I’m going to let you in on a secret: you have a lot of control when it comes to determining your grades on writing assignments.
This is because (at least in the majority of cases) you already know what the grading rubric looks like! You know exactly how many points are up for grabs for each part of your essay.
Now, you might think the obvious answer for getting more points is to just do everything on the rubric at the highest level. But here’s another secret: that’s nearly impossible!
Since your attention is limited, trying to focus on every aspect of your writing at the same time makes you feel (and act) like a pinball. You bounce from one task to the next without being able to accomplish anything meaningful.
That’s just the nature of focus; it’s a finite resource.
Ready for the good news? As you write, some things become habit. Like putting periods at the ends of sentences and starting new sentences with capital letters. Once you have a habit, you don’t have to focus on it anymore to do it! (Think about how automatically you put your seat-belt on when you get in the car. No brain power necessary.)
The real key to getting more points on your next essay is to put as much of your writing as you can on autopilot and be deliberate with your focus.
If you let your writing habits work for you behind the scenes, you can save your focus for new skills.
Here are four strategies you can use to avoid the pinball effect and put your focus where it will earn you the most points on your next essay.
Strategy 1: Be (Mostly) Consistent
In general, you’ll get a better grade by writing a consistently solid essay than an essay that starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. Even though the points are divided up into different categories, your teacher is going to have a hard time awarding you points for great analysis if your choice of evidence is so awful she can’t tell what you’re trying to prove!
And did you know that teachers aren’t robots? As unfair as it may be, when your teacher grades your essay, she gets an “overall feel” for it based on her perception of how much effort you put into it. A consistent essay is more likely to put your teacher in a good mood; she’ll see that you understood the assignment and paid attention to the guidelines.
How to do it:
- follow your outline
- give yourself plenty of time to write
- choose a quote, any quote: evidence you struggle to connect to your argument is better than a lack of the minimum requirement of evidence
- complete your rough draft before you start revising individual paragraphs
- use an essay checklist to make sure you included all the required elements
Strategy 2: Balance Weaknesses with Strengths
You can’t be amazing at everything at the same time, and that’s OK. But when you see a weak element in your essay, balance it with a rockstar move. For example, if one of your quotes is vague or only tangentially related to your argument, but you don’t know how to replace (and besides, the deadline is approaching and hunting for quotes would eat up the rest of your writing time!), ramp up your commentary. Use clear, effective analysis about the quote to explain your argument and showcase your critical thinking skills.
How to do it:
- pair longer, more in-depth commentary with weaker quotes
- use helpful transitions for weaker arguments so you reader can follow you
- pay more attention to proofreading your shorter paragraphs so at least you know they’re technically strong
Strategy 3: Go for the Low-Hanging Fruit
Not all writing tasks are equally difficult. Formatting, for example, requires little more than copying a template. That means you can almost guarantee you’ll get all the points for a certain part of your rubric. And that’s good!
Since you’ve written a few essays in your time, you’ll also have a sense of which tasks are easier for you. Maybe you’re a whiz at writing topic sentences but you struggle to get out your commentary. Don’t devote all your time to crafting mind-blowing topic sentences for your paragraphs, but make sure they reflect your best effort so that they add shine to your writing.
How to do it:
- format your paper as soon as you start writing your draft so that you don’t forget to do it (Need help? Use these MLA guidelines from Purdue University.)
- do the easy-for-you tasks first and well
- proofread carefully! This is the lowest hanging fruit of all, and if you don’t do it, your teacher will likely feel frustrated and think you didn’t put in your best effort. Hint: frustrated teacher ≠ more points!
- pay attention to a classroom ban (no passive voice, for example)
- do what you did right on your last essay that earned you points
- use an essay checklist
Strategy 4: Make New Mistakes
Your essay won’t be perfect. That’s cool. But don’t let it be filled with the same kinds of mistakes your last essay had. That makes teachers angry. And you wouldn’t like them when they’re angry. But seriously, learn from your last essay. What did your teacher comment on? What did you lose a lot of points for? Try not to do the same thing again.
If you tend to get consistently solid (but not stellar) writing scores, challenge yourself! Try more complex sentence structure or some new vocabulary you’ve been studying. This is a great way to make mistakes that help you learn. By stretching yourself, you’re finding out which new skills you can use effectively (and which ones you’ll have to practice more).
How to do it:
- re-read your last essay before you write the current one
- go over the rubric and the grade, as well as the teacher’s comments
- ask questions about the points you lost. Important Note: This doesn’t mean whine about your grade or beg your teacher for mercy. It means ask a genuine question about where you went wrong and what you could do instead. Show your teacher that you’re taking the initiative to improve your writing skills.
- leave time to revise so that you can try more sophisticated sentence structure and transitions
So Now What?
OK, I know. For an argument about how writers have limited focus, that was a lot of information! Here’s a smart way to proceed: choose only one of the four strategies and try it on your next essay. It’s less important which one you choose and more important that you choose it and commit to it. Make that your big focus so that you can think about it consistently as you write.
If you play an instrument or sport, you may have had experience practicing with special focus on just one skill. This is the same thing. When you put all your effort into that one area, you’re going to get much better results than you would if you divided up your focus and tried to do a million different things at once. (Like that frenetic pinball!)
What will you try on your next essay? Being consistent? Going after low-hanging fruit? Announce it in the comments below and take action! (And if you’re not sure what would work best for you, ask a question and I’ll respond to you personally.)