Grading Papers Can Be Fun, So Can Writing

But then there’s… Ugh—facing the pile.

Or not, which is what often happens. If you have two weeks to grade papers, what happens in the first week? The first ten days even?

C’mon, be honest. If you are like… well, anyone, there’s a good chance that you collect those papers, think “ah so nice that there’s two weeks for grading,” and stuff those suckers away into the corners of your mind, the shadowy regions where thoughts throw grappling hooks on you and pull at you steadily, but not so hard enough for you to realize there are free-loaders dragging you down.

Until it’s almost too late, and you have to face the pile.

Interestingly, although this is obviously quite a drag for your own writing aspirations, this pile can actually help you to write prolifically.

This is not cow jumping over the moon stuff, believe me.

Here’s what I mean—how you approach this pile of papers is going to help you to find the best writing process for your life.

So let’s look at a great way to approach grading papers and see in that a great way to write, and actually practice that and lay down the tracks for your writing choo-choo.

  1. Well obviously one of the first things that grading and writing share is the devil of avoidance.

It’s the dreaded pile, after all. What a great metaphor, but also not a metaphor. This pile is real and how you find a way through it can also be the way through other “piles.”

It’s very simple and clear with grading: procrastination is related to a sense of the task being painful. It’s because of an impression of displeasure in our memory that we don’t face the pile and put it off.

This happens with writing also. When our writing sessions are grueling, painful, and long, we might get a lot done sometimes, but we’ll create the memory of pain and that will kick in the next time.

If we write in long grueling sessions, as often happens on deadlines, we’ll dread writing in the future (leading to more deadline crashes next time due to avoidance).

If we grade in long grueling sessions, we’ll procrastinate. Thus leading to more grueling sessions.

The great thing is, this habit can be easily reversed with grading papers because you don’t have as much personal emotional investment in grading. You can just do what it takes to grade the easy way.

And that is—divide up your papers and time and never have a tiring experience grading, ever.

Just make that the goal. Realize that you are doing more than grading. You are training.

So that’s the goal—to successfully divide up your grading so that you are never tired at the end of a grading session.

Budget out the papers and time over a span, preferably every day, to accomplish your goal.

When you do this, you are creating the association of not-pain with grading. As you go through day by day, this will get easier and resistance will weaken because of reversing the conditioning you’ve acquired. (you can also start with small numbers of papers, even 1 or 2 per day, and work your way up a little).

This also helps you stay focused and fresh as you approach each paper as well as creating a general memory of not-pain.


  1. Consider what part of the day and what conditions you are grading in.

There is no one thing to say about this. If we are talking only about your writing practice, then you should always strive to write a little during the best part of your day. Don’t use that up on emails, or lordy, lordy, internet browsing or social media.

Likewise I would have to admit that using your best time for grading will make grading easier. So you’ll have to decide which is going to be the priority: writing-as-a-way-to-learn-writing-process or grading-as-a-way-to-learn-writing-process.

Grading comes but once in a while, while writing is more permanent. Even so, probably the best choice is to keep writing first and simply budget the grading accordingly—doing even fewer per session over a longer period of days.

Of course, this will depend on the circumstances, the time available, and how much control you have over the grading situation. You might need to temporarily switch it the other way around. If writing comes second, go easier on it.

At least, you are consciously choosing. It’s very important for writing to identify the best time under your life conditions and put “Writing First” there as your policy. (It’s like America First, only good). But even if you have to temporarily put grading first, you’re still practicing the art of putting things first.


  1. Grade Faster, and Creatively

Check to see if your idea of grading is a good one. A lot of time we’ll think of grading in terms of some abstract sense of quality, of general standards, and see the task as trying to approximate, judge, and fairly assess the paper against the standards. That this is the most important thing in our minds, which is extremely burdensome yet not necessarily the best way to do it. Of course I suppose that is the definition of grading, actually, but maybe it would be better to think differently.

What if you switched from judging the quality of an essay to scanning an essay to find the intervention that can be of the greatest benefit to the student?

If that focus on “find the benefit for the student here” is top of mind, then you can just decide how many benefits you will provide for each essay, find them, and then move on. If it’s identify one thing the student does well and point that out, find one thing that they could do to improve, and give one response to the idea communicated in an essay, that is often enough.

Students don’t need tons of comments and even find that disconcerting. Some students don’t read comments. In any case, improving step by step is better than giving people a pile of problems to sort out in their writing. You know how it is with piles, after all.

In any case, however you decide to portion out your goals, break it down that way. Even if you are forced to use someone else’s rubric you can find a way to fit this strategy in. Part of it is mindset—the shift from abstract quality analysis to providing practical benefit. The latter attitude is easier, lighter, and also of more benefit.

As you do this you’ll find that you can scan papers, or if not that, at least learn to read quickly and with focus.

One thing I do to speed things up is I correct grammar, or other technical writing problems, only on the first two pages. After that I say you have to work on these things and they happen throughout the rest of the paper.

And this is how I write—grammar, or in this case, the phrasing and wording of things, is not the top priority first time through. I have specific objectives and they are few. Don’t write for quality, some unspecified abstract sense. Decide what you need to get out of a writing session, and then get it.

If it’s come up with one paragraph that captures one idea, then know that and make that be the goal. If it’s rewrite this page of sentences as though they were written after you read Professor Wunderkind’s opus, rather than before it, then do that. Don’t have vague abstract goals in your head like “write well” or “work on the chapter,” even kicking around subconsciously. Nothing abstract. Get your bedazzled attention out of that space. Be practical and focus in on what you are there to get out of any small writing session. Then, get it.


  1. Keep Track of Time

This is actually necessary for all 1-3 above. But it’s a separate thing here, just in order to realize that time is on your side. It will help you do 1-3. Time gives you the structure to put 1-3 into practice and make sure you are doing the practice.

But there’s more.

Because if you happen to be a grad student TA, or a professor who gives work to TAs, it’s important to know what is a reasonable amount of work.

For TAs, this might be in a contract or agreement. If you are a TA you should practice fast, creative grading within your powers. You should not get carried away with abstract quality judgment. You should implement all this advice so that you are not bogged down by grading.

But then, if there is still a problem, and once you sure you are not the problem, you may need to do something about it if the hours you put in do not square with expectations.

Many professors over-exploit grad students by accident (I chose the wording over-exploit on purpose). They’re not thinking about how much time things take nor aware of what are reasonable expectations. It may be the case that you can tell your professor how much time it is taking you, and ask for advice. It may be that several TAs, after trying that, need to speak to someone about these issues.

Professors should not over-exploit graduate students. That’s on them alone. The exploit without the “over”– that’s on the institutions mostly, yet also somewhat on the professors, on the students, and everyone to do something about.

I can’t give specific advice about what you should do in your situation because I don’t want you to get into trouble, but more often than not there is something you can do, starting perhaps with asking advice (which can be scarequote “asking advice” as a way to notify someone of something) about the time it takes you to grade things.

In any case, keeping track of the time will help you structure a new habit in grading, just as it will in writing.


  1. Create Interesting Assignments

One reason you might be finding it painful to grade papers is the assignment you made! If you do make the assignment, give students a lot of options and possibilities for individual initiative if at all possible. Then you won’t be reading the same paper over and over.

One assignment that’s not even very creative of me to think of, but which works for me, is to ask students to write a short paper around a single quote from a book or article—they choose the quote, explain it and respond to it with their own thoughts and observations on the matter. That creates variety and the student can find something they actually feel invested in. They also tend to remain focused and organized, and it also practices a standard skill in academic writing.

See what ways you can get student engagement and variety in your assignments, if you have the freedom to do so.

Luckily we all have a lot of freedom in what we write about. Almost always, academic writers have more freedom than they realize. There are creative ways around the things we feel are imposed on us. And when there isn’t that feeling of being constrained, there’s many ways to explore and draw out what’s in us.

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Grading and Writing Are Not Always Nice Together, But Still…

Of course, grading papers gets in the way of writing. This fact needs to be acknowledged and worked into your academic lifestyle. But let’s not forget the great gift that grading gives us:

You get to practice a healthy way to relate to work, on something that is not potentially wounding for you, for the most part (don’t assign “Tell me what you think of my course” as an essay!).

With that tangible pile of papers you get to practice facing, living with, and even benefitting from The Pile.

This is great practice for your Writing Process. Grading will help you as you transfer the same strategies over to your writing.

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