E 316 K Masterworks of American Literature skip navigational links and go to contentCourse

An Organic Approach to Writing

Marking Up Papers

Remember: you’re not “correcting” papers– showing the writing every error that he or she made. Papers that bleed red ink only please cruel teachers and humiliate students. You’re trying to help students become better readers, writers, and thinkers. You need to be able to justify everything you do in those terms.

Don’t zoom in on the details right away. Step back and look at the writer’s whole argument in his or her own terms.

In descending order of importance, consider these questions:

1. Can you easily determine what is the argument here and why is it important?
2. Does the essay maintain a consistent focus on that argument or does it stray off its stated or implied purpose?
3. Is the development of the argument clear, purposeful, and substantial?

Clear: you can see a progression from one point to the next
Purposeful: each paragraph has a discernible function in developing that argument
Substantial: sufficient support and explanation is shown to the reader

4. Does the writer maintain coherence between paragraphs? between sentences?
5. Do individual sentences convey their meaning clearly?
6. Are individual words used properly? Are they le mot juste?

Once you’ve reached the primary point of concern for that paper, there’s no real point in going on to the next criteria. What has been written will only change if the student revises fully and effectively.

Make comments that refer the student back to the 2-page paper handout and the grading guide. This is what we told the students we wanted. Anything else will be perceived as a bait and switch. You want to include three things in your comments:

1. Tell students what they have done well
2. Point out where and how their arguments break down (personally, I think coherence is the single greatest criteria to focus on)
3. Suggest what students can do to take their paper to the next level (e.g., “you need to find specific support in the text to substantiate your claim that …,” or, “you say that you’re going to talk about Hooper’s hypocrisy but instead you focus on ...,” or, “you might want to take a look at poem #679 to see how Dickinson ..., or, “you might be interested in reading …”)

Reward what’s there and try not to read the paper that you think the student meant to write. The harder you have to work as a reader to supply what’s not there, the weaker the paper.

When you go over the papers with your class, reverse the order of the above criteria--go from least important to most, explaining each along the way. Always hand back the papers at the very end of class. Nothing kills a class quicker than giving back papers. And once they get them, they’ll stop listening to whatever you’re saying. Going over the criteria before you hand back the papers means you have a captive audience. If you have conferences withs students about their papers, the conference should not take more than ten minutes. Look at the descriptions of conferences on the grading guide for a sense of what should go on in a conference.

How to Respond to Student Papers

    We ask people to think, and we don’t show them what thinking is. Somebody says we don’t need to show them how to think; bye and bye they will think. We will give them the forms of sentences and, if they have any ideas, then they will know how to write them. But that is preposterous. All there is to writing is having ideas. To learn to write is to learn to have ideas. (Robert Frost in "Education by Poetry," 1931)

    Content precedes form and writing is not words and sentences but ideas which are honed into thoughts.
    (Donald Murray in A Writer Teaches Writing, 1966)


    "My teachers in high school said I wrote beautifully."
    "I never got anything but an A on an English paper before your class."
    "But this is how I feel and you should understand that."
    "My secretary will know how to spell."
    "I don’t know what you want."
    "I had writer’s block. I can’t be expected to write something when I lose my spontaneity."
    "I don’t revise. I hope you’ll respect that."

1. Immediately. Though it is helpful at times for the student to put a paper aside for a while and come back to it, it is rarely helpful to have a paper written in October carefully corrected and marked up in December. It is better to have it returned when the writing is fresh in the student’s mind with one perceptive comment. But how does a writing teacher who sees numerous errors on a paper do that?

2. As a diagnostician, not a judge. Writing teachers must not be judges, but physicians. Most students are bad writers, but the more serious the injuries, the more confusing the symptoms, the greater the need for effective diagnostic work. When an accident victim is carried into the hospital emergency ward, the doctor does not start treating the patient at the top and slowly work down without a sense of priority, spending a great deal of time on the black eye before getting to the punctured lung. Yet that is exactly what the English teacher too often does. We writing teachers must train ourselves to be expert diagnosticians. We want to spot the most critical problem in each student’s writing to give that student a prescription which will be effective. If we look at a paper which is covered with red, we will usually find that twelve or fifteen of the problems are really symptoms of one problem. A student, for example, who has not given order to his views, who is illogical in his structure, will run into all sorts of problems in syntax. Confused and complex syntax usually is an attempt to fit information in where it doesn’t belong. If the student has this problem diagnosed and is taught how to think out what he wants to say before he says it, then his papers may clear up overnight, they may become clean and direct. The good diagnostician will know the student did not have a problem in grammar, although he was writing ungrammatically; he had a problem in thinking, because he was not thinking logically (from Donald Murray).

3. Individually. Continuing with the metaphor...a doctor does not diagnose a neighborhood, even in the case of an epidemic. Penicillin may work for most people, but there are those who are allergic to penicillin. So even when there seems to be an epidemic in the classroom, the teacher must treat each student individually. We can handle many more students effectively when we think about responding in this way: we are not trying to identify and correct every fault on a paper; we are not trying to cover every point in a conference. We are trying to find one central problem on each paper and prescribe a treatment. When we see that a number of students are having the same problem, then we will develop a class presentation which will show the students that problem clearly, individually, separating it from all other problems, and then we will show ways that problem may be treated. The teacher of writing is a teacher of a skill. We do not try to make classes march to some abstract and theoretical goal. We try to teach each student by diagnosing the most critical problems and prescribing an effective treatment.

4. In a variety of ways. We can respond in writing on the individual paper, on an audio tape provided by the student, via email, in an individual conference, through holistic portfolios, and in a full class discussion that focuses on one student’s paper. Through all of these methods, though, writing teachers must offer the students strategies for the suggested improvements.

5.With the intention of making students independent writers. The ultimate test of the skill of the teacher as a diagnostician comes when we have trained our students to be their own diagnosticians. Before we give our own diagnosis, we should ask the students to volunteer descriptions of their own writing problems and listen to their answers.

6. Throughout the process--prewriting, drafting, revising.

7. Without grades. The student should be graded halfway through the course and at the end of the course, according to Donald Murray. The teacher should remember that the students in the writing course must develop the ability to evaluate their own accomplishments, to spot their own problems, and to correct them. The writing paper is not corrected by the teacher. The teacher discovers the students’ main problems and shows them a way of solving those problems. Then the papers are corrected by the students, who revise them in such a way that the problems are solved and the papers become effective pieces of writing.

8. Without defacing the page. It is easy to be overwhelmed and discouraged when we are faced with students who make multiple errors in writing, who have twenty-three separate, identifiable problems in a single page. The case seems hopeless, but the expert diagnostician will reduce most of those problems to one or two central ailments, and then will treat the most serious one first. By establishing priority we will gain control over our course. We will not have to spend hours on each paper written by the student; we will look quickly at the paper to see if that one central problem is being solved. If it is, then we can identify another problem; if it isn’t we prescribes a new treatment or a repeated treatment. The time we spend on papers and with students will be cut down radically. Most papers do not require more than a quick reading, and most conferences require no more than a quick confrontation once a diagnosis has been made and until the problem is cured. The effective teachers identify the main problem in the paper to the student about the paper, or underline a repeated writing problem. Even this problem does not need to be identified each time it appears in the paper. The teacher should say to the student, "These are four vague, generalized statements which mean nothing to the reader. You are giving a blank check to the reader and expecting her to fill it in. Now there are eight or ten other vague statements in the paper. Find them and revise the paper so that it does not have one vague, generalized statement in it." That paper has been corrected. There may have been other problems in the paper--spelling and syntax, logic--but at this time for this student the teacher felt that she must solve the problem of making vague, meaningless statements. Teachers who are going to cut down on the number of marks on the paper will have to stop measuring their own accomplishments by the amount of red on the page.

Cathy A. D'Agostino (1999)


Writing Is Not a Skill
Aronowitz, Stanley

Is "writing" a skill, an art, or a kind of critical literacy? Are its various forms-fiction, poetry, discourse, and argument, embodied in memos, papers, essays, and treatises mastered by learning techniques and rules? If writing is a skill, then it can be compared to the instrumental activity of tying a shoelace, replacing a light bulb, operating a computer, a lathe, or a photocopying machine. We seldom think about what is involved in these activities because, after repetitive use, they become habitual. But learning a skill takes time, particularly for the neophyte. One must find out how to turn on the machine before discovering how to retrieve the work from a hard disk and use the various commands on the screen properly. The lathe operator must learn how to put the metal or the wood into a chuck, the machine part that holds the work, before he gets started; the photocopier operator must know how to place the paper correctly on the surface of the photocopier in order to get the job done.

Writing, too, would be a skill if its mastery were confined to habituating the student to such mechanical features. To be sure, writing incorporates skills: the practitioner must learn to use a pen or pencil or master the mechanics of typing. And in the case of computer-driven word processing, there are a fair number of technical features of some complexity to be assimilated, compared to the relatively simple operation of a typewriter. Further, the formulation of a simple sentence, which embodies spelling, grammar, and syntax, has certain skill components.

But since semantic issues always intrude in writing, making meaning is not a skill but both an art and a form of critical learning. If writing is an art-since it entails thought, the adroit use of language, and rules of expression, none of which is mechanical in nature-the process of learning involves imagination, genuine knowledge, and more or less self-conscious familiarity with logical sequences. Even the most mundane memorandum that goes beyond mere conveyance of information – "The office will be closed today at 12:00 p.m. on Thursday, 31 December, for New Years Eve" - and instead makes a proposal for a course of action, or contests a course of action proposed by another, entails complexity and narrative coherence. Learning the formal apparatus of a memo is a necessary step, but only a first step. Almost everything else must be artfully as well as skillfully wrought, both with respect to its order and its rhetoric, for the object of the exercise is to persuade others of the rightness of one's perspective. In this sense, rhetoric must not be understood pejoratively but in the sense used by the Greeks: like logic, it is inextricably intertwined with argument. It involves careful choices of words, a sense of dramatic presentation, an awareness of the questions that might arise from some of the author s statements, the mood of the audience, and many other considerations.

Every good writing teacher is aware of these and many other issues. She knows that, however much the visual has become a cultural force, words retain their power, and those who are able to use them effectively - to tell stories, invent slogans, contrast arguments, and to paint word pictures that have visceral appeal - tend to acquire influence. In short, many writing teachers understand that the skills arc subordinate to the art of writing. And they understand that writing is not only a form of communication and expression but signifies a content itself, modifying and infusing all other forms of knowledge. The notion of "writing across the curriculum" demonstrates at all levels of schooling that some teachers have become convinced that the idea that knowledge acquisition is independent of its expression is untenable. Yet few framers of the undergraduate core seem to have taken these insights into account; they persist in using the term "skill" to describe the nature of writing. This term reflects the persistence of the rest of the curriculum to transmit a fixed, specialized body of knowledge acquired by the instructor in graduate school and to which he has become habituated. That a sociologist or economist should consider himself a writing teacher and a guide to close textual reading would embarrass most professors in these fields, except some who understand that reading and writing are properly learned at all levels of the academic system.

From The Knowledge Factory by Stanley Aronowitz. Copyright © 2000 by Stanley Aronowitz. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston

By Stanley Aronowitz, distinguished professor of sociology, Graduate Center, City University of New York

Copyright Association of American Colleges and Universities Fall 2003
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

Logic From Sheridan Baker, The Practical Stylist

A "logical fallacy" is an error of logic. Sometimes they're honest errors, but sometimes advertisers and politicians use them deliberately to persuade us to buy or vote without thinking through the decision. Learning the following patterns of faulty logic will help you avoid being swept up in faulty reasoning. There are many other named logical fallacies. The exercises below make a good start: they use the fallacies listed here.

1. Either-Or. You assume only two opposing possibilities: "either we abolish requirements or education is finished." Education will probably amble on, somewhere in between.

2. Oversimplification. As with either-or, you ignore alternatives. "A student learns only what he wants to learn" ignores all the pressures from parents and society, which in fact account for a good deal of learning.

3. Begging the Question. A somewhat unhandy term: You assume as proved something that really needs proving. "Free all political prisoners" assumes that none of those concerned has committed an actual crime.

4. Ignoring the Question. The question of whether it is right for a neighborhood to organize against a newcomer shifts to land values and taxes.

5. Non Sequitur. ("It does not follow.") "He's certainly sincere: he must be right." "He's the most popular fellow: he should be president." The conclusions do not reasonably follow from sincerity and popularity.

6. Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. ("After this, therefore because of this." ) The non sequitur of events: "He stayed up late and therefore won the race." He probably won in spite of late hours, and for other reasons.

7. False analogy. "You should choose your wife as you would your car." A person is not a machine, so that the analogy is unacceptable. (pp. 50-51)


After each of the following assertions, write two or three short questions that will challenge its assumptions, questions like "Good for what? Throwing? Fertilizer? For example: Girls are brighter than boys. "At what age? In chess? In physics?

1. Men are superior to women.
2. The backfield made some mistakes.
3. Communism means violent repression.
4. Don't trust anyone over thirty.
5. All men are equal.
6. The big companies are ruining the environment.
7. Travel is educational.
8. Our brand is free of tar.
9. The right will prevail.
10. A long walk is good for you.

Name and explain the fallacy in each of the following:

1. Jones is rich. He must be dishonest.
2. He either worked hard for his money, or he is just plain lucky.
3. The best things in life are free, like free love.
4. Sunshine breeds flies, because when the sun shines the flies are out.
5. If they have no bread, let them eat cake. Cake is both tastier and richer in calories.
6. This is another example of American imperialism.
7. Smith's canned soup empire reaches farther than the Roman empire.
8. Chips is America's most popular soup. It clearly is the best.
9. The draft is illegal. It takes young men away from their education and careers at the most crucial period of their lives. They lose thousands of dollars' worth of their time.
10. Women are the most exploited people in the history of the world.
11. Two minutes after the accused left the building, the bomb exploded.
12. The human mind is only an elaborate computer, because both can do complex calculations and make decisions (pp. 53-54).

Course Info | Archive | Campus Resources | Lecture Links | Forums| TA Pages

Send a Message to the Professor