Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What's a Rubric?

So what is a rubric?

Originally rubric referred to red text in a hand-lettered Bible, which eventually evolved into ways of marking instructions for priests in the liturgy, etc. But what it means in modern parlance is a scoring sheet to help a teacher grade a test or project.

Lately, though, rubrics have become a teaching tool for the students themselves. Teachers give the students a set of standards or outcomes which the students can learn to guide themselves. It's an especially useful tool for learning a skill rather than just facts. After all, with skills, students have to practice all the time.

Writing, of course, is a skill. And writers need to learn how to analyze all writing, not just their own, to see what makes great writing great, and bad wring bad. A rubric is an ideal tool for this. It's kind of like a ruler that allows you to measure things that aren't normally measured.

The most common type of rubric in writing is a basic coverage or review sheet, used by first readers in publishing or entertainment, or by judges in a contest. This kind is not a learning tool so much as a way to standardize how you're judging something. And because there are always exceptions to every rule, they are designed to be flexible.

For instance, when I read screenplays, one of my clients gave me a form to fill out. It was pretty standard -- you fill out all the identifying info and a synopsis, and then you analyze the script for Plot, Characterization, Originality, Cinematic Quality, Writing Quality and Overall. She was different than many other clients in that she gave specific point values to each of those, and you'd add up the points and grade the script based on the total.

But she didn't define what should earn a score of 1 or 4 or 10 in each category. She wanted the readers to give her good scripts, not just those that fit the rubric, so she left us some wiggle room. Let's say you got a script which had really super original characters, even if they were a little simplistic. So do you give it a 10 for the Characters and a 10 for Originality? Or do you give it a 5 for Characters, and a 10 for Originality?

That's what we call a fudge factor. What if, in this script, the characters were practically cartoons, but they are so original that it just takes over the whole script and makes it great. It doesn't matter that there isn't much plot, etc., either. The originality keeps you reading all the way through, and you can just see what a great movie it will make. In that case, you let the originality points bleed into the other areas. The plot may not get a 10, but it will get at least an 8 for supporting the originality so well. The characters may get a full 10 because they really did the job, even if they were flat.

At the same time, another script may be very original, but the flat characters and silly plot ruin it. None of it works together. Then you may give the story full points for the originality, and the other elements may get ones, twos and threes. Because in the end, the other elements -- whether they are brilliant or not -- have to support the overall story, and if they don't, it's a fail.

This is the kind of rubric you might use as a reviewer as well. Notice how many reviewers, such as Red Adept, break up the reviews, and the point scores, into categories. They can use these categories to help structure the review, but because the categories are broad, they can set the standards that seem to suit the story.

And that's great when what you are doing is judging. When you're judging, you want to get it right. You don't want to just stick to rules.


A fudge factor is awful when you're trying to learn, and you don't need it because you aren't making a value judgment. When you learn, you don't want things all wishy-washy and hazy. You want to identify things and see exactly how they work. As I mentioned above, you want to measure -- as with a ruler.

And for that reason, a rubric can be made into a great game or exercise. Many "workbooks" for writers are really a kind of detailed rubric. A character sheet, for instance, gives you a list of items you need to know to make up a well rounded character.

I know. just when I'm getting to the fun part, I'm going to say...but that's for tomorrow's post.

Today's Dare Update:

922 words - to finish Chapter 5, in which Mick and Casey dodge some snake oil and make a bargain. Grand total of 11805 words.

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