Monday, March 5

Writing By Rubrics: Painting By Numbers

One of the growing trends in education is the rampant application of rubrics, starting around middle school. The concept behind the rubric is that it sets the criteria that students will be graded on, gives the teacher an easy way to communicate assignment expectations, and provides a fill-in-the-blank outline for students.

As an instructor, I mostly like them. As a writer, I absolutely hate them. 

If there was ever a great tool that elevates and diminishes writing at the same time, it's the rubric. It elevates boring writers because it explicitly lists everything that they need to include. It absolutely demolishes writing because it sucks passion, creativity, and critical thinking out of good ones. 

My son brought a rubric home the other day, which piqued my interest because I'm also teaching Writing For Public Relations right now. It also got my interest because he was struggling with it.

The persuasive writing rubric began with a top-down outline of fill-in-the-blanks: introduce with a hook, opinion, or thesis statement; write three paragraphs, with each paragraph focusing on one point; conclude with restatement, summary, and call to action. Then it listed other elements: at least one expert testimony, one concession, 2-3 qualifiers, one cause and effect example, one rhetorical question, and a "statistic." Check for an effective use of voice, transitions, spelling, grammar, and format. 

Do you know what the rubric reminded me of? Paint by numbers. 

Sure, I'll concede that I cannot teach people to write like I do. Some writers do. Some don't. The best of them all develop their own approaches, which tend to be as varied and interesting as individuals. 

My personal process is self-developed. I research as much as possible about a subject, develop a big picture composite of everthing, and grab a hook out of the ether of it all. And then I write, allowing its direction to carry me along, sometimes stopping to pursue a discovery, question, pattern, contrast, or something I stumble upon along the way. And when everything clicks, it virtually writes itself. 

I know when I'm in that space because even though I don't have the benefit of an old Remington typewriter, the weight of my fingers on the keys is loud enough to turn heads. Maybe that's why I consider writing a contact sport whereas rubrics feel more like fuzzy ad-libs.

It's also why my son was struggling. They gave them the blanks to fill in but not the thought process to do it. And at the rate he was waffling, the project was never going to happen. He needed a process.

How to transform a stupid rubric into the process that writing is meant to be.

I told him to forget about the rubric on the front end. And then I gave him a process that would guide him to complete his assignment. Once he had a draft, he could go back and attempt to stick all those nonsensical mandatories that the rubric instructed — at least one "statistic" and whatnot. 

1. Establish A Thesis Statement. He already knew what he wanted to write about so he was done before he started. He wanted to write about why returning to the moon is a good idea. Professional public relations practitioners might think about something else — what is the objective of the communication. 

2. Research For Facts. Then I told him to research as much as he could, writing down and organizing notes under various subject headers — education, energy, economics, etc. I suggested he shoot for ten. The same might apply to writing a news release or some other piece of communication.

3. Prioritize And Analyze. Since he was writing an essay, I told him to look over everything he found and cut out the chaff. He needed three or four support paragraphs, which meant he could prioritize the three or four strongest research areas. The same applies to writing for communication too. 

4. Flesh Out The Facts. While one might assume that his notes would make it easy, I told him not to make assumptions. If any one paragraph raised more questions than it answered, he needed to find more facts. And while he was at it, he could scan the rubric list to make sure he hit all the points. 

5. Find The Lead. Based on the content of his essay, his lead materialized. When I wrote my own piece on the subject, mine centered around the inexplainable defeatist mentality that had embraced so many who liken the idea of a moon colony to wasteful spending and science fiction.

6. Write The Conclusion. This was the one area where the rubric was sort of right. The best conclusions usually summarize, restate, and provide some semblance of a call to action. Tying in the introduction can be a good idea too, assuming it fits. Most people don't struggle with conclusions, unless their entire body of content is weak. However, I sometimes wish writers would sweat the conclusion a little more; weak conclusions are like movies that don't wrap themselves up. They leave you hanging with nothing. 

My son found the process much easier to manage than the empty ad-lib. He also learned more than his essay would teach. But even more than that, the process helped him learn what a rubric cannot teach. It will help him find his passion in his subject, much like painters find a passion in their art beyond numbers and colors or writers discover the good and bad of applying algorithms to everything

Hopefully, these six steps will help my students too. We'll see on the next assignment. At minimum, I hope it changes the only stake many public relations pros have in any assignment (in class or at work): get it done and fire it out along with the other 4.3 million news releases that are distributed every day. Of course, there is one bright side. News releases used to pile up in landfills. Now it's just the Internet.
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