Writing Competency Handbook

Writing Competency: A Handbook

Prefatory Note

“The Checklist” was approved by the College faculty in 1979 as the set of criteria that define competent writing in support of the Writing Competency Requirement for graduation. The purpose of this handbook is to explain the criteria in “The Checklist” as well as the purpose of the requirement and procedures for completing it.

Competent Writing: A Definition

At a recent conference on college writing, professors from several disciplines were asked to describe in a single word their conception of a good student essay. “Clear,” “unified,” “organized,” “structured,” “focused” were the most frequent responses. A braver soul ventured “powerful” and “interesting.” Competent college writing has more to do with the first set of adjectives than with the second. Of course professors would like a steady diet of “powerful” essays, but they are realistic enough to understand that not every student can consistently produce such work. But professors, and employers, have every right to expect and insist on competent writing.

If competent writing is not necessarily “powerful,” it is not, on the other hand, merely functional. At Hartwick College, it involves more than the ability to construct a simple sentence, write a five-sentence paragraph, or compose a one-page business letter. The competent college writer can also put together an essay of at least ten pages which either persuades or informs, which focuses on a single point and supports it, which has one purpose.

Unity, then, is central to competent writing. To achieve unity, the writer must be able to sustain and support an idea through several paragraphs linked by logic.

The Writing Competency Requirement

In order to graduate, students at Hartwick College must demonstrate competence in writing at the college level, as defined in The Writing Competency Handbook. Such demonstration must be made in one of two ways:

  • By progressing to Level 4 through a sequence of courses outlined below, beginning with the course at the level where the student was placed upon admission to the college.
  • By achieving Level 4 in the Writing Proficiency Examination. The student may not retake the examination before completing the course at the level at which he or she was placed upon admission to the college.

Students should take their first writing course during their first year and are expected to satisfy the requirement by the middle of their junior year.

Course Sequence

Students admitted to Hartwick will be placed in one of four levels of competency according to results from a writing sample and SAT scores (when available). The writing sample will be required during summer orientation or during the first week on campus. The sequence of courses described below is designed to offer increasingly complex and challenging writing tasks. Accordingly, the courses must be taken in sequence. That is, a student placed at Level 1 must take English 101 before taking English 110. A student may take a Level 3 course at any time but may not receive writing credit unless he or she is at Level 3.

Level 1 Students needing review work in English grammar and in writing sentences and paragraphs will register for English 101: Writing Tutorial. Students who successfully complete English 101 will pass to Level 2.

Level 2 Students needing instruction in composing whole essays will register for English 110: Composition. Students who earn a grade of A- or higher will pass to Level 4; those who complete 110 with a grade of C through B will pass to Level 3. Students receiving a grade of D- through C- will pass to Level 2b.

Level 2b Students passing English 110 with a grade of D- through C- and needing extended work in the writing and particularly the revision of compositions will register for English 111: Composition Workshop. Students who successfully complete English 111 will pass to Level 3.

Level 3 Student needing additional practice in writing and revising (but not an entire course in writing) will register for courses offered in many departments and in all divisions, and designated in the course schedule by a WL3. These courses combine instruction in writing with introduction to a discipline. Instructors may recommend further Level 3 course work for a student or pass the student into Level 4. The instructor will determine whether or not a student is passed to Level 4 at the completion of the course.

Level 4 Incoming students placed at Level 4 or students who attain Level 4 through course work (or subsequent testing) are considered to be able to write at the college level of competency. They should maintain and sharpen their skills by taking courses that require essays, reports, short papers,and essay examinations.

Transfer students

Students admitted as transfers who before entry have attained a grade of C or better in a college-level composition course will receive college credit for the course, but will be assigned to a Writing Level by means of testing at entry. If review of the writing sample and SAT scores indicates that the student’s writing is not yet at Level 3, the student must either take English 110 (see above, under Level 2) or English 111 (under Level 2b), which will allow the transfer student to pass to a higher Writing Level.

A Note On Plagiarism

Plagiarism, the unacknowledged use of ideas not one’s own, is a form of theft. Since the academic world deals in ideas rather than goods and since it encourages the honest search for truth, it punishes severely the use of other people’s work, whether printed or oral, without proper acknowledgment. Based on Hartwick College’s Academic Honesty Policy, the minimum penalty for a first documented offense is a failure on the work in question and notification to the Academic Honesty Officer. A second documented offense brings failure in the course and indefinite dismissal from the college. For more information on plagiarism and Hartwick College’s Academic Honesty Policy. Beyond the college, state and federal laws protect us all against plagiarism. Legally and morally,then, there are good reasons to avoid it.

Some students enter college confused or misinformed about plagiarism. They wonder when, when not, and how to footnote, some erroneously thinking that when they use someone else’s exact words does the need to document arise. This is indeed a misconception. A footnote is required for any borrowing, whether paraphrased or quoted directly. Information may be put into a paper without a footnote or other documentation only if it meets all of the following conditions:

  1. It may be found in several sources (print or electronic) on the subject.
  2. It is written entirely in the words of the student.
  3. It is not paraphrased from any particular source.
  4. It therefore belongs to common knowledge.

Generally, the basic test is one’s own sense of honesty and fair play. Most of us know which ideas are our own and which we read in a printed or online source, heard at a formal talk, or elicited in an interview. We especially know the difference when we are working from notes taken from a source; in that case documentation should always be given. In other cases, let honesty and the four conditions listed above be the test. The following considerations may also be helpful.

Direct Quotation should of course be documented, even when a student uses only one unusual or key word from a passage. If a longer passage is used, even if it is a brief phrase, that, too, should be placed in quotation marks. And the source of key words, phrases, sentences, or longer passages should be given in a footnote.

Paraphrasing is rewording of others’ ideas, usually through alteration of sentence patterns and substitution of synonyms for original words. When this is done, or when a passage is adapted in some other way to meet a student’s needs, credit should be given to the original writer, although quotation marks are not necessary. Again, a footnote is required.

The form which documentation takes varies from field to field. The Humanities, for example, generally follow the format established by the Modern Language Association and published in the MLA Handbook, a format quite different from that used in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Usually faculty members indicate what format is to be used in their courses. If they do not, ask.

Students who remain confused about the nature of plagiarism or the form which documentation should take may speak with their professors or come to the Writing Center for advice.


Has the paper been proofread?

Proofreading can mean the difference between an average job and a good paper. One last thorough reading of your paper can be crucial. If possible, leave at least a day between the time you finish your work and the time you proofread it. During this last reading, check each word carefully for spelling, be on guard for errors in punctuation and grammar, awkward sentences, and any other mistakes. Careful editing requires separate trips through the paper to check spelling and punctuation, sentence construction, paragraph organization, and one last reading, as if you have never read it before.

Do mechanical or grammatical errors distract the reader and damage the credibility of the writer?

Writers should be particularly careful about the following common errors:

– Omitting the apostrophe to indicate possession (Jack’s car, the Browns’ house, journey’s end, a good day’s work).

– Confusing its and it’s. Its shows possession (its blue fur makes the cat stand out), while it’s is the contraction for it is (It’s an outstanding blue-furred cat).

– Confusing there, they’re and their; to, too and two, affect and effect.

– Misspelling.

– Confusing the comma and the semi-colon. See any handbook of grammar.

– Not using the possessive case of the pronoun before a gerund:
We discussed the chance of me being on the team (should be my being on the team).

– Mispunctuation.

The Sentence

A sentence expresses an action or a state of being through a self-contained group of words. It expresses even the most complex of the writer’s ideas clearly and concisely while adhering to conventional grammar, syntax, mechanics and punctuation.

Is every sentence complete?

A complete sentence is a self-contained, complete thought. In grammatical terms, it contains a subject (a noun or noun phrase) and a predicate (verb that expresses the action or state-of-being of the subject), with modifiers.

Incomplete sentences (fragments) lack a subject or a predicate or both and area serious error. Often a fragment is a part of the thought expressed in the preceding sentence.

  He states that the “Religion of Humanity” leaves out the essence of religion. This essence being worship.

The fragment should be joined to the sentence as a phrase:

  He states that the “Religion of Humanity” leaves out the essence of religion, which is worship.

Because the fragment does not express a complete thought, it usually confuses the reader. However, occasionally a fragment can be used for emphasis:

  In both cases man has no destiny and all good moral deeds seem to be in vain. Depressing.

Another equally common, serious error is the joining of two sentences with a comma (comma splice) or with no punctuation at all (fused or run-on sentence).

  Milgram does an efficient job of debriefing his subjects, the reunion between the subject and the learner is a substantial part of the recovery process.

Either separate the sentence:

  Milgram does an efficient job of debriefing his subjects. The reunion between the 

or join them with a semicolon if they are sufficiently related, which in this case they are not.

Do the subject and verb agree in number?

Singular subjects agree with singular verbs, plural with plural. Disagreement often results when the writer has not recognized the two most important words in the sentence, the subject and predicate:

  The usefulness of religion through Mill’s eyes are the morality which is learned through religion.

The only word that agrees with the predicate are is eyes, yet the writer does not mean that eyes are the morality which is learned through religion. The subject and verb are separated by the modifying phrase through Mill’s eyes. Revising the attribution to Mill shows the problem clearly.

  According to Mill, the usefulness of religion are the morality which is learned through religion.

Usefulness is plainly the subject of the sentence and takes the singular is. The repetition of the word religion is more obvious also.

  According to Mill, the usefulness of religion is the morality it teaches.

One more sentence on the way to recovery.

Are pronoun references clear?

The pronoun agrees in number and gender with the noun that it refers to:

  The Colonists had little faith in the virtues of any man placed in a position of power. They claimed that power corrupted any man who held it.

They in the second sentence clearly refers back to Colonists in the first sentence. When pronoun and antecedent (the preceding noun) do not agree, confusion results:

  Authorities recognize that if the resident has no means of transportation, their activities are restricted.

The plural their technically refers to authorities, but that sense is clearly not intended. Either change the pronoun to the singular:

  Authorities recognize that if the resident has no means of transportation, his or her activities are restricted.

or change resident to the plural form:

  Authorities recognize that if residents have no means of transportation, their activities are restricted.

With too many noun-pronoun combinations in a sentence or group of sentences, the reader cannot be sure what the pronouns refer to:

  Many friends and members of the family have also pointed this out to me at various times, which is most gratifying, because it shows a positive change, which is all the more reason to stay with what I am doing.


  The fact that many friends and members of the family have pointed out this positive change is most gratifying, and all the more reason to continue what I am doing.

Whatever that is. And in the following sentence, the pronoun it does not refer to anything:

  Vonnegut’s planet is overwhelmed by rampant technology, and it does not seem as if it will stop until it is too late.

The pronoun this is often misused to bring into a sentence a complex of ideas that it cannot bear:

This reflects that most of the social actors were young college and high school students.

This refers to a long paragraph describing the clothing and shoes of the people whom the writer was observing, as well as their behavior—reading, writing in a notebook, highlighting textbooks with Magic Markers. This simply cannot refer to such a cargo of ideas, spread out over several sentences, and should be helped along with words that summarize the ideas that the writer wants to identify.

  This mode of dress and behavior reflects that most of the social actors were young college and high school students.

Is the sequence of verb tenses consistent?

The tense of any verb indicates the time of the action (past, present, future) in relation to the time of the writing and reading. The sequence of verb tenses within each sentence and paragraph, and within the whole paper, must be consistent to keep the temporal relationships clear. The following sentence begins in the present tense, indicating that the practice discussed continues, but switches inexplicably to the past:

  Some runners train too hard in the week before a race because they felt great, and ended up being burned out by race time.

The sentence would be better if all verbs were in the present tense to indicate a continuing practice.

  Some runners train too hard in the week before a race because they feel great and end up exhausted by race time.

Do the sentences show variety?

Variety in syntax is a means both of avoiding monotony and of conveying the relative priority among pieces of information. Simple and compound sentences, where subject precedes verb precedes object, tend to weight every assertion the same and grow monotonous. For example, this compound sentence, “The temperature of the gas reached 600 degrees, and the liquid boiled,” equates the two ideas in typically child-like fashion (We went to the circus and we ate candy and we had a picnic). By subordinating the phrase about temperature, the writer can make clear the relationship between the two facts: “When the temperature reached 600 degrees, the liquid boiled.”

The following three sentences are all simple in construction, monotonous, and wordy:

  I made two collections at this location. One collection was in the stream at the bottom of the last waterfall. The second collection was at the top of the first waterfall.

By subordinating the ideas in the second and third sentence to the first and combining them in a single sentence, the writer eliminates a third of the verbiage:

  I made two collections here: one in the stream at the bottom of the last waterfall, the other at the top of the first.

Do the sentences exhibit parallel construction when called for?

Similar ideas are best expressed in similar grammatical forms:

  Customers were rounded up and discussed common problems.

One predicate (were rounded up) is passive and the other (discussed) is active, making the noun customers both the subject and the direct object of the sentence. Make both verbs active:

  Customers gathered and discussed common problems.

The next sentence is a formless, limp thing:

  This religion would not include an afterlife, the result being people striving to live for now, striving to be happy while they exist, and the continuation of life being longer because one wants to exist.

Making the last three phrases (and the first two clauses) parallel gives us a more rhythmic and readable sentence:

  Because this religion would not include an afterlife, people would strive to live for now, to be happy while they exist, and to live longer.

Are the sentences free from misplaced modifiers?

Place the modifier (whether it be a single word or a phrase) as close as possible to the word it modifies.

  I want to drum some statistics into your heads, which are concrete.


  I want to drum some concrete statistics into your heads.

An introductory dependent phrase modifies the noun that follows it:

  Painted a pretty green so as not to disturb the surrounding community, we entered the iron gates of the Pleasantville Home for the Emotionally Disturbed.

Surely the iron gates were painted green, not the writer and his or her friends.

  I can also positively say that the movie has its effect on many people, because having worked in a sports store, more weight sets are being sold daily than ever before.

We cannot tell whether the movie drove many people to lift weights or to work in a sports store. The participial phrase having worked in a sports store appears to modify the next noun, weight sets. The phrase dangles because it has no noun that it can sensibly modify. Rewritten with the subject that was implied in the original, the sentence becomes:

  I know the movie affected many people, because having worked in a sports store, I sold more weight sets than ever before.

We still cannot be sure whether he sold more weight sets after the movie appeared or after he started working in the store, but some mysteries may never be solved.

Are the sentences free from wordiness?

Wordiness occurs when a writer uses more words than necessary to convey an idea. Judging how many words is too many is a matter of each readers sensibility, but usually wordy writing abounds in adverbs, adjectives, modifying phrases, passive verbs, and important-sounding, convoluted phrasing.

  Birds as a species are a perfectly logical image for a poet to choose to represent liberty as they have traditionally been associated in literature with freedom because of their ability to fly.

Consider how the writer wants to appear to the reader in these phrases:

  as a species : scientific, precise

  perfectly logical : clear-headed, firm, reasonable

  have traditionally been associated in literature : well read, at home in the labyrinth of learning

But if we reduce the sentence to what it is saying, we come to a modest, clear, and supportable assertion.

  Because they can fly, birds have traditionally been symbols of freedom in literature.

Is the word choice precise and idiomatic?

The writers of the two sentences below should have checked the dictionary.

  The freshman enters his dorm not acknowledging where to go first.

  (Rewritten) The freshman enters his dorm not knowing where to go first.

  Students are not specified to study any one thing.

  (Rewritten) Students are not required to study any one subject.

Precise word choice results in clarity; imprecision in vagueness:

  When one begins to push things into available time, everything begins to be a surface value and not reflect true feelings.

The writer uses “things” and “everything” as if the reader were clairvoyant and knew what they stood for. Also imprecise is the writer’s use of “available” to describe time: the context calls for “spare” rather than “available” time. An attempt to supply more specific vocabulary might be:

  When one begins to push activities into one’s spare time, one’s actions begin to reflect surface values and not true feelings.

The writer needs to clarify the distinction between “surface values’ and “true feelings” before we can understand what the sentence says, but already the more specific words help.

Words are chosen to accord with common usage or idiom.

  The same selection of food week after week discourages students to eat at the Commons.

The food may be no better, but the sentence would be much improved if the selection would discourage students from eating at the Commons. Unidiomatic word choice frequently involves prepositions: different from, not different than. A good dictionary is a reliable solution.

Overused or trite language tends to be imprecise because its meaning is usually taken for granted:

  The horse opened doors for the Indian.

The Paragraph

A competently written paragraph is a sentence or group of sentences that conveys a single idea either expressed by a topic sentence or implied by the information presented. That information may define, qualify, explain, illustrate, expand, or support the main idea, which is itself and aspect of the purpose of the whole paper. The relationships between the sentences are clear; the second sentence follows from the first, the third from the second, and so on. Each sentence serves the main idea of the paragraph.

The paper quoted in the “Whole Paper” section advances through several points of contrast between “civil disobedience” and “dissent” in a clear and logical fashion because each paragraph elaborates a different aspect of the subject with definitions and examples. The following paragraph begins with a topic sentence that introduces contrasting ideas, but fails to develop that contrast.

(1) There are two basic types of ideological critics of television entertainment: those that complain about television’s constant reinforcement of middle-American values, and those who criticize television’s occasional portrayal of less than conventional values. (2) The first group of critics have a strong but difficult case to prove. (3) Television is at its strongest level of persuasion when it is affirming the biases of its audience. (4) How do you convince people that they have had injustices done to them when television is constantly reaffirming and telling them that they’re right? (5) Feminists, rightists, leftists, environmentalists and other activists that advocate a different lifestyle are seldom successful in their efforts to lessen the constant reinforcement of the status quo.

This paragraph begins well enough, identifying and characterizing two types of critics. But the third sentence does not connect well with the first two: we need to know what the assertion that TV is at its most persuasive when affirming the biases of its audience has to do with the “difficult case” that the first kind of ideological critic must prove. The fourth sentence must relate in some manner to the second type of critic, but how? And what do feminists, rightists,leftists, and environmentalists of sentence five have to do with two kinds of critics mentioned in sentence one? The reader leaves the paragraph unsure of its main idea, in part because of the writer’s use of jargon.

In the following paragraph from a paper that compares the invertebrate populations in three intertidal zones off Long Island, the ideas are clearly expressed. The relationships between those ideas, however are unclear; indeed, the last three sentences appear to be introducing completely new ideas rather than representing those ideas as aspects of the main idea.

  The ocean beach provided the problem of turbulence both in the movement of water and sand. Adaptations to this were shown by the large number of shelled, burrowing organisms present. The exception to this was the seanettle which usually stayed out past the breaking waves, but occasionally was caught by the breakers and brought in near shore. The starfish combined a heavy, horny covering with the ability to regenerate lost arms in order to survive the heavy surf. Desiccation is a problem on the ocean beach, but most organisms adapt by either burrowing until the tides return or by moving out with the tide.

The main idea – that the researchers found life forms adapted to the turbulent environment – is stated, but the ideas that help us understand in what ways organisms have adapted to specific conditions seem to be presented at random. The paragraph suffers from a lack of both development and coherence. In addition, the pronoun this in sentences two and three has no clear antecedent, and presents, instead of continuity, only a kind of awkwardness. Rewritten with a regard to connecting the assertions, the paragraph might become:

  The ocean beach was the site of turbulence in both water and sand. Organisms that have adapted to this environment often burrow, or move in and out with the tide to prevent desiccation. Others have developed shells for protection. With its hard, horny covering and its ability to regenerate lost arms, the starfish survives the heavy surf. Most of the organisms present had adapted to turbulent conditions. Occasionally one would appear, such as the seanettle that usually stays out past the breakers, but had been caught and brought in near shore by the large waves.

Evaluating The Paragraph

Is the main idea sufficiently limited to need no more than one paragraph to convey?

Is the main idea expressed in a single topic sentence, or can on one be inferred from the paragraph?

Does the paragraph contain sufficient support for the main idea? Support can define, extend, qualify, explain, or illustrate the main idea, and it may take the form of definition of terms, facts, statistics, anecdotes, quotations, and so on.

Do all the supporting assertions relate to the main idea (unity)?

Are the supporting details arranged in the most effective order (development)? Is the topic sentence positioned in the paragraph to introduce the main idea at the best time?

Do the sentences follow one from the other (coherence)? Are the relationships among them apparent?

The Whole Paper

A competent paper on any subject states, defines, and fulfills its purpose. It achieves unity. The writer announces the purpose in an explicit statement, variously called the thesis or the hypothesis or the proposition, placing it in the first paragraph of a short paper or in one of the first paragraphs of a a long paper. The thesis often follows a few introductory sentences that provide necessary background and “hook” for the reader. Carefully constructed, the thesis statement can also signal the organization of the entire essay. It is the essay’s cornerstone.
The writer’s purpose in most exposition is either to persuade or to inform a particular audience. The writer attempts to persuade the audience to accept a point of view:

  While slavery was certainly one cause of the Civil War, the major cause was economic rivalry between North and South.

or presents information to the audience:

  I will show the effect of the size, flow, temperature and turbidity of the stream on the distribution of mayflower nymphs (ephemeroptera).

Both purposes are best fulfilled in writing that moves logically from point to point so that each paragraph extends, refines, qualifies, or builds upon the previous one.

  Note also that both thesis statements suggest the essay’s organization. The paper on the causes of the Civil War will deal first with slavery, eliminating it as the primary cause, then move to economic rivalry as the real explanation. In telling us about the effect of the stream on the distribution of ephemeroptera, the budding biologist will deal first with he stream’s size, then its flow, temperature and turbidity.

Below is an example of an essay judged “competent” (and placed at Level 4) by members of the Hartwick College English Department. The writer, an incoming first-year student taking the placement examination, composed the essay in 50 minutes in response to this assignment, which was adapted from a writing assignment in A.M. Tibbets and Charles Tibbets, Strategies of Rhetoric with Handbook, 3rd ed. (Glenview, Ill.:Scott, Foresman, 1979), p.88:

  Below are pairs of related words. Select one pair and write an essay defining the likenesses and/or differences between the meanings of the two. Be sure that you come to a conclusion about the chief difference between the two terms.

From a list of nine pairs, the writer chose “civil disobedience/dissent” and wrote as follows:

  In the English language there are many words which, at first glance, may be thought to have the same meaning but on closer inspection turn out to be quite different. Such a pair of words is “civil disobedience” and “dissent”. Civil disobedience can be though of as breaking the law or defying any part of a law for any reason at all. A person driving through a red light is as guilty of civil disobedience as an individual robbing a bank. Dissent, on the other hand, is not thought of as breaking the law; rather, it is the action of disagreeing with the law or any part of the law, or, simply, disagreeing with any aspect of anything.

  Throughout history many individuals have become famous for their dissenting views on established ideas. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was known as “the Great Dissenter” for his opposing views delivered in the Supreme Court during his years as a member of that judicial body. Such dissent if expressed through legal channels, can result in changes in the social system of a nation. By the 1950’s, for instance, there were enough dissenting opinions among Supreme Court justices to reverse the once-upheld “separate but equal” clause in the civil rights laws of the time, and to bring about the end of segregation of races in public schools.

  In the late 50’s and early 1960’s, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., together with many others, began to speak out against the existing laws allowing for the separation of races in public facilities. This was an example of dissent. To achieve his desired end, that is to bring about desegregation in public facilities (such as lunch counters, theatres, and the like), Dr. King advocated civil disobedience: the actual breaking of the law. His peaceful civil disobedience included sit-ins by blacks at all-white lunch counters, which although morally just, were illegal at the time. Civil disobedience can be used by dissenters to change something they consider wrong, but people guilty of civil disobedience cannot claim to be nothing more than dissenters, at least not most of the time.

  In conclusion, it can be said that although both dissent and civil disobedience can be used to achieve a desired end, only dissent is the truly legal way of disagreeing with an established law, whereas civil disobedience, even if the ends justifies the means, can only be looked upon as actual law breaking, whether or not a dissenting mind was behind the act.

A close examination of the essay will reveal its strengths. The first two sentences introduce the subject in rather general terms, setting the stage for the statement of purpose contained in the next three sentences. We expect from the first paragraph an essay illustrating this difference between civil disobedience and dissent: “Civil disobedience can be thought of as breaking the law…Dissent…is the action of disagreeing with the law or any part of the law…” And this is what we get.

In the second paragraph, the writer illustrates his view of dissent with historical examples. He points to the “Great Dissenter” Oliver Wendell Holmes and to the dissenting opinions of Supreme Court justices in the 1950’s, showing that such dissent can lead, legally, to constructive change. In the third paragraph, the writer turns to civil disobedience, illustrating it with historical examples and contrasting it with dissent. He cites Martin Luther King and the blacks who broke laws during the 1950’s and early 1960’s in order to bring about change. The concluding paragraph restates the main point in slightly different terms: the writer speaks more abstractly and with greater confidence. His examples have given him that right.

The essay contains no spelling or punctuation errors, its diction for the most part is precise, its sentences varied. But it is not perfect. Most English teachers could suggest a number of improvements, and most readers realize that it does not present the last word on the difficult distinction between civil disobedience and dissent. But the paper is competently written, indeed remarkably well done given the conditions under which it was composed.

Evaluating The Whole Paper

The following questions can serve as a guide for determining whether the paper as a whole is a competent piece of writing.

1. Is the paper’s purpose made clear in the first paragraph, either by an explicit statement or by implication?

2. Is the thesis or purpose evident throughout the paper? (Every paragraph, every sentence should further the paper’s purpose. Most poor essays do not have a definite purpose at all or do not sustain the purpose from beginning to end.)

3. Does the paper have a discernible organizational pattern? Are the reasons for the arrangement and the order of the paragraphs implicitly clear? Does the paper move logically from point to point?

4. Does the paper contain sufficient convincing evidence for the thesis? Is the paper reasonably convincing, given the writer’s purpose, experience, and the amount of time available to work on it?

5. Is the paper addressed to a specific audience? Does the evidence or explanation seem appropriate to the audience? Does the paper bridge the potential gap between the writer’s understanding of the topic and the reader’s, and does it lead the reader carefully, conscientiously, yet authoritatively through the argument or explanation?

6. Is there a satisfactory concluding statement or paragraph? Does the paper end with a sense of completeness, authority, perhaps even of climax?

The Checklist (Criteria For Evaluating Writing)

The Hartwick College faculty adopted The Checklist in 1979 as the criteria for evaluating competence in academic writing. The criteria are in the form of questions, which may be addressed with regard to any piece of expository writing in order to guide revision and to evaluate its ability to meet a reader’s expectations for clear, concise, effective prose.

The Whole Paper

  1. Is the paper’s purpose made clear in the first paragraph?
  2. Is the thesis or purpose evident throughout the paper? Do the paragraphs relate to the main idea of the paper (relevance)?
  3. Does the paper have a discernible organizational pattern?
  4. Does the paper contain sufficient, convincing evidence for the thesis?
  5. Is the paper addressed to a specific audience?
  6. Is there a satisfactory concluding statement or paragraph?

The Paragraph

  1. Is the main idea sufficiently limited to need no more than one paragraph to convey?
  2. Is the main idea expressed in a single topic sentence, or can be inferred from the paragraph itself?
  3. Does the paragraph contain sufficient support for the main idea?
  4. Do all the supporting assertions relate to the main idea (unity)?
  5. Are the supporting details arranged in the most effective order (development)? Is the topic sentence positioned in the paragraph to introduce the main idea at the best time?
  6. Do the sentences follow one from the other (coherence)? Are the relationships among them apparent?

The Sentence

  1. Is every sentence complete?
  2. Do the subject and verb agree in number?
  3. Are pronoun references clear?
  4. Is the sequence of the verb tenses consistent?
  5. Do the sentences show variety in length and structure?
  6. Do the sentences exhibit parallel construction when called for?
  7. Are the sentences free from misplaced modifiers?
  8. Are the sentences free from wordiness?
  9. Is the word choice precise and idiomatic?


  1. Has the paper been proofread?
  2. Do mechanical errors distract the reader and damage the credibility of the writer?
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