What Makes a Good Essay?

Grading Criteria for English 098


Most students can read another student’s essay and tell whether it is good or not so good. Just like teachers, when you read a classmate’s work you get a first impression about whether the essay is strong or weak. However, answering why an essay is strong or weak becomes more difficult. Though this is a difficult question to answer when looking at a classmate’s essay, it is an even tougher question to apply to your own writing. 


What follows is a brief list of qualities that make your writing strong. When looking at another student’s writing or evaluating your own, think of the essay in these terms. Also, when I respond to your papers, I will give you a grade sheet that shows how well you meet each of these criteria. Therefore, it’s worth your time to learn the vocabulary listed here:


1.       Focus: A well-focused essay speaks about one main topic, called the thesis, and does not stray from it. In the case of short essays, this main topic can often be identified in a single statement in the essay, called the thesis statement.  Even when there is no single explicit thesis statement, however, the essay should be focused around a single idea. The main topic of the essay is not so broad that you cannot explore it fully in your paper; also, it is not so narrow that you cannot develop it (for more on development, see below). Though you may write an essay of many paragraphs with many different arguments and pieces of evidence, everything in the essay should ultimately support your main idea.


2.       Development: An essay is well developed when every claim you make is supported by evidence of some kind. Depending on the kind of essay you are writing, this evidence might be examples from personal experience, details, facts, statistics, reasons, or other arguments. A well-developed essay does not claim anything to be true without offering evidence to show why or how it is true.


3.       Audience Awareness: Good writers tailor their essays towards the needs of the audience, or reader. Put more simply, a good writer chooses a tone that does not insult or talk down to the reader; similarly, good essays are written at a level that the audience is likely to be able to comprehend. In all communication, what we mean to say and what we actually do say can be very different things; good writers, however, work hard to minimize this difference. A writer with good audience awareness also does not make unfair assumptions about the reader’s gender, race, religion, class, sexuality, or value system.


4.       Organization: Strong essays are well organized into paragraphs. Each paragraph focuses on a single idea—often this one idea can be conveyed in a single topic sentence—and displays a logical strategy for conveying its information. Each paragraph should be unified by intelligent use of transitions and key words. Similarly, a good writer uses transitions to link paragraphs into a sequence. This sequence of paragraphs should be logical and should serve to support the essay’s thesis.


5.       Correctness: Strong essays display correct sentence grammar, punctuation, sentence unity, agreement, syntax, and spelling. While it is normal for English 098 students to make grammatical mistakes once in a while, by the time you finish this class you should have pretty strong control over sentence structure and sentence form.


6.       Research and Citations: When it’s called for, students should know how to find outside information to support their arguments. They should also know how to cite this outside information correctly, giving credit wherever another writer’s words or ideas are used.



Though these principles are all important for good writing, they are not always equally important. For each essay assignment, I will announce which principles we will be focusing on. At first, you will only be graded on a few of them, but by the end, all six will make up your essay grade. Also, please understand that I grade holistically: that is, I grade the essay as a whole as to whether it succeeds or fails. Some essays may show great strength in four or five areas, but still fail because of great weakness in one area. Conversely, an essay may be relatively weak in several areas, yet still get a passing grade on the strength of one or two areas of your writing.


Being aware of these principles will make you a much better writer and give you a higher grade. If I can give you any personal help in understanding them better, please ask me.