Owning the Intangible: Possession, Theft, and (Mis)Appropriation of Ideas

On the Grading of Writing

As you progress through Grinnell, you will find that different faculty members have different perspectives on how to grade writing and what makes a particular essay deserve a particular grade. This short document is my attempt to describe my own perspective and to prepare you for the comments and grades you will soon receive.

When I grade your essays, I tend to look for three things: syntax, style, and substance. An ideal essay has correct syntax, elegant style, and powerful substance. Average essays (B or so) tend to be adequate in all three categories. Weak essays fail to satisfy me in at least one category. Outstanding essays have correct syntax and excel in style, substance, or both.

When I evaluate your syntax, I consider how well you adhere to the conventions and customs of the English language. While English is fairly malleable, there are limitations to this malleability. By staying close to conventions, you make your writing clearer and easier for your readers.

When I evaluate your style, I consider how well your essay flows. I tend to emphasize the structure of your argument and the transitions you make between parts of your essay. I also do my best to consider whether you have addressed your audience appropriately. As the semester progresses, I will also look for the various stylistic components that Williams discusses in Style.

Of course, a correct, elegant essay is nothing without some underlying substance. That is, I want to see an appropriate and interesting thesis, some good ideas, careful analysis of the texts we've read, and even a convincing argument. When I evaluate your substance, I often consider how well you've met the requirements of the assignment (if the assignment had particular requirements).

To help me evaluate your essays consistently, I will often rely on a rubric: a check-list of points to evaluate. The rubric helps me make sure that I have considered all of the appropriate points in your essay. Of course, I do not treat rubrics as limiting. I feel free to add other points even if they are not covered by the rubric at hand.

I prefer to make my comments electronically. If you email me documents, I am likely to insert them within the document. If you put your writing in the class Wiki, then I will make my comments in a copy of the page. In many cases, I will also give you printed comments or email you a my comments.

Like most of the faculty at Grinnell, I am a fairly strict grader. To earn an A on an essay, you must typically excel in at least one of the latter two categories. That is, you must either have excellent ideas and express them relatively well, or have particularly eloquent prose and reasonably good ideas. In all cases, your grammar must be correct. Particularly weak grammar, ideas, or style may give you a lower grade than you or I would like.



Monday, 6 September 1999 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Saturday, 23 August 2003 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Sunday, 21 August 2005 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]


Disclaimer: I usually create these pages on the fly, which means that I rarely proofread them and they may contain bad grammar and incorrect details. It also means that I tend to update them regularly (see the history for more details). Feel free to contact me with any suggestions for changes.

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Copyright © 2005-2010 Samuel A. Rebelsky. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 543 Howard Street, 5th Floor, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

Samuel A. Rebelsky, rebelsky@grinnell.edu