What Is an "A" Paper?

The following thumbnail descriptions should give you an idea of what distinguishes an excellent paper one that is average or unsatisfactory:

The Unsatisfactory Essay:

The D or F essay either has no thesis or else makes an argument that is vague, broad, or uninteresting. There is little indication that the writer understands the material being presented. The paragraphs do not hold together. Ideas do not develop from sentence to sentence. This essay usually repeats the same thoughts again and again, perhaps in slightly different language, but often in the same words. The D or F essay is filled with mechanical faults (subject verb disagreement, obscure pronouns, sentence fragments), errors in grammar, and errors in spelling.

More seriously, the use of plagiarized material -- material copied without citing the source, or ideas taken from another source without giving the original author credit in an endnote -- constitutes an automatic F, and places the student at risk of disciplinary sanctions by the university.

The C Essay:

The C essay has a thesis, but it is vague and broad, or else it is uninteresting or obvious. It does not advance an argument that anyone might care enough about to debate: "Modern cities are interesting places." The thesis in a C essay often hangs on some personal opinion. If the writer is a recognized authority, this expression of personal taste might be noteworthy, but writers gain their authority by learning how to justify and give evidence for their opinions. Opinion by itself is never enough. It must be defended.

The C essay rarely uses evidence well; sometimes it does not use evidence at all. Even if it has a clear and interesting thesis, an essay with insufficient supporting evidence is a C essay. The core argument of a C essay is incompletely developed; organization may be weak, analysis shallow or over-generalized. Writing may show awkward transitions, and unconnected paragraphs, with a tendency toward wordiness, awkward sentences, grammatical errors, and vagueness of meaning. The C essay often has mechanical faults such as these, but please note: a paper without such flaws may still be a C essay.

The B Essay:

The reader of a B essay knows exactly what the author wants to say. It is well organized, it presents a worthwhile and interesting idea, and the idea is supported by sound evidence presented in a neat and orderly way. The paragraphs may be awkward now and then, but they are each organized around a main idea, and develop that idea. Some of the sentences may not be elegant, but they are clear, and thought follows naturally on thought. Together, the paragraphs build an argument. The reader does not have to read a paragraph two or three times to get the thought the writer is trying to convey.

The B essay is, for the most part, mechanically correct. A good command of the language is displayed, though stylistic or grammatical problems may be present to some extent. The spelling is good, and the punctuation is accurate. Above all, the essay makes sense the whole way through. It has a thesis that is not too big, and that is worth arguing. It does not contain unexpected digressions, and it ends by keeping its promise to argue and inform the reader about the issue with which it begins.

The A Essay:

The A essay has all the good qualities of the B essay, but in addition it is lively, well paced, interesting, and even exciting. The essay has style. Everything seems to fit and support the argument. It may have a proofreading error or two, or even a misspelled word, but the reader feels that these errors are the result of the normal accidents all good writers encounter.

An A essay presents a clear thesis that goes beyond restatement of the text or class discussion. Ideas are carefully analyzed, and the examples used to support points are well chosen, persuasive, and directly applicable to the argument. Structure of the essay is smooth and clear; transitions are well handled, paragraphs fully developed. Sentences are sophisticated, words chosen aptly, and the grammar is correct.

Reading the paper, we feel a mind at work. We are convinced the writer cares about his or her ideas, and about the language that carries them. The sure mark of the A essay is that you find yourself telling someone else about it.