The Writing Checklist

Recently, in one of my columns for SecurityFocus, I wrote the following:

A long time ago, in another career, I taught English to 9th graders, one of the most fun jobs I've ever had. It taught me something important about the learning process, and there's something in that process that can work for everyone, teenager and adult, 9th grade English student and home computer user.

When I first started out, I would assign the kids a paper and then a couple of weeks later they would hand the results in to me. I would mark up the papers—indicating the multitude of errors (and commending fine writing as well)—hand them back, and then talk to the class about techniques for good writing.

Unfortunately, this process was repeated over and over and over. My students' writing improved only slightly. Clearly, I needed to change my method.

Then I realized my problem. I was telling my students things like "Don't use contractions in formal writing" and "Avoid run-on sentences" and fifty other things, but that was way too much for them to keep in their heads at one time. Heck, it would be too much for any one person to keep in her head, unless she made the act of writing to be something she did so often that she absorbed all the various writing techniques and rules and they finally became intuitive.

My solution was "The Checklist". I drew up a checklist of 50 or so rules that my students were to follow when writing their papers, keyed to a style guide that I had them use. Next to the rules were columns labeled "Draft 1," "Draft 2," "Paper," "Rewrite 1," "Rewrite 2,", and so on. When a student handed in a paper to me, he was to hand in three drafts plus the checklist. The student was to use the checklist as a tool for finding and eliminating common mistakes. Every box in the first three columns should have a check in it, meaning that the problem was not found, or a minus sign, meaning that the problem was found and corrected.

I would grade the student's paper. When I got to the fifth error that the student had claimed was corrected but in fact was not, I would hand the paper back to the student, along with all the other drafts and the checklist, and make him rewrite it. And again, and again, and again, constantly keying the errors back to the checklist and the style guide.

Suddenly, the quality of my students' writing shot up. Quickly, we got beyond the little mistakes in technique and could focus on the bigger issues of form, and methods of argument and persuasion, and style. To this day, I still have former students tell me that they learned to write from my class, but really, it was The Checklist.

After this column was published, I received an amazing number of emails on it. Most wanted a copy of the checklist to use with students, or family members, or friends. After emailing it out too many times, I decided to place a copy on my Web site.

Below are links to the checklist & the original paper policy. They were originally in Word for Mac, but I converted them to text a couple of years ago when I realized that would enable me to keep my data a little easier. I've since redone them in format (which is a fabulous, free Office suite for Linux, Windows, & Mac), PDF, and plain text.

They're over ten years old, but I still think they have some value. The numbers you'll see on the checklist are keyed to Writers Inc., the best style manual for kids that I know. You can get Writers Inc. at Amazon here:

I hope you find the checklist useful!

The Checklist Paper Policy
Plain text (4kb TXT) Plain text (4kb TXT) format (9kb SXW) format (8kb SXW)
PDF (72kb PDF) PDF (71kb PDF)
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