Teaching Writing with
a Criteria Checklist
Issues and Applications in a Magazine
- by Gerald Grow
Division of Journalism
- Florida A&M University
- Published in Journalism Educator,
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
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
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
_____ 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
_____ 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
_____ 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
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
for Making a Pot of
- Referenced Scoring
|Disconnects coffee pot
|Disassembles coffee pot
|Cleans components and pot
|Fills pot with water
|Fills basket with coffee
|Reconnects coffee pot
|Sets dial on coffee pot
|Announces that pot is ready
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
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
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
Files, James A. (Autumn, 1984). Checklist
expedites newswriting critique. Journalism Educator, 39 (3),
Geis, George L. (1984). Checklisting. Journal of Instructional
Development, 7 (1), 2-9.
Hunt, Doug. (1984). Teaching With a Purpose. Boston: Houghton
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, ccordinates the magazine
program at the Division of Journalism, Florida A&M University,
Tallahassee, FL 32307.
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/ggrow>