Posted on

How to grade a creative writing assignment

How to Grade a Creative Writing Paper

Grading all forms of student writing contains elements of subjectivity. In creative writing classes, though, it becomes especially difficult to reconcile course goals with student talent and effort. By using rubrics, assessing student revisions, incorporating self-evaluation and implementing portfolio evaluation, you can both inspire creative freedom in students and give honest evaluations of their work.

Explore this article

1 Story Scorecards

Although no two creative writing projects will look exactly the same, using a rubric, a specific set of evaluation criteria, can help you clarify your expectations for students. Rubrics also easily point students to the areas of their stories that need work, streamlining the revision process, indicates creative writing teacher Yvonne Blomer. (See Reference 4, pg 9-10) For example, a short story rubric might include sections for character development, plot, description, voice and language. To keep students focused on the revision process instead of what letter grade they receive, you can replace traditional letter grades with descriptors, such as “good,” “satisfactory” and “weak.”

2 Risks and Rewrites

Many beginning creative writers assume that all good stories reach instant perfection on the first draft. In reality, writing is a process that often requires multiple drafts, experimentation and learning from mistakes. High school creative writing teacher Michael Fiorello believes that students should be graded based on commitment to revision, doing multiple drafts and even completely rewriting the story if necessary. (See Reference 1) Having students turn in multiple drafts of the paper or keeping your own notes on previous drafts they’ve submitted can help you assess the depth of their revision and see improvement between different versions.

3 The Artist’s Analysis

Rather than focusing your evaluation solely on the story, you can add greater objectivity by incorporating an artist’s statement, a brief essay where students reflect on their writing process. This assignment can help students think critically about how they write, assess their growth and improvement and explain the creative decisions they made. According to creative writing teachers Diane Bekurs and Susan Santoli, requiring students to write about their story’s creation lets them take ownership of the process and challenges them to explain why they chose to tell the story they did. (See Reference 3, pg 2; Reference 2)

4 Portfolio Positives

Another common grading practice in creative writing classes is the portfolio evaluation. Throughout the semester, the instructor provides frequent constructive feedback on how students can improve their stories. At the end of the term, students submit portfolios of their final drafts, which receive a grade based on their quality of work for the whole semester. National University creative writing instructor Ron Roebuck indicates that portfolios allow students to experience greater creative freedom and receive frequent comments on their progress. While grading portfolios can be overwhelming, they can also lead to less student anxiety about grades and stronger work at the end of the semester. (See Reference 2)

Assessing Creative Writing Is Hard, So Here Are Three Ways To Avoid It

Everyone knows that outside of the school building, creative writing workshops aren’t graded. Whether it’s a group of retirees who cluster in the back of your corner coffee shop or the so-called Ponzi schemes of MFA programs like the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, assessment comes in the form of peer feedback—marginalia and discussion.

But if you’re teaching creative writing in a K–12 classroom or a community college, at the end of the day you’re most likely required to stamp a letter grade—or at least a percentage score—on your students’ work. As the educators I spoke with lamented, “the product is so hard to assess.”

That’s why I’ve gathered three brilliant ways for you to get out of it.

1. Assess the assessment

Kevin Allardice is an English teacher at Mercy High School in Burlingame, CA and the author of the novels Any Resemblance to Actual Persons and Family, Genus, Species. He avoids assessing creative writing altogether by assigning his students to write critical essays about their own short stories.

He originally developed this method as a way to engage his students in academic writing about literature. Since students were excited about the stories they wrote—and presumably confident that they understood the author’s intentions—they were more inclined to deeply investigate and support their claims with textual evidence. Writing about their own work in the third person helps students differentiate between different genres and modes of writing. It also helps break down the barrier between critical and creative thinking.

Kevin grades both the explicative essay his students write about their fiction or creative nonfiction as well as the feedback they give their peers (a short response due before each workshop). In his words, “both have more explicit formal expectations,” letting him avoid making a judgment call about the art itself. “I tend to grade all the materials that surround the creative part, rather than the actual creative work,” he says.

The structure of the peer responses mirrors that of the class’s workshop discussion, enabling students to prepare for and then fully engage in the discussion. For example:

  1. Describe in neutral language what the story is trying to accomplish.
  2. What details help it meet that goal (citing specific passages)?
  3. What specifics could be revised to help it achieve the established goal?

This format ensures the students focus on helping the story “become the story it wants to become, not deciding whether or not they like the story.” Bonus: having a specific format for written feedback makes it easier to grade, because the requirements are clear: once you determine the aims of the story, all your notes—positive or negative—must be focused on supporting that goal.

2. Assess the process

When James Wilson teaches creative writing, he grades 50 percent on process. Now an Assistant Professor of English at Diablo Valley College, a community college in Pleasant Hill, CA, he first incorporated this practice into his assessment repertoire when teaching performance to theater students—an art that is perhaps even more elusive to grading than creative writing!

Grading on process isn’t just a participation score. Participation requirements might include giving adequate feedback to classmates or engaging in class discussion, and be graded separately or as part of the student’s overall course grade.

Grading on process is much more than that. It’s all about following the trail of revisions. These are the questions James wants to get to the bottom of:

  • How invested are students in making their work better?
  • Are they engaging in every step of the revision process? Or did they just stop working on their piece at some point?
  • Are they responding to criticism from their peers and instructor, even if they don’t accept the changes?
  • How good are they at integrating feedback?

This approach is predicated on having a clear set of steps that are part of the writing process in your class. Landmarks on the writing journey must include occasions for the instructor to be a party to the work—either the student turning in a rough draft or a workshop moderated by or observed by the teacher. These steps might be:

  1. Here’s what you write for a starter exercise
  2. Here’s what you revise and bring in for workshop
  3. Here’s how you respond to and integrate feedback
  4. Here’s what you turn in as a final product

When you’re grading on process you’re also grading on persistence. A student who says their work is “perfect the first time” does not exhibit grit.

He avoids assessing creative writing altogether by assigning his students to write critical essays about their own short stories.

3. Make your students write the rubric

A theme that emerged in these conversations was a focus on audience, intention, and the goal of the piece of writing. Unlike most of the writing that students do—for which the teacher sets the goal—when writing creatively students get to choose what they’re trying to accomplish. Whether or not they do it well is up to the audience to decide. “Put the audience first,” says Janet Files, whether that means your teacher, your classmates, your family, or the public.

An educator of 41 years, Janet Files is a Literacy Specialist with the South Carolina Department of Education. She trains coaches who work with the state’s elementary school teachers to improve reading and writing instruction. Formerly, Janet was the Director of the Coastal Area Writing Project, a national program with regional centers known for its model of improving the teaching of writing by developing teachers’ confidence in their own writing skills.

Janet suggests assigning the class to create the rubric. Designing a rubric together intrinsically motivates students and engages them in a crucial aspect of developing them into writers: reading like a writer. That means steeping yourself in a genre, noticing what other writers are doing—or trying to do—then mimicking, stealing and making their techniques your own. These techniques become the requirements of the rubric.

Questions in a self- or class-created rubric might be:

  • I’m trying to be funny: did it make you laugh?
  • I want my writing to be engaging: at what point did you lose interest?
  • I like scary stories: how close did I come to writing like Stephen King?

Obviously, once your students have created the rubric it’s up to them to fill it out!

Some additional resources for getting started with student-generated rubrics can be found from Diane Gallucci, McKayla Stoyko, United Federation of Teachers, TeacherVision and TeachersFirst.

Use technology?

Aside from using a word processor to review student or parent comments on drafts, or Google Classroom to project student work to the class in order to offer encouragement and criticism in real time, none of the educators I spoke with currently use technology in teaching writing. So I asked them: Can you imagine an edtech product that helps you assess creative writing? What would it look like?

The answer was something more robust than Microsoft Word’s tracked changes or Google Docs’ version history, but along those lines.

Kevin said, “Last year, when my sophomores were writing analytical essays about their own creative work—citing it, et cetera—I found myself toggling back and forth between two Google Docs. I wished there were a simpler way—like, if I could read the essay on one side of my screen, have the story on the other side, and have each citation in the essay highlight the corresponding passage in the story. Just a fantasy. Maybe something like that is already out there. I don’t really know enough to know.”

Likewise, James wanted a versioning tool that would keep multiple drafts of a piece together in one place, so he could track its development and see what changes the student makes. However, he said, “I feel a little creepy about this—big-brotherish.”

Janet’s idea had more to do with technology that could help students move through the peer review process, for instance by facilitating writing groups online. She envisioned a program that would ask guiding questions like: What stood out? Where did you feel tense? Where did you want to hear more?

I have an inkling some of these technologies already exist, or soon will.

How Should We Grade Creative Writing?

What distinguishes an A poem from a B poem? Should a student writer’s final portfolio be rewarded for revision and growth if the final product remains inadequate? Should a poem receive a high grade if the instructor thinks it demonstrates the potential for publication—or if it merely reflects the elements stressed within the coursework? Do we need to distinguish between students taking an errant creative writing course on the way toward a degree in physics versus students who plan on pursuing an MFA?

We so often debate if creative writing can be taught: that is a romantic question of inspiration versus training, and allows us to comfortably bicker while knowing that creative writing programs are not actually going to disappear. I propose a more practical, immediate debate: how should we grade the work of creative writing students in undergraduate creative writing programs? Despite the nightmarish state of the tenure-track market in the discipline, it is reasonable—and I would argue essential—that we consider the MFA a professional degree. That is another discussion. But what about our undergraduates? Are they being trained to become professional writers? Does that affect how we assess their work?

According to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), undergraduate students should be given grades “for most assignments.” Grades “for revised work should depend on how well students demonstrate that they have transformed their processes for composing and revising.” Many creative writing professors—including myself—have used such a method. A student submits a story early in the semester that is melodramatic and sentimental. They use tags like “shrieked” and “chortled.” The plot of the story goes nowhere —or it goes everywhere, without any control. The prose is as purple as a priest’s vestments during Lent. By the end of the term, the student’s dialogue has more punch. They write with a little more detail. A maudlin ending has become more ambiguous.

They are a better writer. Does that mean they get an A?

When I teach creative writing, I am always pulled in two directions. Part of me wants to let undergraduates roam free. We might start with the opening scene of Big Machine by Victor LaValle or “Royal Beatings” by Alice Munro before setting aside examples and precedents and taking a more mystical approach. Writing without grades. The other part of me—an ethos passed down by generations of my working-class family from the Bronx and Newark—wants my students to create works that others will read. To—God forbid—think they should make money from writing. I want them to stop being private writers and become public writers.

I think my best semesters as a teacher are a mixture of the two methods. Yet a teaching method doesn’t immediately translate into a grading method. Is competency in creative writing a C? Do students who take undergraduate creative writing courses expect those courses to be an easy A? Why does it feel like I am breaking some taboos in even asking these questions?

I want this short essay to start, not end, debate. I know most professors have tried and true approaches to grading. I am not suggesting unilateral grading standards for creative writing—a concept that is naïve, unrealistic, and probably not helpful for students. I am certainly not suggesting rubrics (20 points for exemplary dialogue; 15 points for adequate dialogue…). We don’t need to take this to the extreme, but we should have this conversation. If professors are serious about preparing our students to succeed as writers —and if you are not, you should get the hell out of a classroom—we need to be serious about our discipline. That includes how students are graded.

One grading approach that I’ve returned to is placing a value on sentences. I try to teach students to write the best sentences that they were meant to write. That means a lot of close reading of published and student work, some critical writing, and a significant amount of line-focused revision. The least we can do as creative writing professors is to teach students how to write for an audience: the audience of their professors, their peers, and the often invisible audience of literary magazine editors and readers. Sure, a story can often be made better—but if we always think of creative writing as a sequence of works-in-progress, we avoid the tough decisions that are necessary to grow, and to publish.

Yes, to publish. Undergraduate creative writing students should know the difference between work that has the potential to be published, and work that is nowhere near reaching an audience. We should not only give an A to publication-ready work, but I fear that we are so afraid of talking too much about publication with young writers that we delay the inevitable.

Some might say these debates are better left to intra-department squabbles. But so often those debates are intellectual exercises, and forgotten before the next semester’s syllabus is distributed. We can do better. Grading has a practical purpose, but in this context, it is a measure of when writing is successful, and when it is not. We should give creative writing—this weird, beautiful art that has the power to stir souls—the academic respect it deserves. We owe it to our students.

Nick Ripatrazone is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.

The New Wave: On the State of Indian Fiction in America

For all the merits of these books, the question remains: is this literary boomlet an anomaly, a coincidence, or a harbinger?

Claiming Kolkata as My Own

As much as I was disappointed by Kolkata, I was disappointed also by myself. Why was I unable to see what writers I admire so obviously see? What do Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, and Amit Chaudhuri see that I don’t — that I can’t?

Captain Stubing from ‘The Love Boat,’ My Literary Nemesis

There was no preprogrammed solution to my dilemma: My novel reviews have been hijacked by a seemingly nice but title-hacking actor from the ’70.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Designing a Book Jacket…”

Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.

I.
If you’ve ever wondered what goes into designing a book jacket, you’re not alone. It was one of the things that seemed a bit mystical to me when my novel went into production. In fact, the process remained shrouded in mystery up until the moment I received an email from my editor with jpeg attachments of a few prospective designs.

Let me back up by saying that one of my favorite quotes is a line from indie actor/filmmaker Steve Buscemi, who said, in a profile in The New Yorker a few years back: “There’s something about being naïve. Really interesting things come because you don’t know what the rules are, what you can and can’t do.” I went into the publication process with little-to-no knowledge of what goes into producing, promoting, or releasing a book. And I had a vague sense that it might be fruitful to maintain some measure of that ignorance; that becoming immersed in the ins and outs of production and marketing could be detrimental, both to my writing process and to the publisher’s ability to do its job. How much of a sausage-making expert did I really want to become, and how useful to the publisher would my porky hands be?

II.
In the current publishing environment, this is a rather old-fashioned way of thinking, and unrealistic. Much more pro-activity is expected and required from authors, now that marketing budgets (for unknown writers, especially) are dwindling; and readers have come to expect and crave more personal connection with authors. As Farrar, Straus & Giroux Publisher Jonathan Galassi put it in his recent interview for Poets & Writers, “We’re selling authors, not books. We’re selling people the illusion of an experience with an author… They want the full experience.”

So it’s a somewhat complex relationship, an intricate dance. Contractually, the book no longer belongs to the author. And yet collaboration each step of the way is ideal. When it came to the book jacket, I was invited to be involved, and my input was both valued and incorporated; at the same time, I sensed that fussiness would be received as such, and knew that, technically speaking, the final decision was not mine. As a first-time novelist, new to the dance, I felt a little like I had two left feet.

III.
I did not have a specific picture in mind of what I wanted my book’s jacket to look like. But I did have a vague idea of what I didn’t want it to look like. I did not want the design to be too literal; I myself am drawn to jacket covers which are more evocative of a novel’s essence than descriptive of its plot or characters (I dislike, for instance, the movie-poster jackets of books which have been made into films, which often present celebrities’ faces for characters you’d rather imagine).

I also knew that conveying the cultural elements of the novel in a jacket image could be tricky. In a recent article in Hyphen Magazine, books editor Neelanjana Banerjee expresses a frustration with the easy cultural tropes that are often used for the covers of novels by Asian Americans – fans, geishas (or other painted-faced women in traditional East Asian dress), dragons, chopsticks, lotus blossoms (I would add peonies, cranes, and scantily clad Asian temptresses) – to “mark” the books in an exoticized way and thus, presumably, sell more books to readers attracted to the familiarly exotic – whether or not those tropes best represent the novel’s actual thematic content or storyline.

So when I received the jpeg attachments, I was relieved to find that each of the drafts centered around a dream-like (non-literal) main image; which did not include any of the above-named objects or tropes (none of which are particularly relevant to the novel). The image was a rather spare photograph of a single, hatted (i.e. wearing a canvass sport hat commonly seen in the southern regions of South Korea), female figure, shot from the back, looking out into an illuminated horizon – somehow both figurative and abstract at once in its facelessness – that I thought evoked the emotional core of the novel quite well.

IV.
What’s strange about the jacket-design process is that the people who are weighing in are in a sense the least qualified to provide an informative gut-level response – a simulation of that half-second book-browser reaction. My agent, my editor, and I have all (obviously) read the book, so we came to the image as anything but blank slates. After considering my initial (positive) reaction, I registered a concern that the image was a tad too abstract, and that it would not be clear to someone who did not know the story what the figure was doing (she is taking a photograph).

So I forwarded the attachments to a couple of trusted friends, one of whom knew almost nothing about the story (about a Korean family, mainly an immigrant father and his American-born photojournalist daughter who find themselves reverse-migrating to the father’s village hometown in South Korea), the other of whom knew a little. I asked them, simply, “What do you see here?” The former wrote: “I see a white woman looking off into the distance, most likely taking a photograph.” The latter wrote: “I love it! But why is the woman white?”

This, you may have guessed, was not at all the response I was expecting.

V.
I mentioned these responses to my editor. She was shocked; it never occurred to her that the figure would be perceived as non-Asian, nor did it to me. As I looked more closely, brightening my screen settings, I saw that the woman’s hair had brownish highlights, accentuated by the light emanating from the horizon; it also had a slight wave to it. I thought, this must be what my friends are reacting to. So I asked my editor (trying not to trip over my two left feet) if she could track down the origins of the image, to see if it was a composite and might be altered. While she was (justifiably) dubious that the perceptions of two people warranted an alteration, she kindly agreed to do the research.

In the meantime, I sent the image to a dozen other people. I literally received six responses identifying the woman as Asian or “non-determinate race” and six responses identifying her as white (one person even used the word “WASPy”). I was stumped. What’s more, there was no discernible pattern in the responses, no correlation between response and respondent: people of Asian descent, people of non-Asian descent, people who knew the story or didn’t, male or female, political persuasions one way or another – the responses were all over the place. (One of the people who identified her as white was a Korean American woman who herself had brownish wavy hair.) By the twelfth response, I just had to laugh. Fascinating! This was turning into a kind of Rorschach test.

My editor wrote me back with the results of her research: no, it was not a composite and thus could not be altered. But, as it turned out, the model in the image is in fact Korean; and here, attached, is a photograph of her from the front. Did this help settle it for me?

Well, no. Not really.

VI.
What is the primary function of a book jacket? The adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is, to me, despite its cliche status, rather sophisticated in its irony; because in fact we know darn well that not only can you judge a book (and, to some limited degree, the metaphorical person to which the adage refers) by its cover; but that a good many book-buyers do judge books by their covers. I was encouraged to focus on the question, “Does it make someone want to pick up the book and find out what it’s about?” In the case of this design, I’d say sure, and most of the respondents would, too. Regardless of the racial identity of the figure, the emotional evocation is, I think, compelling overall.

But would the perceived race of the figure affect one way or another whether someone would pick it up? And what about after the half-second impression? Has the jacket cover fulfilled its purpose at that point? Would finding that the character is of a different race than initially perceived (and that the story is a bicultural story) affect the reading experience? And does the fact that the “truth” of the image matches the “truth” of the story – that the model is Korean – matter, if the reader does not have access to this background?

The questions spiraled out from there: how much does the author’s name affect the reader’s expectation of the novel’s content? Does the name “Chung” on the cover incline readers to certain assumptions? What does it mean that some segment of the population expects that an Asian woman would have straight black hair though not all of them do? Is it productive to work at meeting the expectation, or is the time ripe in our culture to test the waters of deviation and diversity? I could also hear in my head the voices of Ethnic Studies activists and feminist scholars challenging the tyranny of Western beauty standards and the blondifying of Eastern cultures.

VII.
There is actually an end to this story, and a rather anti-climactic one. (No dramatic showdown between author and publisher, no grand moral stances taken.) As my editor and I discussed it further, we realized that her computer screen was showing black hair. So I asked her to send me hard-copy printouts of the image; and as it turned out, it was in fact variations of screen views that created different hair-color shades and thus impressions. The hard-copy showed black hair, and without the highlights, the appearance of the wave was slightly less pronounced. We liked the image all along, and we knew it would be hard to recapture all that we liked about it if we went back to the drawing board. We decided to go forth.

I am still a little nervous – having no control over the final printing process, color-correcting, etc. – about what this cover will look like. But I also realized that as each response piled on one after the other in my inbox, I was beginning to delight in the wackiness of the whole thing. Would Jane, the character in the novel, be so easily identified or defined by race? She is unambiguously an American of Korean descent; but she is also many other things: a war photographer, sister, daughter, lover, survivor of trauma and tragedy. She is a woman looking for her life in the wake of death. She would never deliberately deceive; but she would embrace the essential mystery of identity, the complexity of perception from the viewpoint of the beholder.