Judging writing

Can good writing be taught?I recently had an opportunity to serve as a writing judge in a grade-school Fine Arts Fair.

It was rough.

Not what I thought

I had assumed that I could simply read all the entries, make encouraging comments on each one, and then sort of rank them from “best” to “worst” and award a first, second, and third prize.

But no.

Instead, I was given a 22-item matrix to complete. For each entry. Using a 5-point scale, I had to score items like, “The story has all 5 parts of a plot” and “The story has both a protagonist and an antagonist that you can easily identify” and “The main character is a dynamic character who grows in the story.”

(This was grade school writing! I had to Google “5 parts of a plot” in order to know how to score that item on the matrix!)

Mechanics and creativity

The cover letter included instructions asking me to “award heavily for effort and creativity”—but not one of the 22 items in the matrix had anything to do with effort or creativity. Spelling, punctuation, whether the entry was typewritten and double-spaced—these were all on the matrix. But there was not even a general comment area where I could indicate any extra consideration I was giving for other factors.

So I found the experience frustrating. There was such a focus on mechanics.

Now, mechanics definitely are important. You have to know where the commas go in order to communicate most efficiently and effectively. It’s helpful to know what the 5 parts of a plot are, so you can shore up the areas where your story is weak. Mechanics are important.

But a Fine Arts Fair should not be about mechanics. A Fine Arts Fair is where students get to show how they put those mechanics to creative use. (That’s what turns writing into art.)

For example

One of the entries was a short, rhyming poem. It was a fun, light-hearted piece, and I could feel the joy of writing even as I was reading it.

But that piece didn’t score very well. It wasn’t typed. The genre of poetry was identified incorrectly. It didn’t have a “clearly identifiable setting.” So it lost 15 points right there.

Not fair.

My fear

My fear is that those students received their scores and were discouraged. Or that they will come to believe that good writing is about things that can be measured in a matrix.

It is, but it isn’t.

And how can you teach that nuance in a grade-school classroom?

grade school creativityYour thoughts?

Do you remember entering anything in a Fine Arts competition? Or do you have kids who did? What kind of feedback did those entries get from the judges?

What I’m really trying to process is, Are school Fine Arts Fairs helpful for encouraging creativity in young people? Or is there a better way to give kids opportunities to flex their creative muscles?

13 thoughts on “Judging writing”

  1. In my opinion, putting creative arts on a “competitive” level is totally counterproductive. The event in itself is a way to showcase student efforts. The judging is inherently unfair. I think their 22 question matrix ought to count for less than one-third of the judging score.

    So are you going to blog about the five plot points at some time in the future?

    • Hi Judith,

      It’s quite possible that the score I gave each entry was not the only judging score—the instructions didn’t say, but I was hoping that was the case. I was hoping that the dreams of these young writers were not resting only on me and my matrix! Another frustrating factor: I did not know the age of the students, which added to the difficulty—I would grade an eighth-grade essay differently than a second-grade essay. I know you want to be as objective as possible when judging, but in this case, having a little more context would have been helpful.

      I don’t know if the five plot points are worthy of a whole blog, but I’ll list them here in this comment! (introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution)

  2. Oh Melanie. Very frustrating experience indeed! Fostering creativity, especially at the grade school level, starts and ends with encouragement. I have watched young people develop their artistic skills over the years. If I had spent a lot of time telling them what they did wrong at 5th grade, their joy in creating would have been squelched by the time they hit high school. Especially if you add in the “middle-school-what-do-my-friends-think” syndrome! I believe that children should be allowed to experiment in a Fine Arts Fair. It sounds to me like you graded papers after a homework assignment. Two very different settings with very different “rules” in my opinion. In the classroom you color in the lines and the sky is blue. Outside the classroom there are no lines and the sky is any color you want to try!

    Years ago, I was asked to judge the artwork for a middle school Fine Arts Festival. I wrote encouraging comments on every piece and sometimes offered a suggestion to “try”. I chose first, second, and third place winners for each category in addition to honorable mentions.

    • Nancy, your judging experience sounds more like what I was expecting. I’m not sure I agree with Judith when she says that “competition” is counterproductive, but I think there are ways to use a competition to encourage rather than discourage.

      • Yes Melanie, it was time-consuming as was your experience, but much more enjoyable. In a Fine Arts Festival setting, I also agree that competition is productive. Competition is feedback and feedback is very important to most artists and what spurs them on and encourages creativity.

  3. I can remember a parent/teacher conference with Justin’s 2nd grade teacher. She showed us his artwork, and because he didn’t use the “recommended colors” she said, “Well, he will obviously never be an artist.” He was sitting right there and just looked at me. Just this year, as a senior in high school, he had 5 drawing and photo pieces on display in the art show. Sometimes skies aren’t blue and we don’t have to color in the lines and judging any creative piece off a required matrix squashes true creativity!

      • Melanie, that very drive to prove someone wrong sometimes works, but sad to say most often doesn’t. A comment very similar in high school is what drove and propelled my sister to the top of her profession. Now she is one of the top 4 studio session singers in the country and has sung in places like the Acropolis with Yanni, for the Pope at the Vatican, for Queen Elizabeth, and Presidents Ford and Clinton. She has three Grammy’s, 2 silver albums, and 1 platinum album for work she has done, and work on commercials and movies that spans a 40-page resume! Guess she proved them, ‘eh?

        • That’s very impressive, Joan! And congratulations to your sister! Her career is proof that criticism can sometimes be a spark that ignites even greater things within us. Maybe school gives us an opportunity to not only explore and experiment, but also decide what we’re going to believe about ourselves.

  4. With three creatively talented children (now adults) I could write a book on this topic. In first grade my daughter Candace drew a picture of the Thanksgiving Table. Her teacher called me and told me she just could not hang it up in the hall with the others because it was just “gobbledygook mess”. Needless to say, I was quite perturbed as I had seen artistic in talent budding in her since age 2. When I picked Candace up from school that day, I went to see the picture — what Candace drew, at age 6, was a birds-eye view of the Thanksgiving table. When viewed from that perspective, everything was almost perfectly drawn! I argued with the teacher, but she still refused to hang the picture. Needless to say it took very prominent place on our refrigerator door that Thanksgiving holiday for all the relatives to see and for her to tell them about it. I have several relatives and friends who are professional artists, and all of them recognized immediately Candace had an eye for perspective rarely shown at that age. One thing I recommend is for parents to find other outlets outside of school for their children’s creative potential and expose them to other artists, musicians, writers for their learning development and encouragement. Don’t let one person’s opinion get them discouraged. It is a lesson well learned early on that not everyone will like your work, and that’s ok.

    • Awesome story, Joan. I think you (and your daughter) would appreciate the writings of my friend Seth Godin (http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/). (I feel like I can call him my friend because he commented at LifeLines once. :)) He’s done a lot of writing about “creating your own art” and focusing your message to the people who are able to appreciate it. You’re right, not everyone will like your work. And you’re right, that’s ok. :)

  5. Hi Melanie. I truly understand your frustration. Fine Arts Fairs are hard. I never thought of it from a judges’ perspective. During one of my early art competitions, one of my pieces was not even judged but disqualified because the judge felt I had used pastels for painting not for drawing. And like some of your other commentors, I have had instructors tell me harsh comments about my work.

    I believe the magic IS in the doing and having the courage to share that. No matter the age of the artist.

    Your experience sheds light on this topic. Thank you for being you.

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