Almost uniquely amongst academic studies, the Creative Arts are notoriously difficult to assess. Unlike other subjects, they are not about the learning of facts or the expression of theories, and consequently, they cannot be assessed using traditional methods of exams and essays. In Creative Writing modules, work must show an understanding of techniques and an understanding of the effects those techniques have upon the reader. It is a practical skill which can only be assessed by its final product—a piece of written text structured to achieve a desired purpose.
Creative Writing students frequently, and occasionally even tutors, argue that assessment stifles creativity and that writing, as a form of self-expression, should not come under the usual sets of criteria given to other, more prescriptive subjects. Critics of assessment claim that Creative Writing cannot be judged objectively, as assessors will automatically be biased against any work whose style or subject matter they do not personally appreciate.
This is of course nonsense. Creative Writing can and should be assessed against a set of criteria based partly on learning outcomes and partly on guidelines used to judge writing in different contexts. While it is true that aspects of Creative Writing remain somewhat subjective, just as with any other form of art, it is also true that many of the individual elements, particularly technical elements, are of a more black and white nature, i.e. there is/are: good descriptions and poor descriptions; successful structure and unsuccessful structure; consistent narratives and inconsistent narratives; correct punctuation and incorrect punctuation.
Again, critics will argue this premise, citing well-known authors who have successfully experimented with form, and who, like E. E. Cummings and Virginia Woolf, have become part of the literary canon. The differences between the writing of these authors and that of writers using the experimental tag, as a protection against criticism, are of intent and consistency. Under Grading Considerations for Creative Work, in the handbook for the School of English and Creative Studies at Bath Spa University [no date], the author makes a similar statement: “Creative writing makes its own rules. As assessors, we attempt to judge how rigorously and conscientiously those rules have been conceived, and how effectively and persuasively they have been carried out.”
In September 2005, I accepted a part-time post teaching Creative Writing to undergraduate Humanities students. As no formal marking conventions were available for this course, I was presented with those for English Literature (see Appendix 1). According to Dr. Siobhán Holland, (2002a), this scenario is not uncommon on programmes where Creative Writing is a minor part of a department’s provision. Having plenty of experience assessing Creative Writing in a workshop setting, but no experience in marking work with percentage grades, I felt I needed a structured template to guide me. Taking the Literature conventions, plus criteria cobbled together from learning outcomes, formal criteria from my own Creative Writing degree and judges’ criteria from writing competitions, I constructed a marking sheet with twenty-five elements which I rated 1— 4 (see Appendix 2), giving marks out of one hundred. I then used this at the end of the first semester, when assessing students’ work.
For the most part, I was satisfied with the resulting marks, however there were several instances where my gut feeling was that the marks were too high. In response to this, I lowered several of the top and mid-range marks by 6-8 percentage points. The second marker agreed with these new high and middle range marks, but felt that the three bottom marks should be raised. Once marks had been agreed, I then found that two separate percentage marks needed to be given—one for the creative piece of writing, and one for the critical commentary. When the two pieces were separated and graded according to the results of the marking sheet, the scores altered wildly. Consequently, these separate marks needed to be re-jigged, in an ad hoc fashion, in order to conform to the overall marks. The whole process felt inexact, and as each of the twenty-five elements was marked separately, this system was very time consuming. I came away feeling there must be a better way.
Summary of Research
My first step in revising this assessment method was to contact my own dissertation tutor to get her feedback on my marking sheet. She commented that the breakdown of skills for which I was looking, was essentially correct, although she thought that some of the wording could be more specific. She also felt that a number of the criteria were focussed on the reader’s reaction to the student’s work, rather than on the work itself, (personal communication, 17 Feb 2006).
She also provided me with some general information about what qualities each level of work might contain: 40-49 being fragmented and poorly expressed, but containing an idea of a story; 50-59 being competent, but possibly cliché and dull; etc.
At this time, I also began exploring marking conventions from other institutions and located, what I considered to be a clearly-written set of conventions in the handbook of the School of English and Creative Studies at Bath Spa University (no date). In addition to the marking conventions, the handbook gives a detailed description of the assessment process, the programme’s aims and objectives and also clearly explains the other considerations which influence grading, such as the level of consistency and integrity of narrative voice and competence in the basic techniques and elements of Creative Writing. Although I had included a similar set of aims and objectives, advice about redrafting, guidelines for presentation of work and guidelines for the critical analysis in my unit handbook, the Bath Spa handbook stated much more explicitly what was expected from its students.
In comparison to those of Bath Spa (see Appendix 3), the overall aims and objectives included in my handbook (see Appendix 4) were quite simplistic. I decided to review these details and incorporate the aims and objectives as laid out in my lesson plans (see Appendix 5), to give students a more complete sense of what I expected them to be able to achieve by the end of the term.
Additionally, I decided to review my guidelines for the critical analysis and consider ways in which the criteria for this part of the final assignment could be made more specific.
The majority of Creative Writing programmes offered at degree level require students to reflect upon the writing process and to engage in an academic discussion with regards to the material they have studied, its influences upon their own work and the feedback they have received during workshopping and the redrafting process. In the critical analysis, students are able to put forward arguments which support decisions they made in their choice of genre, style and attempts at experimentation. It is here that the tutor can gauge to what extent the student has achieved and incorporated the learning outcomes in an academic, rather than an artistic, manner.
The Trouble With Language
While gathering my research, I became aware that a battle is raging amongst Creative Writing tutors regarding the language used in assessment criteria. In her paper, Assessing the Criteria: An Argument for Creative Writing Theory, Amanda Boulter argues against the use of language which she considers indistinct and unquantifiable. She asserts that “the magic key” for assessing Creative Writing is clear criteria and lists a number of words and phrases which she believes should be struck from assessment vocabulary:
vividness; particularised detail; selectivity; originality; economy and coherence of structure; voices that are convincingly and powerfully imitated; persuasiveness; eloquence; writing that is moving; integrity of voice; authenticity; subtle use of language. (2004, p.135)Likewise, Patricia Duncker, in the introduction to Creative Writing on the British Arts Council website (no date), rails against the use of wording which she considers vague:
Most university assessment criteria once included dubious phrases such as ‘indisputably original’ or ‘of publishable quality’. I have never found two writers who agreed on a precise definition of ‘originality’ and how it could be assessed. So much badly written nonsense and best-selling vacuous cliché is published every year that being ‘publishable’ cannot be a failsafe assessment criteria....The emphasis now falls on more obviously technical aspects of writing, control over language and form, a clearly developed individual style and an intelligent inventiveness.
Judging the technical aspects is of course, what I was attempting to do with my original marking sheet. Yet technical aspects aside, it is incumbent upon the Creative Writing tutor to also make judgements about the quality of the art. So once again, we are back to looking at the language with which these judgements are made.
High on the list of criteria of all Creative Writing tutors with whom I have worked, is the concept of originality. Though Duncker believes criteria of this sort to be ambiguous, originality continues to be something we all look for as tutors, and strive for as writers. I carried out my own little survey, amongst my community of writing colleagues, asking for their definition of the word ‘originality’ and how they would go about assessing this quality. Most agreed that originality has not so much to do with the story itself, but more with the author’s ability to make the reader view the world in a different way. We all recognise ‘tired’ plots brimming with clichés and characters we’ve come across before. Prime-time television is full of them. And we all recognise something that is new, fresh and exciting, something that surprises us and makes us think. This is originality.
Duncker’s assertion that the phrase ‘of publishable quality’ is of little value is also not fully justified. While it may be true that many works of popular fiction appear ‘badly written’ and ‘vacuous’ (when compared, I presume, with literary fiction), these works satisfy the desires of a large sector of the reading public. The fact that they have found publication, in what is an increasingly competitive market, is evidence that they have achieved a certain quality of worth.
Publishers are primarily motivated by money and must protect their assets and reputations by ensuring that the work they accept is at least of a certain technical competence. Likewise, because of the variety of styles and genres which fall within the boundaries of Creative Writing, it is inappropriate, and indeed undesirable, to be prescriptive when it comes to assessment criteria. Each work will be guided by the ‘rules’ of its particular genre. For this reason, and in order to allow students the freedom to find their own voice, criteria need to be broad enough to accommodate a variety of styles and forms.
After digesting assessment information from various sources, I met with a more experienced tutor to discuss criteria and marking procedures. She provided me with assessment guidelines for one of the modules she taught, along with a scoring sheet with a total of seven simplified criteria including Boulter’s disliked concept of originality (see Appendix 6). This helped to reinforce my belief that my preference for “writerly terminology” is acceptable.
It also confirmed an idea that had been taking shape since I began researching this topic, which is that Creative Writing tutors formulate marks not by any numerical process, but through experience, as tutors, as readers and as working writers. It is through experience that we recognise the relative value of the written word. It is through experience that we know when something works. And it is through experience that we know when something doesn’t.
How findings will affect my professional practice...
The one thing which all of my sources agree about, when it comes to assessing students’ work, is that whatever criteria are given, in whatever format, they need to be made understandable in order to give students the best opportunity for success. As tutors, we want our students to succeed and the criteria we set are meant to guide them in the right direction. Not all criteria, however, will apply to all forms and genre of writing, so the criteria we give cannot be made absolute. We are, after all, teaching Creative Writing, not Technical Writing.
Though there is much debate regarding the language with which these criteria are written, I still support the use of terms such as originality, eloquence, sophistication and authenticity as long as the meanings of these terms are made clear to students. These criteria cannot simply be listed in the module handbook and never referred to again. They must become a part of the session work, through the building of students’ literary vocabulary, close analysis of published and peer work and raising student expectations of their own creative efforts. These terms are part of the language of Creative Writing and by doing away with them, we would de-emphasise the art in favour of rules.
There will always be a certain amount of subjective response, when assessing artistic forms such as Creative Writing. As tutors, we need to recognise this and to minimise its effects as much as possible. By teaching our students how to reflect upon and judge the quality of their own work, through critical analysis, and to support the choices they make in the development of their writing, we go some way to eliminate the traps of personal bias.
Using information gathered over the course of this assignment, I created a new set of marking conventions (see Appendix 7), containing Boulter and Duncker’s contentious language. Since then, I have discussed these with my students and referred to them repeatedly when analysing published work, to help them become familiar with their usage.
What I have come to understand is that ultimately, Creative Writing tutors must rely upon our experience, both as astute readers and practicing writers, when assessing student work. Assessment of this sort cannot be one-hundred percent foolproof. Contained within the process of creativity is experimentation, and experimentation, by its nature bends—and even breaks—accepted rules. It is through experience, not through tick-box evaluations, that we are able to judge whether these experiments are successful.
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Bath Spa University (no date) “Grading considerations for creative work” in the School of English and Creative Studies Handbook [online]. Available from: http://ecs.bathspa.ac.uk/current/undergrad/ creative-writing/creative-studies-handbook.htm [Accessed 10 Feb 2006].
Boulter A (2004) “Assessing the criteria: an argument for creative writing theory” in the International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, 1 (2), 134-140.
Duncker P (no date). In the Introduction to the British Arts Council’s web page on Creative Writing [online]. Available from: http://www.britishcouncil.org/arts-literature-activities-creativewriting-intro.htm [Accessed 13 Feb 2006].
Holland S (2002a). Creative writing: a good practice guide, a report to the Learning and Teaching Support Network [online]. London, English Subject Centre. Available from: www.english.heacademy.ac.uk/archive/publications/reports/ cwguide.pdf [Accessed 10 Feb 2006].
Jones RC (2001). “Standards in creative writing teaching” in Bell J and Magrs P (eds) The creative writing coursebook Macmillan.
Holland S (2002b). Communicating about assessment, [online]. London, Higher Education Academy, English Subject Centre. Available from: http://www.english. ltsn.ac.uk/explore/ resources/assess/modes.php [Accessed 10 Feb 2006].
Roehampton University (no date). Creative writing assessment criteria: written work [online]. Available from: www.roehampton.ac.uk/emlzone/documents/Assessment Criteria/CreativeWritingAssesmentCriteria.doc [Accessed 12 Feb 2006].
Sweet Briar College (no date). English department assessment goals, [online]. Available from: http://fiction.english.sbc.edu/dept% 20assessment%201.html [Accessed 15 Feb 2006].
University of Adelaide (2005) Assessment [online]. Available from: www.arts.adelaide.edu.au/humanities/english/creative/ masters.html#Assessment [Accessed 13 Feb 2006].
University of Birmingham (2003). Levels, assessment and marking: mark descriptions for the marking of assessed work [online]. Available from: http://www.cll.bham.ac.uk/Levels%20Assessment%20and%20Marking.htm [Accessed 12 Feb 2006].