I’m grading papers Sunday night–a tradition in my household. And I thought I might make some of my grading tips available to everyone out there in the rest of the world.
1) Make it interesting–various writing habits make your writing boring and stiff. This is hard and aggravating to teachers. And you the student don’t want to make your teacher aggravated. Don’t waste words. Use punchy action verbs. And use some rhetorical devices to mix your language some. Mix up your verbal phrasings so you aren’t stuck always saying, “Be” “Is” “Have” “Got” etc. If you are doing creative writing, find a storyline that’s interesting to you and it will probably be more interesting to the teacher too.
2) Put some thought into it–instead of reverting to “zombie typing mode” reflect on the assignment, dig underneath the question, consider the prompt from 2 or 3 different angles. Quite often it takes just a little reflection to set your paper above the rest since most students are trying to conserve mental energy like it’s water in California. Nah, indulge your mental energies like it’s water in the ocean.
3) Aim for the teacher’s target–you don’t want to waste your energy answering the wrong question. Make sure you understand what the assignment is about, what the prompt is, and what your teacher’s expectations are. Is this an argument paper or an opinion paper? Does the teacher want you to take a side or just discuss the different sides? Do they want formal citations, or just brief referencing?
1) Avoid abbreviations (unless your teacher gives you explicit permission)–this is especially bad if you slip text lingo into your formal school paper. No TTYL, or LOL, or OMG unless you are a fan of C’s, D’s, and F’s.
2) Find out how to refer to things–If you are writing a paper about Islam don’t force yourself to always say “Followers of Islam.” It’s okay to a call such a person a “Muslim.” Using awkward elongated references makes the student look unfamiliar with the subject.
3) Prefer active phrasing over passive–Passive phrasing is something that strong writers avoid (do you see what I did there?). Strong writers aim to keep the verbal objects in their proper place, after the subject and verb. Think: Subject-Verb-Object. Passive phrasing is confusing and awkward since it puts the Object in front of the verb. The verb is the action of the sentence and so, to make your sentence feel more energized and powerful, you want to keep it early in your sentences.
4) Prefer powerful verbs over adverbs–Instead of saying, “He quickly ran” just say “He bolted” or “He sprinted” or “He hustled.” All of these keep the essence of the adverb-verb without including the stale and boring verb “ran”
5) Prefer present tense over past tense–Present tense and perfect tense phrasings feel immediate and engaging. Past tense phrasings tend to feel distant leaving the audience less connected to your writing. When writing about historical matters, you can often transition the audience into a bygone era with a good introductory phrase, “The year is 1864. Vast heartlands recently tilled with boot and knife have been drenched with the blood of over half a million Americans. . . ”
6) Avoid redundancy–When you use similar or identical phrasing across your paper, it should be poetic and intentional or strike it out. Usually, students repeat phrases because they did not think to nuance a concept at the second pass. If you are spending 5 lines in a 50 line paper mentioning Huck Finn, why not use different references for him each time to nuance your characterization such as, “The boy,” “Rascal,” “Precocious pup,” “Little Rebel,” “Southerner.”
7) Beware of Open Questions–Open Questions can be a great rhetorical tool, but the are dangerous when used incorrectly. In argument papers and discursive writing open questions leave the audience free to “answer” your question in a way that you don’t want. You can use open questions when there is only one possible answer, but if there are other answers, it undermines the reading flow. The reader may contemplate how he or she would answer your question, and only 4 lines later, still reading your paper, has the reader tuned back into what you are saying.
8) Avoid Overstatements–Everyone always exaggerates things. Wait. No they don’t! We often exaggerate things with larger-than-life expressions, but in doing so, we can artificially inflate our case leaving us open to rebuttal. Insert fitting qualifiers like “Sometimes,” “often,” “generally,” “usually,” or “in a manner of speaking,” or “one could say that . . . ”
9) Source it–For your academic writing to be powerful it needs credibility. This means that your words are worthy of belief. But if the only thing supporting your words your admission that, “I feel that x is true” or “I think that y is right.” The baseless opinions of high school and middle school students weighs nearly nothing in the academic world. That’s not to say their opinions don’t count or they aren’t worthy of hearing. Opinions are fine for entertainment, socializing, and sharing your feelings. But it takes more than opinion to establish factual truth and academically important ideas. When you make claims in your papers, especially when they are not common knowledge or they are contentious it becomes increasingly more important (across your growth into grade levels) that you back up your opinions with authoritative references. If you say that “C.S. Lewis was a boring writer with nothing new to say” that’s easily dismissed in the academic world as another uninformed opinion from a high schooler who’s read exactly 20% of only one Lewis book. But if a celebrated literary critic says the same thing, then you should cite that person. Undoubtedly he or she will lend credibility so that your report or paper carries more weight.
10) Proofread, Proofread, Proofread–just when you think you’ve finished your paper. Step away from it, at least 30 mins, if not a whole day, and then return and proofread it. Nearly every time you’ll find that you made a mistake like switching their/there/they’re or mispellings that are still words like this/his or that/hat. One of the main reasons for proofreading is cutting out superfluous words. High schoolers are notorious for trying to “beef” up the word count but all it does is replace meaty thinking with elongated expressions for fewer ideas. Cut the fat. Clean it up. And season this dish with some thoughtful and creative communication.