I sighed as I put down the last essay. I knew that Justin was an excellent verbal communicator, but the essays I had just read were awful. Although they were mechanically perfect with all the capitals in place, pronouns in agreement, and clauses properly punctuated, the papers were completely lifeless. Most of them sounded like a bad paraphrase of an encyclopedia entry, or a sixth grader’s summary in a book report.

Justin’s mom had brought his papers to me because she felt that his writing didn’t measure up to his verbal communication skills, but she wasn’t sure what was missing. As a writing coach and evaluator, this is something I often see. Students become competent in lower-level writing skills such as mechanics, but fail to move beyond the basics to master quality content and writing. Instead, they churn out quantities of what I call perfectly parsed piffle—writing that takes up space and looks as if it addresses the topic, but fails to say anything of substance.

Perfectly parsed piffle can be the result of several things. It can happen because the student or the instructor doesn’t understand the difference between a report and an essay; it can be the result of a poorly conceived or poorly written writing assignment; it can happen when the student hasn’t received meaningful and instructive feedback on previous work; and occasionally, it’s simply the result of low expectations on the part of the instructor.

In order for a student to write well, he or she needs to know the qualities of good writing, the purpose of the paper (narrative, descriptive, persuasive, expository), and the standards of evaluation. In Justin’s case, I knew that he had a solid academic background with plenty of reading, and he was an articulate young man, so there wasn’t necessarily a problem with information he was receiving. After further discussion with Justin and his mom, it became clear that the problem stemmed largely from confusion about expectations, coupled with poorly constructed essay assignments and compounded by the difficulty of providing meaningful evaluations.

These problems were easily addressed, and once Justin and his mom had the same understanding and expectations of writing and evaluation, his writing assignments improved dramatically. To help them reach this point, I took them through several steps that you can follow if you’d like to avoid reading perfectly parsed piffle.

An Essay is More Than Just a Report

First, we went back to the basics and talked about the difference between writing a report and writing an essay. A report provides information about something, while an essay takes a position or makes a point on a specific topic. Essays require higher-level thinking, while reports are more elementary. As I often tell my students, a report tells “what,” but an essay tells “why.” Although the papers Justin had turned in were supposed to be essays, they were actually reports, because he hadn’t drawn any conclusions or taken a position on the assigned issue. It was apparent that we needed to study some model essays so that the differences would become apparent.

To find well-written essays to use as models, we turned to the Opinion pages of the local newspaper and read several of the syndicated columns. Most of these columns are written as position papers (another name for an essay), and you can often find two articles on the same topic that support opposing viewpoints. These can be excellent examples of the argumentative or persuasive essay.

As Justin and his mom read each of the model essays, I asked them to notice the tone, structure, and style of each essay, and to note how these elements contributed to the author’s position. At this point, they were both getting excited as they realized that essays were more than just pointless writing exercises. They had a purpose, and the way in which they were written was an important part of communicating that purpose.

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, www.Everyday-Education.com]

Justin reached for the rubric and looked at the goals. “You mean that I get one of these for each paper, and I can see exactly where I’m doing well and where I need to improve?” He seemed pleased at the idea. “It will help a lot to know what kind of standards I’m trying to meet and how far I have to go. It seems a lot easier than just trying to ‘make the paper more interesting!’”

They both studied the rubric for a few minutes, then Justin’s mom commented, “Okay, I think I can do this. Are there specific steps I need to follow when I evaluate a paper?”

Just as the rubric makes it easy to know what to look for in a paper, an orderly sequence of steps helps ensure that you don’t forget anything. It also helps the student to realize that the first paper he turns in is always a rough draft, subject to improvement. I divide the evaluation steps into two parts. The first evaluation is for the first draft, and the second evaluation is for the final, completed paper. You may occasionally want to repeat the first evaluation steps for more than one draft—for a college admissions essay, for example—but one evaluated draft is usually adequate.

Steps to a Constructive Evaluation

     •   Evaluate the first draft of a paper on content and organization only. There is no point in dealing with style or mechanics goals until the content and ideas have been fully developed.

     •   Read quickly through the paper. What is your overall impression?

     •   Are the ideas and content carefully considered, well supported, and thoughtfully organized, with textual support where appropriate?

     •   Are individual parts of the essay (thesis, supporting evidence, conclusion) or story (characters, plot, setting) included and properly functional?

     •   Look for clarity of expression in each idea or example. Unclear prose is a reflection of unclear thinking!

     •   Check basic assignment details—essay question answered, correct length, etc.

     •   For the final draft, evaluate all goals, beginning with content, then style, and finally, mechanics.

     •   Re-evaluate the paper, following the five steps of the first evaluation.

     •   Check style, mechanics, and presentation goals using the rubric to provide specific, targeted feedback for each goal.

As we finished our conversation, Justin and his mom seemed to feel much more confident. With their new understanding of the difference between an essay and a report, and their realization of the underlying purpose of communication in any writing assignment, they were both committed to the elimination of perfectly parsed piffle from future papers. With the help of carefully crafted essay prompts and constructive evaluations, Justin’s written communication skills would soon be equal to his verbal abilities.

If you apply these writing and evaluation principles in your homeschool, I think you’ll be amazed at the improvement in your students’ communication skills. When students understand exactly what is expected, and how they will be evaluated, they are much more likely to communicate successfully. And when you have the tools you need to measure progress, you’ll be able to give the kind of feedback that helps the student grow.

Writing evaluation is a communication tool that can build not only writing skills, but also relationships. Teaching and evaluating writing is a challenge, but with practice, you and your student can learn to communicate with ease and grace. You’ll never wade through perfectly parsed piffle again! 


Janice Campbell, author of Transcripts Made Easy, Get a Jump Start on College! and the forthcoming Excellence in Literature series, is the Director of the National Association of Independent Writing Evaluators (http://www.NAIWE.com). She homeschooled her four sons from kindergarten into college and has been writing and speaking in central Virginia since the late 1980s. Be sure to visit www.Everyday-Education.com for a free, printable version of her writing evaluation rubric, as well as more articles and resources.

This article was originally published in the Sep/Oct ’08 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more great homeschool help, download our FREE report—The Secret to Homeschooling Freedom! Click here to download: http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com/resources/report.htm