Getting an A on an English Paper

Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University – Newark


This is a guide about getting an A. Here's what that means in my classes. (For those with other professors, your mileage may vary.)

Here are the categories I use when I assign grades:

Only the best papers earn an A: they do everything that a B paper does (see below), and they go beyond that by catching my attention. A papers not only do nothing wrong; they're engaging and say something interesting. They're well organized and well written, not only avoiding mistakes but showing real elegance and grace. Most of all, they're daring or unexpected: they teach me something new, or show me something about a text I hadn't seen before.

A B paper makes no major errors. It has a clear thesis; it develops it well, with plenty of insightful close reading; it's well written, and not marred by any serious mechanical problems.

A paper will earn some kind of C if it's lacking one or more of the essential ingredients for a B. The most common problem is a bad thesis — that does in more papers than every other problem combined. But others have reasonable theses but are weak on close readings. Style and mechanics alone rarely doom a paper to C-dom, but someone with poor writing skills who can't get a point across might end up with a C for that reason.

I don't give many D's. Only those with more than one serious problem deserve that sort of treatment. A paper with no recognizable thesis, with only a superficial grasp of the text, and really poor expression, for instance — that's D territory. If you're earning D's in my classes, you should certainly talk to me, and maybe to the Writing Center; it means you need to do a lot of work.

Here's my bargain: I won't fail any paper that shows honest effort. That means F's are reserved for papers that show no effort (if it was dashed off two hours before it was due, for instance), and for those that aren't honest. Plagiarism will always earn you an F not only for the paper but for the course, and might even result in disciplinary action like suspension or expulsion: it's serious stuff.

It's frustrating to have to shoehorn papers into the small number of categories available to me: at Rutgers, I have to choose among A, B+, B, C+, C, D, and F. I'm therefore fond of pluses, minuses, and various combinations — A-/B+, that sort of thing — to show which way a paper is leaning. A paper that starts with a reasonable thesis, for instance, but that doesn't use evidence well enough to make a convincing argument, might earn a B-minus. All these niceties are lost when I submit a final grade, but I try to be as clear as possible.

As I said, these are my guidelines. Students are sometimes convinced that grades are assigned almost randomly: Professor A gives an A- and Professor B gives a C+ to the same paper. But in fact the variability in grading isn't what it seems. Most wide divergences in grades result from a paper that does some things very well and others very badly — Professor A might think the close reading is perceptive enough to make up for the weak thesis, while Professor B thinks the vague thesis dooms the paper to a lower grade, however insightful the readings. Or it might be use of evidence versus mechanical mistakes, or whatever. And sometimes it depends on what sort of class you're in: English Composition 101 might expect something different from Advanced Readings in Postmodern American Authors. But most professors will agree within, say, half a grade on a paper that's consistently good or bad.

Grading Standards on Penn's TeachWeb, including those by my pal Erik Simpson, and the superb “Papers: Expectations, Guidelines, Advice, and Grading” by Jeannine DeLombard and Dan White.

from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English Paper

Home Thesis Research Close
Reading Style Mechanics