Prof. Gordon Johnston

FYS/FYX Writing Standards


Students often assume that an essay grade is the result of a series of penalties—ten points taken off for an agreement error, five for a misplaced comma, five for lack of support, etc.—but in this writing course that isn’t the case. I give you credit for what you do well rather than taking points off for errors because writing well is more than avoiding errors and playing it safe. That doesn’t mean your errors don’t affect your grade at all; since these errors keep you from communicating clearly and appropriately with your reader, they also keep you from earning high marks. Worse, they make you look ignorant to your readers.

Another assumption to avoid is the idea that writing is simply a means of putting down on paper what you already know. Hardly ever is the process that simple. More often writing is exploration—finding your way to what you truly think by trial and error. As E.M. Forster put it, “How can I know what I think until I see what I’ve said?” When you write, you discover the truth or you come to a deeper understanding of how or why something is true. If such discovery doesn’t happen you aren’t writing; you’re reporting or typing.

The last major assumption to lose is the idea that following grammatical and spelling standards (using standard written English) is stuffy and anal retentive, a violation of your freedom as a writer. These standards assure that you can communicate across geographical and generational boundaries with others who use your language. Without these standards Alabama and New Jersey would speak different languages. On a more personal level, these standards serve as a yardstick for intellect and education; an agreement error in a business letter is tantamount to burping out loud at a formal dinner.

The five major considerations in evaluating an essay:

1. Content
A. No thesis, weak thesis, or unarguable thesis
B. Thesis doesn’t address the topic
C. Insufficient evidence or other support used to back up argument(s)
D. No interpretation of quotations or other evidence
E. Insufficient development
F. Inaccurate details or quotations (or logical fallacy)

2. Organization
A. Dull, predictable organization (five paragraph theme, Webster’s defines...)
B. Paragraphs aren’t based on arguments that support thesis
C. Essay is repetitive
D. Paragraphs lack clear central points or arguments or a sense of progression

3. Style
A. Failure to use or incorrect use of MLA citation style
B. Reliance on dull “being,” linking, and passive voice verbs
C. Simplistic or choppy sentence structure
D. Lack of transition (between ideas or into quotations)
E. Wordiness
F. Synatx is impossible to follow

4. Grammar and Usage
A. Sentence fragment*
B. Fused sentence*
C. Comma splice*
D. Dangling participle
E. Subject-verb agreement*
F. Spelling*
G. Apostrophe error
H. Punctuation error
* More than two of these errors in any combination will result in an automatic failure.

Error correction: the most effective way to learn (and the most painful, unfortunately) is to make mistakes and then have to correct them. Commit yourself right now to going through every essay I return to you and revising all the errors you make, then ask me or the preceptor to check the result. At the end of the semester you will be glad you did.