Putting Pen to Paper: The Life-cycle of an English Essay

Delving into the process of an English essay, from its initial assignment to the final grade.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Yile Tong

A blank Google Doc. Crumpled up pages of rough outlines. An open book, ravaged for a quote that barely resembles evidence. Such a scene is familiar to many Stuyvesant students: scrambling late at night in a struggle to complete an essay for English class. After all, the “life-cycle” of such an assignment is lengthy and far more involved than students may initially think.

The process of concocting an essay begins well before the actual writing does, typically with the introduction of a new text for analysis in class. Some teachers, such as English teacher Dr. Emily Moore, have students consider assignments from the very beginning of a book. “I use something teachers call backwards design. So you think about what you most care about as a writing technique or a measure of student understanding, and that is the assignment. And I always give the assignment really early in the reading of anything, so that students can track the book in a way that recognizes the writing skills,” Dr. Moore said.

When it comes time to write, one of the biggest challenges is simply starting the assignment. “For me, the hardest part is beginning, because you don’t know what to begin with, like how to introduce the essay,” freshman Amelia Estevez said.

Usually, students will take the time to find a starting point, allowing the rest of the paper to fall into place. “What I do is I just wait until inspiration strikes for a really good thesis, and then writing the essay is honestly easy. I’ve done a few essays so far this year, and it’s worked every time,” Estevez said. She then explained what she looks for in a good thesis: “It’s something that we didn’t necessarily talk too much about in class. Something that seems kind of unique or genuinely my idea. And something that could be clear and easy to walk through paragraphs to explain and improve.”

For others, inspiration can come from outside sources. “I take a lot of inspiration from various sources. So it’s sort of like emulating for me. When I’m writing an essay, usually I do a lot of reading from my favorite authors,” sophomore Madeline Hutchinson said.

An essay includes more components than just a thesis, of course; examples from the text are required to serve as evidence in support of a claim. Sophomore Olivia Callahan explained that the strength of this evidence can define an essay. “If it’s like an evidence based essay, it’s like trying to find certain quotes that fit what I’m trying to say. And then I compile them all together and create a thesis based on that,” she said.

Teachers try to give students an ample amount of time to generate such ideas. Assistant Principal of English Eric Grossman explained the flexibility of his deadlines. “Most teachers aim for the sweet spot of giving you ample time to finish […] the text [and] generate ideas, find evidence, if it’s that type of paper,” he said. However, Grossman noted that there is such a thing as having too much time. “[You can]not let it get too far away, either. Because [...] two months later, you don’t remember the book. So, usually I’d say within a week to two weeks of finishing a work [is an ideal timeframe],” he said.

This abundance of time makes English assignments more relaxing for some students. “The English teachers are really nice, and they give me really, really long days to work on it. So I just kind of put it last because I know that it’s something that I’ll enjoy,” said Hutchinson.

Using the allotted time to ruminate on their writing can also help students complete the assignment in a timely fashion, easing procrastination. Though students admit to procrastinating, the excuse is waiting for the perfect thesis. “After I get that thesis in, I can write it in like two days, so I don’t think that procrastination is that bad,” freshman Audrey Hilger said.

Of course, as with most assignments, sometimes students don’t want to work on English essays just because they are disinterested in the topic. “If I’m passionate about the topic, then I probably power myself through it. But if I’m not really [interested], I probably would be procrastinating,” Estevez said.

After the tedious process of writing, students must edit their work—a sometimes harsh but usually beneficial stage. “I send my essays to my peers to have a peer review,” senior Chris Dong said. “It really does help because your teachers will just be smarter. Your teachers are more experienced,” he said.

Most students agreed that their writing has only improved during their time at Stuyvesant. In addition to having a teacher that is a strict grader, Hilger also said that class discussions have helped improve her craft. “Our discussions about the books especially are so much more deep than in middle school, so it’s so much easier to think of a good thesis and write a good essay,” she said.

When an essay is finally completed, however, the wait for grades can be a frustrating one, especially when teachers don’t establish clear grading policies. “Make your grading policy super clear, [and] turn in grades faster,” said Hilger when asked if she had any suggestions for English teachers.

Interestingly enough, teachers don’t worry about how they will grade an assignment when they first receive it. “Numbers and grades are the last thing on my mind when I read,” Grossman said. “You know, I think of it as reading a piece of writing the way I’d read an essay in The New Yorker, or a novel. And what I hope for, when I sit down to read a piece of student writing, is the same thing that I had hoped for when I sit down to read anything, which is to be entertained and delighted,” he said.

While teachers may not think about grading when they read an essay, students certainly do. When Dong was asked whether he writes for a grade, he said, “Obviously. As a Stuyvesant student, you want the best.” However, Dong said that while he does aim to get a good grade, he also writes about what he is personally interested in. “I try to write what’s true to my heart, while also writing in the smart, analytical way, that will answer the prompt,” he explained.

Other students agreed that in the case of such a subjective assignment, grades should matter less so that students can write from the heart. “I think it would be nice if the essays held less weight on your grades, especially because of the single point of grading and the highly subjective nature of an essay,” said Junior Kyle hon Chan in an e-mail interview.

The question remains of how essays can be graded purely on the quality of writing. “Reading is inherently subjective,” Grossman said. Still, the school has tried to promote fairness by implementing a departmental rubric. “A bunch of years ago, we spent a year as a department working to create [it]. It’s not points, it’s descriptive. As both a teacher and the head of the department, it matters to me that students should be treated fairly, and there be as much consistency as possible across classrooms,” Grossman said. Rather than giving a specific checklist of what different grades entail, the rubric describes different levels of writing; for instance, an A+ would be “a triumph of creativity, analysis and sophisticated language,” whereas a B would be a “competent, if uninspired, effort.” This provides the flexibility both teachers and students need—work can be interpreted as desired, yet graded fairly.

Still, what distinguishes an A paper from an A+ paper? According to Moore, this is “a classic Stuyvesant question.” Her answer? “A+ papers tend to create another level. So maybe the student goes a little bit further in, like, once you’ve proven your thesis thinking about why a writer is doing a certain thing,” she said. This correlates with the rubric, which says that an A+ essay “may actually transcend the strictures of the assignment.”

Moore did note that, in an ideal world, English assignments wouldn’t need numerical grades. “I’ve tried to create [...] a simplified grading scale that does give numbers because we have to, because we all use Jupiter, and Stuyvesant loves numbers, but that also tries to be respectful of nuance and variation,” Moore said of her poetry workshop class. “And I’m just one reader. And sometimes, you know, a student will write a poem and another student will be really moved by it. And so you know, who am I to come in over the top and be like, this is a 91.”

Grossman emphasized that the key element that he looks for in an essay is the voice of the student writing it, urging students to let their personalities shine. “Above all else, what English teachers look for when they collect a batch of paper is to feel the writer’s presence,” he said. “Like you’re engaging with an actual flesh and blood person, not just essay number two.”

Though writing an English essay is both a daunting and time-consuming task, students should remember that writing is ultimately a tool of expression. Teachers aren’t looking for an essay that just checks boxes in a rubric; they are looking for the student behind it. What matters more than any letter is what that student has to say. It is only when this has been established—when an author has been truly heard—that the words will flow freely. Then, perhaps, they may get the oh-so-desired A+.