contributing to the rationale of the argument. Essays that are merely adequate in this area have a few sentences that are irrelevant to the reasonable force of the argument. Inadequate essays argue largely using irrelevancies and more sinister forms of non-rational persuasion.
Some of the main features of an arguments clarity and force are evident in the thesis, the originality, and the coherence of the argument. Another important factor to be considered is that of the strength of the evidence found in the argument.
There are many reasons why an argument might be persuasive to many people. However, the most excellent arguments are those that provide reasonable support for the conclusion, and not merely clever ways of saying things that may persuade people by other than rational means. In excellent reasonable arguments, the evidence presented is uncontroversial to a majority of people within the discussion, even though the ultimate conclusions of the argument may be quite controversial. The evidence should be strongly based in a body of accepted facts, if possible, and great likelihood, if not. Adequate work in this area will be based somewhat on accepted facts but with some sources providing biased information that is not widely accepted. Unacceptable work in providing evidence considers only sources that agree with the position taken in the discussion, and may represent sources that have other agendas than mere agreement with the position taken, such as finances or ideology. Evidence that is not commonly accepted by all parties in a discussion, and especially evidence provided by biased sources, weaken the support that a reasonable argument has.
The first four factors in an argument’s clarity and force deal with presentation of the discussion that advocates the conclusion being presented in the essay. The last factor in this area concerns how contrary evidence and opinions are presented.
When an argument is presented to readers for rational consideration, one important factor is the fairness of the presentation of the issue, the range of discussion, and the various positions that have been taken on the issue at hand. The most excellent arguments treat contrasting stances with fairness. Even though arguments will ultimately favour one position over competitors, the best arguments will do so in a way that fully acknowledges the strengths and values of positions not advocated. When bias creeps into an argument or an issue is presented as if there were only one possible rational choice or course of action, the argument loses excellence and becomes merely adequate. When the argument clearly displays bias in the issue considered or openly despises other reasonable choices without presenting the basis for a rejection of the argument, or when the essay even refuses to consider a known opposing view, the argument becomes thoroughly unsatisfactory.
Essays must display a broad range of research and reflection on an issue and discussion that is clear and careful to consider all reasonable information that is relevant to the issue being examined. These are the most weighty criteria that affect the mark an essay receives. The next two criteria are of must lesser importance, but still have a great affect upon the final mark an essay receives.
Just as there are multiple parts of an argument, conclusion, reasoning, evidence, and so forth, so also these elements can be organized in many possible ways. Some of these ways make the argument easier to follow, while others make it much more difficult. Overall, an essay needs to have a proper introduction, body and conclusion, with the major claim (thesis) being made advanced at the end of the introduction, beginning of the body, and beginning of the conclusion. The substance of the reasoning and evidence needs to be presented in the body of the essay. The points of reasoning and evidence need to be presented in an order that does not appear arbitrary, and the reader needs to be gently and carefully led from one topic to the other, using transitions that help readers follow the discussion from point to point. The first factor within consideration of the organization of an argument is its structure.
The overall structure of an essay is very important; properly structured essays are easy to read and easy to remember. In the best writing the introduction, body, and conclusion are proportional to the length of the essay and are concerned with appropriate information.
In the introduction, the central task is to present the topic of consideration within a larger context of related discussions. Readers should be led carefully from general discussion of the topic and related areas to more specific considerations and finally to the main thesis of the essay. Experienced writers usually write the introduction of an essay last, after first draft of the the body and the conclusion have been done.
In the body of the essay the discussion proceeds from a second statement of the essay’s thesis to a consideration of the evidence and rationale supporting the argument in an order that seems natural to readers of essays, whether historical, geographical, or topical. A general guide for proportion of the body is that it should be about 80% of the length of the total essay.
The conclusion again restates the thesis and considers either the personal stake the author has in the issue or the relevance of the position taken to other related issues. There is no further support for the thesis presented in the conclusion.
Minor confusion in this overall structure, or perhaps minor evidence present in the introduction and/or conclusion of the essay, may still provide an adequate, if not excellent, structure for the essay. To the degree that the discussion is chaotic at the highest levels, the overall structure of the essay will be found to be inadequate.
There is more to the organization of an essay than just getting the introduction, body, and conclusion with proper information in each written. Lower levels of structure, including paragraphs and below, also provide a basis for evaluation.
Flow of discussion: paragraphs and transitions
At a lower level of structure than that of the overall essay, paragraphs and sentences in the best writing seem to follow a natural, non-arbitrary order. Oftentimes, structural parallels provide a sense of security to readers; if one part of the essay follows a chronological presentation of ideas, other sections are more likely to be understood easily when they also follow the same standard for ordering. At the highest levels of structure, whole paragraphs of well written essays will serve no other purpose than to get the reader to move from one topic to another (transitional paragraphs). At lower levels of structure, the same function of transitioning may be accomplished in single sentences or even in phrases and transitional words (first, second, next, finally, and so forth). While writers are often too bored to include such elements in their work, readers find them very helpful in following the discussion easily. As long as the transitions provided are not too repetitive (everyone gets tired of writers always using first, second, and so on), such elements are far from boring for readers. Adequate work in writing will occasionally leave transitions out from where they belong; inadequate writing often moves from topic to topic without any transitions at all. Such poorly organized writing also seems chaotic in many of the main paragraphs of the discussion, moving from statement to statement and leaving readers to figure out on their own how sentences within a paragraph are supposed to relate to each other.
When the overall essay has a proper structure and writers have worked hard at lower levels to make sure readers can easily follow the discussion, evaluating essays becomes a thoroughly enjoyable task. However, there are still other factors of importance to consider in the evaluation of an essay’s organization. An essay’s discussion must be well developed, for example.
Excellent written essays discuss topics fully, giving equal weight and consideration to ideas that have equivalent importance to the issue being discussed. Adequate essays make minor blunders in this area. Some essays of lesser quality spend too much time discussing some points, while leaving other equally important ones briefly summarized. In some cases, essays will even leave some topics known to be relevant to the issue out of the discussion entirely. This creates “gaps” in the development of discussion. For example, suppose a writer knows there are four major aspects or factors relevant to a full consideration and decision on an issue, and suppose the essay presented discusses only two of these four aspects or factors, even though the four known factors have approximately equal importance overall. In such a case, the writer has failed to develop the discussion properly.
Proper writing will have a proper overall structure and will be complemented at lower levels with equal concern to be organized in an understandable way, but there will also be a sense in reading well-organized essay that there has been a balanced discussion that has deeply considered relevant information. Once this has been accomplished, good writers will want to turn to the next factor, that of the order topics are considered in the body of an essay.
In the best written essays, the next topic discussed will always seem to be “next” in terms of some logical category, such as time, space, function or purpose, similarity, or importance. Such ordering needs to be evident in more than just two topics; the best discussions will extend the movement from topic to topic in as long a chain of proximity (think of it as natural “nextness”) as possible. Excellent writing seems neatly ordered in terms of the movement from topic to topic, while worse writing becomes excessively unordered, with inadequate work being seen as chaotic at both upper and lower levels of structure (that is, both above and below paragraph level).
Writers who have worked hard to organize their writing in the ways mentioned above are well on their way to receiving a good mark on this criterion. There is one more factor of organization to consider; this concerns the overall readability of the essay.
A well-written essay of up to 20 pages should be interesting and enjoyable to read for any readers who enjoy reading as a hobby. Shorter essays should only provide frustration in that readers should wish the essay were longer. When writing is poorly organized or leaves a lot of the work of making sense out of the discussion up to the readers, it can be very hard work. Sometimes, essays can be almost impossible to make sense of; such work is inadequately organized.
One of the main contributors to difficulty in reading that has not yet been mentioned is that of sentence length. Inexperienced writers usually put too much in each sentence. Even when they do not fall prey to such errors as run-on (and...and...and...) sentences, they may combine main and dependent clauses together in such long chains that reading is made difficult, even when all the pieces actually are considered “grammatical.” While it is not a hard rule that sentences should not have more than 20 words or 3 clauses, it is a good idea to consider shortening sentences that have more than 2 clauses and making sentences with 3 clauses or more than 20 words in them very rare in students’ writing. Said another way: People don’t set hard rules about sentence length, It is not required for students only to write sentences shorter than 3 clauses or 20 words. What students should do is to consider shortening the longer sentences in their essays. Perhaps sentences that have more than 20 words or 3 clauses could be written as two separate sentences.It will not always be possible to avoid writing long sentences, but they should occur only very rarely.
When writers have spent so much time on research and reflection, clarity, and proper organization, the last factor will seem insignificant. Indeed, it is only half the importance of organization, and only a quarter of that of research and reflection. It might occur to students to wonder whether the criterion of style and mechanics should even be included in university writing evaluations at all. The reason they are included is not to be overly picky or hard to please in university courses; it is because care in adhering to these standards helps writers communicate widely to English readers throughout the world.
Style and Mechanics
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation have only trivial importance insofar as they represent standards of language that are arguably motivated politically and economically. However, accepted standards of such mechanical details represent expectations of the widest range of the community of people worldwide that read English. Choosing to disregard or violate these conventions can oftentimes distort or block communication such that writers either communicate unintended ideas, or even ideas contradictory to their intents.
An important element of style in writing concerns variety of phrasing and word choice. While clarity in writing is of greater value than variety, it is still important to provide an interesting discussion to readers. Sophisticated writers have learned to make themselves clear without undue repetition that bores readers. Good writing needs to maintain a balance of simplicity and elegance that produces ultimate clarity without loss of interest or variety.
Obviously, mechanical and stylistic errors that lead to miscommunication must be regarded as more important than those that are merely distracting, but all such mistakes affect readers of academic work adversely. The main categories of such style and mechanics issues (from greatest to least importance) are as follows: communication, grammar, spelling and punctuation, the writing checklist, variety of sentence structure, and variety of word choice.
Well written communication provides confidence in readers that they have understood exactly what writers intended to say to them. To the extent that readers are unsure of the intentions of writers, the writing is not as good. When readers cannot make sense of what writers intend to say, the communication fails. In situations of such failure to communicate, there are usually other criteria discussed above that have also received less than excellent marks, but occasionally work that is stellar regarding most of the above criteria will stumble a great deal in this area. Occasionally, this will be in situations where students speak and write English not as their native language; at other times, students may have formed bad habits of disregard for standards of style and mechanics in previous educational settings, or they may even be untaught in these areas.
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation
There are accepted standards for Canadian academic writing, with a range of acceptable variations within these standards. Good writers take time to find out and follow such standards because they want their writing to communicate well and be as free from distracting readers as possible. Often poor writing is characterized by casual (or in some cases, almost defiant) disregard for many of these standards for writing.
Most people who evaluate writing came through educational systems where it was unthinkable to consider writing without having a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a handbook of English academic writing on the desk with them. In the present day, much of this reference material is online, and students do not need to keep hard copies of such reference material on their writing tables (if they even own them!). However, students seem to be unwilling to take the time to consult these references, even though they are readily available online. It is as if students think that they no long need such helps, that their work should be evaluated based solely on the ideas and as if there were no relation between idea and expression. Experienced and successful writers know that high quality thinking is always intimately connected with the hard work of editing to bring their writing into conformity with accepted standards.
All course instructors have the prerogative to set particular standards for writing in their courses. Some professors choose not to establish such standards, and this can leave students unsure of the situation. In the author’s courses, he has found several features of inconsistency to be distracting as he reads essays. As a result, he provides a writing checklist of the major common flaws found in written work. It is assumed that students will have consulted this checklist and will have made every possible effort for their work to conform to these expectations. A completed checklist is expected to accompany the essays turned in for the author to grade, and it is reviewed in detail as part of the evaluation of essays students turn in.
Excellent writers always check to see what standards they can find for writing assignments beyond the general requirements of such references as dictionaries and language handbooks. Adequate writers require their own writing to be consistent with regard to any such standards, but may not take sufficient time to make sure their work conforms in every detail to established standards. Inadequate writers pay attention neither to the checklist nor to writing consistency and may even appear deliberate in their non-adherence to the checklist.
Variety of sentence structure and complexity
One mark of excellent writers is that they provide variety in the way they communicate to readers. Less experienced writers often fall into traps of repetition and set patterns; the run-on sentence (and...and...and...) is a common example of this. They have their favourite ways of expressing ideas and they use them in ways readers notice (and quickly find distracting). Unacceptable work often displays little or no variety of structure or complexity to provide interest to readers.
A major consideration of lesser quality writing is the saving of time in the task. More experienced writers know that writing takes time, hard work, and patient editing if excellence is to be the final product. Less experienced writers believe their work is excellent without editing, and take no time or effort to think whether there may be other, better ways to communicate what they have to say.
Variety of word choice
English has a rich vocabulary, with many close synonyms that allow many choices for terms used in discourse. The best writers are concerned to vary the words used in communication, believing that such variety communicates subtlety and nuance, enriching readers in their consideration of topics discussed. Less experienced writers are merely concerned to get their assignment done quickly and with as little effort as possible, while writers of even less quality have no control of such vocabulary. The poorest writers often believe that there are simply no other words to use than what they have chosen.
While factors of style and mechanics are not as important as the other criteria used to evaluate essays, they are still an important consideration in the overall evaluation for two main reasons. First, if an essay were excellent according to all the other criteria, but were significantly irregular and repetitive in regard to style and mechanics, the overall effect would be considerable enough to move an essay out of the category of excellent work. Secondly, inattention to proper standards of style and mechanics tend to go along with inadequacies in other areas. For this reason, style and mechanics evaluations have tended to give students some smaller things to work on in addition to bigger considerations.
Sometimes students are only given big items to work on. They may receive a comment like “paragraphs chaotic,” “inadequate personal contribution to the discussion,” or the like. Students may be unsure exactly what to do to correct such flaws in their work. If, however, the student receives some comments like “spelling is flawed,” “unclear sentence,” or “don’t use secondary sources,” they have some small things to work on that may bring some of the larger items more into focus as they work at correcting these mistakes. Making sentences clear may help students to see where their thinking, and not just their sentences, were fuzzy and incomplete.