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9 Elements of a Writing Rubric: How to Score Well on Your Paper

Updated on January 8, 2024Students

Writing a paper in college can feel daunting, but luckily, many writing assignments come with a rubric—clear descriptions of what your professor believes demonstrates competent writing and proficiency in research, structure, and mechanics.

Writing rubrics are a helpful tool to keep your writing aligned with the assignment and to understand exactly what your professor is looking for so you can score well on your paper.

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What is a writing rubric?

A writing rubric is a clear set of guidelines on what your paper should include, often written as a rating scale that shows the range of scores possible on the assignment and how to earn each one. Professors use writing rubrics to grade the essays they assign, typically scoring on content, organization, mechanics, and overall understanding.

Writing rubrics exist to help you understand the assignment fully and show how you can reach the score you desire. A rubric is often illustrated in a table that includes:

  • Row headings that articulate the requirements
  • Column headings that show the different scores possible
  • Boxes inside the rubric that show how each requirement can be achieved under each level of proficiency

How do writing rubrics work in college?

Writing rubrics take the mystery out of what your professor is looking for in a well-written essay. While rubrics are used at all levels, college-level writing rubrics are often very detailed about expectations, and scoring is done according to how the student covers the topic and employs writing skills in an organized, effective way.

When a professor assigns a paper, it often comes with a writing rubric. The professor will use the writing rubric to grade your essay. Writing rubrics offer guidance and help you make sure you’re ticking every box as you write. They don’t always involve points. Sometimes, rubrics score papers on a scale from poor to excellent. Occasionally a rubric will specify which elements of a topic must be covered in a paper in a checklist structure with space for feedback, rather than a scoring system.

9 elements of a writing rubric

1 Focus

Staying focused in your writing is important. You want to make sure that your ideas and supporting evidence are clear throughout.

  • What is the main purpose of your paper?
  • Is it relevant to the assignment?
  • Do you stay consistent or tend to go off on tangents to the subject?

2 Thesis statement

A thesis statement is a declarative sentence that tells the reader the argument being made or the main point of the paper.

  • Is your thesis statement strong, clear, and insightful?
  • Is your thesis statement relevant to the assignment?

3 Support and development

The support and development section in a writing rubric assesses how well you support your thesis with research.

  • How in-depth is the analysis?
  • Is it relevant?
  • Do you make a strong case for your thesis using a wide range of evidence from credible primary and secondary sources?

4 Audience and tone

In a writing rubric, the audience and tone sections refer to how well your writing style aligns with the purpose of the paper and who it is intended for.

  • Is the tone appropriate for the audience (e.g., other students, professors, or outside institutions)?
  • Is the tone consistent, or is it formal at times and informal at others?
  • Is the tone engaging and in sync with your unique writing style?

5 Structure

Structure refers to how you organize and build on each of your ideas from the beginning to the end of your paper.

  • Is the paper’s structure logical?
  • Is there flow between sentences and paragraphs?
  • Is there a strong introduction, supporting body, and clear conclusion?

6 Point of view

With your audience and the purpose of your essay in mind, you need to pick an appropriate point of view.

  • Is the point of view appropriate? For example, the first-person point of view is often considered inappropriate for an academic paper.
  • Is the point of view consistent?
  • Does the point of view add to the paper’s impact and tone?

7 Sentence structure

You’ll want to avoid things like run-on sentences, filler words, and clunky transitions between paragraphs.

  • Is there varied sentence structure throughout?
  • Are the sentences grammatically correct?
  • Are the transitions between sentences and paragraphs clean and easy to follow?

8 Mechanics

Good mechanics in a paper rely on following all of the rules in writing.

  • Is your writing free of grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors?
  • Do you demonstrate a strong understanding of proper English mechanics, such as capitalization, contractions, gerunds, participles, numbers, and punctuation marks?

9 Vocabulary

In a writing rubric, a professor uses the vocabulary section to assess your word choice and how precisely you apply your vocabulary.

  • Are you using words that fit the subject, or are they too basic or too complex?
  • Is the word choice varied, precise, and collegiate-level?

Tip: For papers focused on academics, theory, or persuasion, a writing rubric will emphasize the need for a strong thesis statement, relevant supporting evidence, critical analysis, and clarity. For creative writing, rubrics will emphasize the importance of originality, voice, and audience appeal.

Levels of proficiency in a writing rubric

Point-based rubrics will show the total number of points you can score based on proficiency in each criterion. By ensuring your work matches the criteria in the highest categories, you should earn a good grade.

Levels of performance, given as labels, typically range from highly proficient to unproficient. Each level shows how well you did in each category based on words and phrases such as:

  • Exemplary, advanced
  • Proficient, good
  • Fair, able
  • Emerging, needs improvement
  • Unsatisfactory, poor

How to use a writing rubric to improve your paper

Before submitting your paper, you can use the rubric as a checklist to ensure you followed the assignment properly. Editing your paper with reference to the rubric is a great way to check for grammatical errors and polish your writing to be engaging, organized, and well developed.

Graded rubrics are also a great map for the revision process and can show you where your strengths and weaknesses lie in writing. Studying rubrics can even make you a stronger writer. By considering the qualities that make up a strong essay, you can work to master the different areas and continually improve your writing.

Essay rubric example

Excellent Good Fair Emerging Unsatisfactory
Focus, Purpose, Thesis
Thesis is clearly stated, strong, and insightful; writing is tight and focused; purpose aligns with prompt.
Thesis is clear; writing flows well; purpose is clearly understood and articulated.
Thesis is weak; writing is somewhat disorganized; purpose is lightly supported.
Simplistic or missing thesis; purpose is confusing.
Confusion about topic; no clear thesis or purpose.

Supporting Evidence, Ideas, Development

Consistent, specific evidence; original and well-supported ideas; ideas and supporting evidence flow in unison.
Ideas are well supported with reliable sources; writing flows logically.
Supporting evidence is light; development could be stronger; ideas are simplistic.
Very little supporting evidence; ideas are unclear; development of essay is minimal.
No supporting evidence; no original ideas; writing is undeveloped.
Structure, Organization, Clarity
Paragraphs are well developed; ideas are articulated between smooth transitions; writing is precise.
Writing is logical and organized.
Competent organization with little sophistication; structure is unclear at times.
Writing is disorganized; little clarity or structure.
No organization; ideas and evidence are completely unclear or lacking entirely.

Audience, Tone, Point of View

Clear understanding of audience; tone is sophisticated and distinctive; point of view is intentional; writing is unique and captivating.
Tone is professional and engaging; point of view is appropriate; writing style is captivating.
Tone is somewhat unprofessional; point of view is appropriate.
Tone is unprofessional; point of view is inappropriate and inconsistent.
Tone is unprofessional; no awareness of audience; point of view is inconsistent and confusing.

Grammar, Spelling

No mechanical errors.
Few mechanical errors.
Some mechanical errors.
Several mechanical errors.
Numerous mechanical errors; it’s unclear what’s being said.


Exceptional word choice; vocabulary is varied and accurate; word choice is impactful and effective.
Accurate word choice; intentional syntax and diction used throughout.
Adequate word choice; could use more variation.
Word choice is simplistic with much repetition.
Word choice is inappropriate, inaccurate, and simplistic; constant repetition.

Writing rubric FAQs

What is a writing rubric?

A writing rubric is a scoring tool that professors use to communicate their expectations for a writing assignment and the degrees of proficiency each student can reach. Writing rubrics can help students understand how their work is graded.

How does a writing rubric work?

A writing rubric shows each of the grades you can receive based on how well you adhere to the criteria listed under each level of proficiency. It can be a helpful checklist when writing.

What are the key elements of a writing rubric?

Key elements assessed in a writing rubric include focus, thesis, organization and structure, development of ideas, support of the thesis statement, audience, tone, point of view, vocabulary, and writing mechanics.

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