Teaching Writing with
a Criteria Checklist
Issues and Applications in a Magazine Course
- by Gerald Grow
- Division of Journalism
Florida A&M University
Published in Journalism Educator, Fall 1987.
Students in writing classes sometimes complain that they don’t know what they are being graded on. Behind that complaint lies an unstated request for a clear set of standards and some way to know how well they are meeting them. This is a reasonable request for many other subjects, but writing is an unusually complex activity involving many different interrelated skills. Magazine writing is even more complex, because writers of non-fiction magazine articles must tailor their materials to different audiences, write in a variety of established forms, enliven their work with techniques from fiction, and market what they write — in addition to having the skills of a good reporter and essayist.
A rating sheet which identifies the criteria for a good article can help. First, it can be used to call students’ attention to the parts of a well-written piece and the many different skills that go into it. Second, it can help isolate aspects of writing for students to focus on. Third, it makes an excellent tool for evaluating student’s writing in a way they can understand and make use of. And fourth, a good rating sheet can serve as a guide for the design of the course.
In making a criteria checklist, you have to decide first whether to take a positive or negative approach: Do you want the checklist to tell students what they did wrong or show them the desired goal and how close they came to it? In earlier issues of Journalism Educator Files (1984) and Seeger (1986) have described checklists for newswriting and feature writing, respectively. Although these checklists do identify some of the important elements of good writing, they are basically negative. Essentially, they enable the teacher to avoid having to write out the most common marginal critiques. The method resembles one we all know well–scribbling abbreviations like “AWK” and “FRAG” in the margin. Here are some items typical of the checklist described by Files:
Improper emphasis in lead
Error of fact
and by Seeger:
- CONT? — Contribution of passage to whole story is dubious
VIVID — Compliments a colorful passage
YAY! — Indicates interviewee is patting self on back too hard.
I have no argument with a negative checklist containing such items; they do help identify errors and simplify grading. But I will argue the need for another kind of checklist which establishes and maintains the context in which the negative checklist makes sense.
My checklist does not tell you what you did wrong; neither does it contain a series of steps that tell you “how to do it.” It describes instead the attributes of a successful performance–the qualities of a good article. A course on writing is likely to contain many procedures–“how to do it” segments–such as how to analyze a published article, how to focus a topic, how to copyedit your work, and the like. A course will also include feedback from the instructor on many of the details of writing–times when the instructor suggests improvements in the details of grammar, style, and method.
But students need a large-scale overview of the goal they are supposed to achieve. That is where this checklist–which could be called an “attribute,” “product,” or “criteria” checklist–comes in. In discussing it, I will draw gratefully on an excellent article by George L. Geis in the Journal of Instructional Development (1984), which summarizes research on checklists and their use in instruction.
The criteria checklist identifies skills students have to get good at, and it emphasizes stylistic details in the context of the larger elements of magazine writing. The emphasis is not primarily on the mechanics of writing but on a variety of skills necessary to the multiple-use sustained-yield freelancer. The checklist I use (shown in Table 1) lists 10 main categories, plus an 11th for mechanics of the manuscript.
A Criteria Checklist
For a Magazine Writing Course
Rate each item on a scale from 0 (Poor) to 10 (Great).
_____ 1. The topic is clearly focused, manageable; strongly presented in the title, subtitle, and opening; article develops topic without digressing.
_____ 2. The article has a title that attracts readers’ attention, a subtitle that helps them know what to expect, and an opening that draws them into the piece.
_____ 3. The article is clearly addressed to a specific magazine and audience.
_____ 4. The type of article (How To, Profile, Travel, etc.) is clear, well-chosen and well carried through.
_____ 5. The article contains correct facts and specific details that reflect that the author has done the necessary research. Attribution is handled well and gracefully.
_____ 6. The subject is featurized through effective use of anecdote, narration, quotation, characterization, description, humor, and emotional writing.
_____ 7. The body of the article is clearly organized to develop the topic in a natural way, making it easy to follow and recall.
_____ 8. Each paragraph has a controlling idea, solid detail, smooth transitions. Paragraphs display appropriate methods of development, such as narration, description, examples, comparison, classification, process analysis, definition, and persuasion.
_____ 9. The article has a definite and effective ending that satisfies the opening, the subject, and the treatment.
_____ 10. It is well written. It has sentence variety, good word choice, an appropriate and consistent tone. It is concise, grammatically correct, told at the right level of formality and technicality and uses terms consistently. The passive voice is used sparingly and skillfully.
_____ 11. The manuscript is in correct form. Errors have been corrected with proper copyediting marks.
I give students a typeset version of these 11 criteria in the form of a rating sheet, with a blank before each one so it can be rated on a scale of 0 (Poor) to 10 (Great).
Development of the Checklist
I developed the checklist by first asking how I could tell students what skills they need to write good articles, then extended the criteria by comparing them with the advice given in numerous books on rhetoric, composition, and magazine writing. (I found particularly helpful the set of written standards Doug Hunt describes in Teaching With a Purpose, 1984.) I then asked several colleagues to comment on the list, and, finally, I tested the usefulness of the checklist in several writing classes. Later in this article, I will suggest an entirely different method for deriving a checklist for a writing course.
So far, students and colleagues have found this checklist a plausible tool. I still have hope, however, of finding someone who vigorously opposes it, because (as Geis points out) part of the beauty of a specific checklist is its ability to provoke disagreement and discussion among experts.
This checklist, like any description of the elements of good writing, is somewhat provisional and must change to reflect changing knowledge of writing, new approaches to teaching, new demands from editors, and the goals of each specific course. As examples of change, in the past decade many teachers have shifted from teaching the “rules” of writing to teaching writing as a “process,” and editors of many magazines have shifted to shorter, more people-centered articles.
What follows is a description of how I have used the criteria checklist in teaching magazine article writing.
The Checklist in Evaluation
Evaluation of a published article. I pass out the criteria sheet early in the term, asking students not to write on this copy and to bring the sheet to every class. As a first exercise with it, I ask them to select a successful article from a national publication, rate it according to each of the criteria, and come prepared to give examples of each of the criteria–drawn from the article they studied. This exercise usually produces some surprise as students come to realize that a successful article must do a great many things well and that successful authors nearly always meet all the criteria to a high degree.
Evaluation of an imperfect article. Next, I give them an article in which the author does not meet all the criteria equally well–usually chosen from a local student publication. We name and discuss what the author has done well and badly and talk about how the piece could have been improved.
Evaluation of one another. When they turn in their first assignments, I ask them to proofread one another’s work. For the second assignment, I ask them to go further–to evaluate one another’s work according to each item on the criteria sheet and to discuss that evaluation with the author. This helps them see what other students are doing, it helps them see their own work more objectively, and it prepares them for the evaluation I will make of their work.
Teacher evaluation of student work. Evaluating student writing is a constant challenge. Writing teachers have difficulty deciding what to critique and may focus on grammatical errors at the expense of other elements of writing. Students may feel that teachers criticize them for unimportant details and miss the strong points of their writing. The criteria sheet helps establish just what you expect students to work toward and how well you think they are doing. Most students seem grateful to have the criteria spelled out, even when you tell them this is only an approximation.
Before the first assignment in my course, I ask to see a sample of the student’s best writing. I do not grade this, but when I give it back, I give my overall impressions, then evaluate it according to each item in the criteria sheet–identifying each area of strength and weakness. This tells students in detail what I think of their writing and where I think it needs improvement.
As they turn in work, I continue to evaluate it using the criteria checklist, so they always know what they are being judged on. No student is ready to be evaluated on all criteria equally at the start of the course, so I tell they which ones to focus on. Certain criteria, such as number 3 (audience) cannot be judged at all until we have covered them in class.
Self-evaluation. On later assignments, I require students to turn in a self-evaluation with each paper–using the criteria sheet to indicate what they think they did well and badly. The criteria sheet also serves as a guide for revising their own work before they turn it in.
The Checklist in Course Design
Course organization. The criteria checklist serves as a course outline–not an outline of course sequence, but an outline of course content. I often use it by keying specific classes to items on the checklist (“Next time we will discuss types of articles, number 4 on the list”). It provides a constant reminder to me and to the students of just what the course is about. By giving names to the most important elements of good writing, the checklist helps students stay focused. Gradually, they build up categories of perception around these named criteria, and they develop the ability to discuss their own writing, the writing of their peers, and published writing more intelligently and more helpfully. It may even make them better writers.
Exercises. By suggesting ways of breaking down the elements of good magazine writing, the criteria checklist generates exercises for me by something akin to spontaneous combustion. It is not difficult to invent exercises on focusing a topic, writing openings, tailoring the treatment to the audience, and so on. With the checklist in hand, you can also comb through composition texts to see what exercises others have devised for teaching the same skills. And, as always, the list helps students keep the big picture in mind, by reminding them that in any given exercise they are working on one of a number of interrelated skills that point toward better writing.
Self-directed learning. Highly-motivated, self-directed students can begin at once to use the criteria sheet to teach themselves to write better. Merely by naming item 8 to a gifted student, for example, you will set that student’s mind working on paragraphs, noticing paragraphs, practicing paragraphs, and analyzing published paragraphs. For students who are looking for insight into what makes better writers, the criteria sheet opens 11 important doors to explore on their own.
Weighted Scoring of the Checklist
Throughout the course, I remind students that all the elements must combine so that the article succeeds as a whole. Although the checklist can be used to assign a numerical score to a piece of writing, good writing is not a numbers game. If you do nine out of ten things right, that doesn’t mean the article is 90% perfect; certain criteria can be crucial. If a student writes “perfectly” about a technical topic but has done no research, for example, the article may fail completely.
Illustrating a similar point, R. F. Mager gave an memorable example of the different results you get when you rate a checklist in two different ways (see Table 2).
Two Ways of Scoring a Checklist
for Making a Pot of Coffee
|Disconnects coffee pot||10||Yes|
|Disassembles coffee pot||10||Yes|
|Cleans components and pot||10||Yes|
|Fills pot with water||10||Yes|
|Fills basket with coffee||0||No|
|Reconnects coffee pot||10||Yes|
|Sets dial on coffee pot||10||Yes|
|Announces that pot is ready||10||Yes|
(Adapted from Mager, 1973)
The “oops, no coffee!” problem occurs when a student does everything well except the most important thing. Some students have a similar problem in writing.
Some students have a hard time learning that a good freelance writer has to do so many things well. Although editors will accept (and correct) a certain amount of slippage from the criteria for a good article, they expect high performance in almost all areas and competent performance in the rest. When teaching with a checklist, you have to make sure students don’t make the “oops, no coffee!” mistake that comes from doing nearly all the important things well.
The Student-Developed Checklist
Acting as teacher, writer, and expert, I developed the checklist described in this article. You could develop a writing checklist, however, in an entirely different manner. As Geis suggested, students can participate in all stages of developing the checklist. Indeed, you could design a course around developing criteria for good news writing, magazine writing, newspaper feature writing, technical writing, environmental writing, etc. As they studied examples, students could create a master checklist of the criteria for good work.
Then that checklist could be used both to identify what they need to learn and to evaluate how well they did on each component. As Geis puts it, “As a checklist is developed, the content of the ‘course’ involves developing understanding and proficiency in all the areas to which it refers.”
Using the “discovery” approach to identifying what makes good writing, students would be more likely to gain expertise in one crucial area that is undervalued in most courses. They would, I think, be more likely to internalize the standards of good writing after uncovering those for themselves. Guiding students in discovery learning, however, requires special skills, and students in the action-oriented atmosphere of journalism school may have trouble recognizing that they are learning anything at all.
The checklist described in this article grew out of an attempt to answer some of the fundamental questions of instructional design for a course on magazine writing: What do students need to learn to do? How will you (and they) know when they have done it well?
Although I expect the checklist to keep evolving as I use it (I am already doubtful about assigning equal weight to each of the 11 criteria), it has already proved useful in organizing a magazine writing course, developing exercises, and evaluating student work. It has also helped students celebrate what they are doing well, identify where to focus their improvement, and recognize what goes into a piece of good writing. An interesting course of a different kind could be designed around the development, in class, of the students’ own checklist of the criteria for good writing.
Files, James A. (Autumn, 1984). Checklist expedites newswriting critique. Journalism Educator, 39 (3), 27-28.
Geis, George L. (1984). Checklisting. Journal of Instructional Development, 7 (1), 2-9.
Hunt, Doug. (1984). Teaching With a Purpose. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Mager, R. F. (1973). Measuring Instructional Intent. Belmont, CA: Lear Siegler/Fearon Publishers.
Seeger, Arthur. (Autumn, 1986). Use a checklist for features. Journalism Educator, 41 (3), 45-47.
Gerald Grow, PhD, coordinated the magazine program at the Division of Journalism, Florida A&M University, from 1985 till 2009.
How to cite this article:
Grow, Gerald. (1987). Teaching Writing with a Criteria Checklist: Issues and Applications in a Magazine Course. Journalism Educator. Available online at <http://www.longleaf.net>