Writing: Rubric and Composition

Joseph Reagle


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The goal

Writing assignments are opportunities to show your:

  1. understanding of material, and
  2. skills, especially analytic and writing abilities.

Exercise the material so as to show your knowledge and skills.


Engagement of assignment, sources, and concepts might be:

grade meaning
A impressive/exemplary
B many strengths; some weaknesses
C strengths marred by weaknesses
D weaknesses dominate (any) strengths
F fails major requirements

Engagement ☑


Understanding of class sources and concepts might be:

grade meaning
A impressive/exemplary
B many strengths; some weaknesses
C strengths marred by weaknesses
D weaknesses dominate (any) strengths
F fails major requirements

Understanding ☑


Writing might be:

grade meaning
A polished
B clear and competent
C choppy and difficult to follow
D fractured and unclear
F unacceptable

Writing ☑

Signal phrases

In APA, use signal phrases and the author, not the article title, as your subject.

According to Jones (1998), “Silky terriers are soft” (p. 19).

Jones (1998) found “silky terriers are soft” (p. 19).

She stated, “Silky terriers are soft” (Jones, 1998, p. 19), but didn’t explain why.

APA citations

—See APA cheat-sheet and self quiz


Wikipedia should not be cited as an authoritative source for a claim unless appearing in the syllabus.

—See The Why and How of Bibliography

Good essays

Instructions checklist ☑

Heinrich "Milo" Steinborn lifting weights

Active voice

Lotteries are offered by many state governments so that services can be funded.

Use subjects to name characters; use verbs to name important actions; place them both earlier in the sentence.

Many state governments offer lotteries to fund their services.

—See Explorations of Style Clear subjects and strong verbs

“I statements”

The “4Cs”


  1. start: snappy and engaging
  2. thesis: argue or answer
  3. framing: what is to follow
  4. support: of thesis (i.e., argument/answer/analysis)
  5. conclusion: a concise restatement of thesis and its support; tie-in to snappy start

—See OWL on structure

Snappy start


A good thesis does NOT “consider,” “describe,” “discuss,” or “explore.” Instead, it:

—See OWL: Strong Theses

Example intro

“According to the 2008 US Census, Massachusetts had a total of 141,843 business organizations…. I argue that although small businesses are often overlooked, they do still exhibit important facets of organizational culture. I will focus on the application of The Zen of Groups, Geert Hofstede’s power distance, and theories of organizational behavior to my experiences in these settings. Providing concrete instances of these theories will offer a solid understanding of the ever changing and complex environments of contemporary business organizations.”

snappy startthesisframe.

Example structure

Heavy concepts in intro

In the first few introductory paragraphs, be wary of using special terms that need explanation.

For instance, instead of using intrinsic and extrinsic in the first paragraph, speak of motivation more generally (or give the quickest of parenthetical explanations).

Analytic concepts

Don’t imply your analytic concepts have agency.

The phenomenal theory would look at …

Theories don’t look at anything.

. . .

The creators of these ads use the theory of ideology …

The creators haven’t given any thought to the theory.

Write, print, revise

“The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” —Mark Twain

“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”—Justice Louis Brandeis

How to write

Harbrace College Handbook (1990)

“A woman without her man is nothing”?

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

—Sources: Hacker’s (2010, 5th) A Pocket Style Manual and Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.


Strive for clarity in underlying thought and its expression.

Getting feedback from others helps.

—See OWL:Clarity


Visitors are warned to take every precaution to avoid accidents

Remove redundancies, empty or inflated phrases (“very”), and needlessly complex structures (strings of prepositional phrases)

—See OWL:Eliminating Words, Williams’ concision, and Tony1’s exercises

eg trim

Fiat, an Italian car manufacturer, came out with a commercial that launched a new commercial this year during the 2012 Super Bowl.

superfluous: “came out” and “launched”; “this year” and “2003”

ex. tighten a few sentences (7min)

Complete five of Tony1’s exercises (of varied difficulty).


Which ones did you have difficulty with?

Did you get an “aha” moment from any?


— See SFU: Better Sentences and Explorations of Style Clear subjects and strong verbs


Each paragraph should be a discrete & coherent thought—even if, occasionally, it’s only a sentence or two.

If your draft is disorganized, create a reverse outline of your paragraphs and think about how to reorganize. Use the outline to then improve your thesis, framing, and conclusion.

—See Explorations of Style on paragraphs and reverse outline


Use organic and motivating transitions between paragraphs; avoid abrupt shifts or enumerating a recipe/list.


¶ First I read the census data … ¶ Then I looked at was Smith et al. (2013) …


¶ Despite this census data, Smith et al. (2013) claim…

Balance parallel ideas

Balance items in the series by using them in parallel grammatical form.

Running, swimming, and lifting weights are all examples of cross-training workouts.

—See OWL:Parallel Structure

Shift in tense

Don’t confuse the reader by beginning in one tense and shifting into another.

I couldn’t fight the current and make it. As I was losing hope, a woman sees saw me and threw me a flotation ring.

—See OWL:Verb Tense Consistency

Misplaced modifiers

Almost, even, only, nearly, and just should appear in front of the words they modify.

Phasers only destroy only the aliens, leaving the nearby humans safe.

—See OWL:Misplaced modifiers

Misplaced (distant) phrases or clauses

On the walls there are pictures of singers who have performed at Tony’s on the walls.

The singer weren’t performing on the walls; the pictures were on the walls.

Unclear pronouns

Ensure pronouns have a single clear referent—especially “it” at the start of sentences.

Take the radio out of the car. It’ll sell then.

. . .

Sell the old car after removing the new radio.

Subordinate clauses

Subordinate clauses looks like a sentence, with a subject & verb, but indicates it can’t stand alone via: after, although, because, before, if, so that, that, though, unless, until, when, where, who, or which.

They can be pulled into a sentence nearby.

Patricia arrived on the island of Malta. Where where she was to spend the summer restoring frescoes.

—See OWL:Sentence Fragments

Fragmented phrases

Fragments lack a subject, a verb, or both. They can often be attached to a nearby sentence.

The anthropologists work slowly . Examining examining and labeling hundreds of bone fragments.

The word group beginning with Examining is a verbal phrase, not a sentence.

The comma

—See OWL:Commas: Quick Rules & Punctuation Guide

Independent nonrestrictive clause

Use comma when independent (i.e., distinct subjects).

Nearly everyone has heard of love at first sight, but I fell in love from a distance.

Do not use when the clauses are dependent.

Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program and envisioned a future beyond simple calculation.

Coordinate adjectives

You can use a comma between coordinate adjectives (which modify nouns separately & can be replaced with an ‘and’.)

Patients with severe, irrecoverable brain damage should not be put on life support.

Patients with severe and irrecoverable brain damage should not be put on life support.

Cumulative adjectives

Do not use commas between cumulative adjectives.

He bought a bright red car.

It was not dark red but bright red.

Nonrestrictive clause

A nonrestrictive phrase is not essential and needs commas.

The shark, with its jaws full of teeth, circled below.

A restrictive phrase is essential and is without commas.

One corner of the basement was filled with magazines from the 1970s.

Restrictive appositive

An appositive is a (pro)noun that renames a nearby noun.

Nonrestrictive with commas:

Darwin’s book, The Descent of Man , was controversial.

Restrictive without commas:

The song “Vertigo” was blasted out of speakers ten feet tall.

The colon

The colon follows an independent clause to highlight the words that follow (e.g., a list, an appositive, or a quotation).

Punctuation within quotation marks

In American English, periods/commas go inside quotation marks; colons/semicolons outside; question/exclamation marks go inside unless they apply to the sentence as a whole.

He said, “I won’t go.”

In APA, a period follows the citation.

… the ‘end’ of a quote” (p. 53).

—See OWL: Punctuation when Using Quotation Marks

The dash

The hyphen (-), en-dash (–), and em-dash (—) are distinct things.

—See Grammarly: What’s the difference?

Glossary of usage

—See WW Norton’s Glossary of Usage


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