Create an Essay Prompt That Does Its Job

After analyzing the different elements of our sample essays and how they worked together to communicate an idea, we turned to Justin’s essay assignments. Immediately, it became apparent that his writing assignments were a major part of the difficulty. For one history assignment, Justin was instructed to write a three-page paper on the causes of the Civil War. Another assignment instructed him to write a 1000-word essay evaluating Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. All the assignments given were far too broad and unfocused to be addressed at the assigned length.

For a student, it’s frustrating to receive an assignment so broad that that it leaves him with many decisions to make before he can start writing. Many encyclopedia-length books have been written on the causes of the Civil War, and among scholars, there are at least four major schools of thought as to the primary cause. Addressing the issue in only three pages (approximately 750 words) almost ensures that the paper will read just like a paraphrased encyclopedia entry. In addition, the prompt fails to ask for a position on the issue, so it’s an assignment for a report, rather than an essay.

A far better assignment would provide the student with a narrow, focused topic that would require a certain amount of in-depth research to develop a position. The research ensures that the student will have a wealth of detail at his fingertips so that the essay will be both interesting and informative. Chances are, if the student does the reading required to develop and support a position, he will become engaged in the topic. An interested, passionate writer tends to write interesting, readable prose, so this is certainly a worthy goal. If an essay prompt can be answered by a quick visit to the encyclopedia, it’s not a true essay prompt—it’s a question of fact or a report prompt, and will inevitably generate a bland, boring, thought-free paper.

Meaningful Evaluations Complete the Process

Finally, we discussed evaluations. One of the most intimidating parts of teaching writing is knowing how to provide useful feedback on written work. Not only is writing evaluation more time-consuming than checking answers for a math page, it also takes skill and practice to know what to look for and how to communicate clearly with a student so that he’ll know how to improve his work.

Like many teachers, Justin’s mom was confident in her ability to proofread his papers and point out mechanical errors. His pristine, mechanically perfect prose reflected her strength in this area. Unfortunately, in the list of important things that need to be evaluated in each essay, mechanics is easiest to evaluate, but it ranks last in importance. If a writer doesn’t have well-organized, high-quality content, it doesn’t matter how perfectly parsed it is—piffle is still piffle.

A writing evaluator should work more like an editor than a proofreader. An editor evaluates content and organization first, judging whether the topic is fully covered and whether the sequence of ideas is clear and logical. Once content and organization are under control, the editor turns to issues of style, and evaluates the writer’s voice, word choices, and sentence fluency. These are the ingredients that can elevate a paper from tedious to memorable. Finally, when all the essential parts of the essay are satisfactorily in place, the editor passes the article down to a proofreader, who does a final check for mechanical errors.

Justin’s mom began to look a little overwhelmed. “I know I can proofread,” she said, “but I’m not sure I’ll remember what to look for in the areas of content and style. I don’t know how to think like an editor!”

I wasn’t surprised at her concern—substantive evaluation sounds complicated and time-consuming at first. I had a secret weapon to share, though—a tool that professional teachers use to provide helpful feedback to classrooms full of students. This tool, called a rubric, is simply a descriptive checklist of the goals for each area of evaluation. The evaluator reads through the student’s paper, and on the rubric, assigns a score between one and five to each goal so that the student can see how closely his writing matches the goal and what he needs to do in order to improve. The rubric provides a simple, unchanging standard against which each area of the student’s writing can be consistently measured. It makes constructive feedback simple! [Editor’s Note: You can download a free copy of Janice’s writing evaluation rubric at her Web site,]