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How To Write A Macro Essay

Here is the skeleton in every writing teacher’s closet: grading essays is soul sucking, mind-breaking work. After fifteen years of dedicating obscene chunks of personal time to the task, I wish I could reveal some cure-all that makes grading fast and euphoric. I can’t. Of course, I find many moments of joy, but the bone-weary reality of the life of an English teacher is that it takes considerable time and significant effort to create meaningful feedback. No matter how I try, I can’t seem to write comments on an essay in less than fifteen minutes. Realistically, it often takes more time. I have experimented with many methods of feedback, but when I need to leave a healthy dose of ink, I use a hybrid approach of handwritten feedback and computer editing tools known as macros. This method doesn’t help me grade more quickly, but it does ensure that I maximize my time. Here’s my basic structure for working through a stack of essays: 

  • Students turn in two copies of an essay, one printed and one electronic copy via Google Docs.
  • I write more quickly on a piece of paper than I can highlight on a computer screen (I have timed each activity), so I go “old school” and leave marks on the page. The two to five minutes I save on each essay quickly add up. I also use a set of symbols to speed this marking process along.
  • I type longer comments that I later print and attach to the essay. I use macros (more on this step below) for common comments, but I also individualize feedback. I always limit myself to one page of typed comments per essay.
  • When finished, I photocopy the completed scoring rubric (which I will use during the revision process), print the one page of typed comments, and then staple the typed comments, the marked essay, and the scoring guide into one packet.
  • I give students at least one week to revise based on my feedback. I require a revision of every major essay, and I use the electronic copy in Google Docs to track the changes. The revision history in Google Docs feature shows me when and where changes were made. Because I made a photocopy of the scoring guide before handing back the essays, I simply look through the revision history on the computer and make changes to the photocopied scoring guide (another time-saver). I do NOT write any additional comments, as the students will not revise this draft, and I am not a glutton for punishment (even though this post may make you think that!)

Explanation of Macros

Using Macros in Microsoft Word I create a database of comments I seem to write over and over again. Creating these macros is straightforward. On a Mac, highlight the text and pull down the “Tools” menu. Select “Auto Correct.” Then choose the “Auto Text” tab. Add your personalized code in the Auto Text Entry field (making sure it’s a sequence of key strokes not likely to occur in your everyday typing) and then click on “Add.”

How to create Auto Text entires using a PC

Admittedly, creating this master list of comments takes more time on the “front end,” as I do have to think carefully about my phrasing and add each macro to the computer. In other words, when I get a new computer, I go through the process of adding all these comments to the Auto Text memory. Yet, I save so much time on the “back end” with this method. Over the course of the school year (and my teaching career), this system saves me more time the more I use the macro comments. Also, I have amassed my own comments over the years, and I make slight changes all the time. I didn’t make all of these at once. You will inevitably make your own set of comments that fits your needs. Yet, my list is a good place for you to start. Feel free to use it as your base. Of course, any method for giving student feedback has its own pros and cons, but I always come back to this method because my students consistently tell me it works. Each year I poll them, hoping they will tell me to cut back on my comments, but they never do. Extensive written feedback is one of my most effective tools for helping my students improve as writers.

EXAMPLE OF MY TYPICAL COMMENTS ON A STUDENT ESSAY

PROS and CONS of the “Old School”/Macro Feedback System: Pros:

  • If a student sees the exact same comment about the misuse of the semi-colon over and over, she is more likely to notice a pattern of errors from essay to essay.
  • My comments are much more legible.
  • I give the same level of feedback to each student. As I get tired, I am not giving a less complete explanation to those students who just happen to have an essay toward the bottom of the stack.
  • I am able to offer much more feedback within 20 minutes than if I am just writing comments in the margin.
  • My feedback is more specific and clear.
  • In the end, I save my time.

Cons:

  • If a student loses the marked hardcopy, she has lost my feedback.
  • If a student does not look at the symbol legend, she will be confused as to what my marks mean and the feedback could be meaningless. (To avoid this, I always build in class time where they review my comments with the legends at hand.)
  • Comments can be too specific. I want to create proactive writers that see me as a guide, not a crutch. I must be careful, then, to be clear and specific while not doing the “heavy lifting” for the students. It’s a balancing act. Also, I don’t create these extensive comments for every writing assignment.

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Henry Farrell, among other things also tells how to structure your essay at all these three levels:

You should structure your essay at three levels.

Macro-structure

This is the broad structure of the essay itself. Unless you feel very comfortable that you are an excellent writer, it is usually best to stick to the traditional frame of an introductory section, a main body, and a conclusion. The introduction tells the reader what you are going to say. The main body tells the reader what you are saying. The conclusions tell the reader what she has just read (perhaps adding some thoughts as to its broader implications if you are feeling adventurous).

This not only helps the reader understand your argument, but disciplines your thought and prose. It forces you to begin your essay with a clear, concise account of your major claims. When you write the main section of the essay (or re-write it, as needs be) the introduction will provide you with a roadmap of what you need to do. Your conclusions, in contrast, should draw the threads together, showing how the facts and arguments you have laid out in the main body actually speak to the broad themes discussed in the introduction, and drawing the threads of your narrative together into a proper whole. Of course, for this to work it is necessary that the main body of your essay actually speak to the arguments laid out in your introduction, that your conclusions relate to the main body, and so on.

Meso-structure

This is perhaps the most commonly neglected element of structured writing. It concerns the paragraphs into which your prose is organized. Each paragraph should focus on one main point. The point of each paragraph should build on that in the previous paragraph, and create the foundations of the next. Each paragraph should be a necessary part of the overall structure of your essay.

I find that a useful mental exercise is to boil down the arguments of each paragraph, one after the other, into single sentences. Then, put all these sentences together into a consecutive narrative, looking to see whether each sentence can be made to flow naturally from the sentence previous to it, and into the sentence following. This will highlight any major structural problems. If you are not able to boil down each of the paragraphs into a single sentence summary (however simplistic), then the offending paragraphs most likely need to be rewritten more clearly. If there are gaps or non-sequiturs when you put the one sentence summaries together, then the meso-structure of your essay needs to be re-organized, by cutting and pasting paragraphs, or by introducing new paragraphs to fill the gaps, or deleting old paragraphs that detract from the flow of your argument.

Micro-structure

What is true of the paragraph is also true of the sentence. Each individual sentence should flow in a logical and obvious way from the sentence before, and into the sentence after. Consider the following paragraph, taken from a term paper on global warming which is available for free online.

Weather these days has become very unpredictable. The increase in the world’s temperatures, believed to be caused in part by the greenhouse effect which is known as global warming has and will have a serious effect on the future. Global warming creates massive concerns for the entire earth. If the heat continues to increase several species may struggle to survive. There are numerous political, environmental, economic, and social issues when it comes to global warming. Global warming is an inevitable issue and by no stretch of the imagination can be slowed down easily. There is an inconceivable amount of causes that connect to global warming.

This is quite wretched writing. The first sentence is a vague generality that does not mean very much. The second sentence does not flow in any obvious way from the first. What does the greenhouse effect have to do with unpredictable weather? No explanation is provided for the reader. The third sentence merely repeats the argument of the second, with greater rhetorical alarm. The fourth does a little better, but loses force because it is so badly written (the claim that ‘several species’ may struggle to survive suggests that only five or six species are in danger, which sits awkwardly with the previous sentence’s suggestion that global warming causes “massive concerns” for the entire earth). The fifth sentence seems to build a new set of claims, and should be at the beginning of a new paragraph. However, it never goes anywhere. Instead, the sixth sentence warns that global warming is “an inevitable issue” (whatever that means), while the seventh sentence wrings its hands in despair over yet another new claim – that there is an “inconceivable amount” (sic) of causes “that connect” to global warming. These sentences are not only bad in themselves – they are not connected in any logical or orderly way. The result is that they do not add up to a coherent argument.

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