Grading a Short Story: A Checklist

A few days ago I posted some notes on grading stories for my high school creative writing class. A couple people wanted to see my list, so here it is. It has been through several versions as I have added more detailed questions based on the kinds of errors I see in student stories.

Keep in mind that the stories I grade are written by novice writers for a high school elective class. The questions are very basic. I am not suggesting in any way that these same questions are a valid way to evaluate the stories of more experienced writers.

You will notice the first item: Is it a story? This may seem like a ‘duh’ question, but I occasionally receive strange documents that bear little resemblance to a story. If a student hands it in, and it’s a story, they get half the points. The remaining points are harder to win. When I compare the results of a checklist assessment with my gut feeling about a story, they are usually pretty close. If you can think of any questions to add, please suggest them!

A Checklist for Grading Short StoriesBasics

Is it a story?  [story = characters; plot (series of connected events)]

Is it at least 1000 words long?

Is it on time?

Is it typed?

Is it correctly formatted?  Times New Roman 12, double-spaced, 1″ margins

Does it have the correct header?  Name, Story #, Date

Has the story been uploaded to


Does the story have a title?

Is the title interesting?   Does it make me want to read this story?

Does the first sentence get my attention?

Does the first sentence begin with strong word choice?

Is the problem / conflict interesting, realistic, important?

Or is it a stock situation / stereotypical villain / too bad to be true?

Does the first paragraph make me want to keep reading?

Or does it seem predictable, uninteresting?

Does the first paragraph display a clear and consistent point of view?

Or does the point of view remain unclear and/or switch between characters?

Character / Setting

Is a character introduced in the first 100 words?

Or is it mostly description?

Are characters / setting realistic and consistent?

Or are they stereotypical / bland / too good to be true?

Are characters revealed through dialogue, action and thoughts?

Weak: description only, reliance on adjectives and adverbs

Are descriptions interesting and relevant to the story?

Or are they excessively detailed but irrelevant?

Are the characters interesting, unique, rounded?

Or do they seem flat, stereotypical, uninteresting?

Does the protagonist have flaws and challenges?

Or does the protag have too many advantages? Too good to be true?

Is the protagonist partly to blame for the problem?

Or is the protag just a victim of circumstances or luck?

Does the protagonist try to solve the problem?

Or does the protag just passively react to what happens?

Do we care about what happens to the protagonist?

Does the protagonist change, learn or decide something?

Or is the protag just a victim of circumstances?

Is setting defined in the first 100 words?

Is the setting described where necessary for understanding or plot development?

Or is it difficult to picture where / when events are happening?


Is there a clear and consistent point of view?

Or does the narration feel distant, uninvolved with the story?

If there are multiple viewpoints, are there clear breaks or transitions between pov’s?

Or are point of view switches random, unnecessary, accidental?

Is there a clear and unique narrative voice?

Or does the narrative feel bland, boring, uninteresting?

Is the verb tense consistent?

Or does the narrative switch randomly between past and present?

Are there scenes (dialogue and action)?

Or is it mainly summary, telling what happens rather than showing?

Are sentence structure and length varied?

Or do many sentences begin with the same words?

Are the sentences of one length, very short or very long?

Are many sentences passive?

Are transitions smooth?

Or is ithe narrative choppy, jumping from scene to scene without warning?


Are all events clearly related to the conflict?

Or are minor events described with unnecessary detail?

Does the initial conflict build through complications?

Or does the narrative stay at the same level of intensity?

Are the complications structured into the plot?

Or do they depend heavily on coincidence?

Does the story stay focused on one conflict?

Or does it splinter into several conflicts, with no clear focus?

Is backstory worked into the plot?

Or is there an “information dump” at some point?

Does suspense build up until the climax?

Or does the story lose momentum at some point?

Is there a turning point?

Or does the plot just meander on towards the end, leaving questions unanswered?

Is the resolution the right length?

Or does it drag on after all the tension has been released?

Or does it wrap up too quickly?

Is the resolution convincing and satisfying?

Or does it end with something random and/or unexpected happening (deus ex machina)?

Or does it leave the reader feeling confused / cheated?


Is there dialogue?

Or are all conversations related indirectly / not at all?

Is dialogue realistic sounding?

Or are character voices unrealistic?

Does dialogue contribute to forward momentum?

Or is it mostly greetings, trivial discussions?

Are dialogue tags nearly invisible and only used where needed for clarity?

Acceptable: said, replied, asked.  Weak: anything else.

Are action tags used to make dialogue more meaningful and move the story along?

Or is there no orientation to what is happening as the characters converse?


Is paragraphing used to emphasize and clarify what happens?

Or is it randomly divided?

Or is it written all in one block, with important information / events buried?

Does each line of dialogue begin a new paragraph?

Is dialogue correctly punctuated? (quotation marks, commas, end punctuation)

Are exclamation points avoided, except in dialogue?

Or are they overused, or used in multiples?

Has it been proofread and edited?

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: narrative writing examples
  2. Contessa Teichert
    Feb 18, 2012 @ 14:00:31

    Thanks:) Cool topic,


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