Evaluating a piece of writing? Consider a rubric

Working with a rubric can help you organize your thinking

When a piece of writing works well, everything coalesces into one beautiful whole. Conversely, when the writing falls short, it can sometimes be difficult to sort out from the tangle where it’s working and where not.

Thinking in terms of a few key aspects of writing — simple mechanics, sentence structure, flow of thought, structure and organization — can help you to organize your thinking, both for how you might comment on the piece and how you might help the writer improve. If you then formulate for yourself what those key aspects look like for your writing context across a five-point scale, with the midpoint of 3 being “good” or “average,” you’ll have constructed a rubric for use as a handy measure anytime you’re called upon to evaluate a piece of writing. As with an editing checklist, a rubric for writing quality is another tool to help you stay sharp and consistent across the different pieces you review. And as with an editing checklist, the rubric must be matched to the writing context. What might work well as a measure for writing of one type might not work at all for writing of another.

A general rubric for short-form nonfiction pieces

The following rubric is one I developed to organize thinking around writing shaped as essay, article, or blog post. So, nonfiction. Perhaps explainer, perhaps persuasive, perhaps narrative. I focused on the general aspects of writing shaped for these forms, not the more particular aspects of each type. (For example, the use of metaphor or analogy, the avoidance of logical fallacy, the use of narrative techniques.)

Mechanical correctness

Simple mechanical correctness is the most basic attribute of good writing. These are the aspects a reader is most likely to notice when not tidy and taken care of: caps, spelling, grammar, word choice, usage, punctuation.

A professional writer manages these aspects as a matter of course. Nothing should be out of place. When you are working with novice writers or with subject matter experts, you might find one or more of these basic attributes to be problematic.

Rubric 1 - mechanical correctness.png

Sentence structure and control

The next aspect of writing you might consider, after the basic mechanics, are the sentences themselves. Is the construction of individual sentences sound? How well does each sentence work to convey the thought intended? This is not yet how sentences work with one another, but rather how each one works individually. (In a piece that works well, those two aspects become fluid and intermingled. But it can be useful, in terms of evaluating and troubleshooting, to consider the two aspects separately.)

Rubric 2 - sentence structure and control.png


To form a piece of connected thought, the sentences must work together in concert. The next measure to consider is how well that thought is constructed, sentence by sentence. That is, how fluidly or not does the thought flow from one syntactic unit of thought to the next?

Rubric 3 - cohesion.png


Finally, how well is the piece overall structured and organized? From the smallest units of structure to the largest. Does the text work with that structure? Is the structure clear? Is it standard? Does it map well to the context?

Rubric 4 - coherence.png

Rubric or checklist?

When you’re in the process of editing, if you work with a guide, most often that guide will be a checklist. Using a checklist offers many benefits. It helps to ensure that an editor remains consistent with herself over time, rather than getting swept along the currents of a particularly distinctive or problematic piece. It helps editors within an organization stay consistent with one another. It clues the writers in on what you’re looking for, what you’ll be reading for. And by capturing all the significant points of what you’ll be looking for in a piece of writing — perhaps a very specific type of writing — within a specific context, a good checklist, augmented and refined over time, can become the basis of a style guide in writing groups where there is none. A robust enough checklist (with a column containing further explanation, for example) can even function itself as a kind of style guide.

Checklists are useful for all editors, novice and experienced alike.

What the rubric offers, by contrast, is a thumbnail guide to then evaluating the quality of that writing. Your rubric might be broken out into many different categories and it might treat each category very finely. Or it might, as this one here, take a look at a set of primary categories and then offer guides for judging where on the scale of accomplishment the writing sits with respect to each category. Such an evaluation can help when you need to work with a writer to improve one or more aspects of the writing, when you need to weigh the merits of one writer’s work against the work of another, or when you need to summarize those relative merits.

The question is not whether to use a rubric or a checklist. It’s when to employ each.