An "A" paper is a superior effort, presenting a demanding argument with depth and clarity. It displays a firm, independent command of complex material, and most or all of the following characteristics:
- The introduction avoids flat, lifeless, or obvious statements, and presents the central idea or thesis in a way that engages the interest of the reader.
- The conclusion is revelatory or suggestive rather than simply repetitive. It goes beyond a summary of what has already been said to clarify or heighten its significance.
- Supporting evidence is specific, relevant, and sufficient to justify the conclusion.
- The argument is free of logical fallacies, and demonstrates a thorough grasp of the issues at stake. Judgments and conclusions are clearly stated, and include appropriate recognition of the degree of tentativeness they may involve. Counter-arguments and alternative interpretations are fully acknowledged and weighed fairly.
- The style is precise, idiomatic, and rhetorically effective, meaning that it is well-suited to persuade an intelligent reader.
- Paragraphs are tightly organized, and transitions between them are smooth and logical.
- Errors of grammar, spelling, and punctuation are few. Footnotes and other apparatus are formatted correctly and used appropriately.
A very good paper must possess some elements of a truly excellent paper, even if it falls short in others. Most such papers tend to be strong on content, but somewhat weak in presentation. This weakness typically manifests itself in one or more of the following ways:
- The introduction and conclusion may simply mirror each other. That is, while they may present the main argument of the paper clearly, they also leave the reader with the impression that little has been learned in between.
- The supporting evidence may not always be relevant to the main argument. In a very good paper, however, such digressions must be of modest proportions.
- An A- paper may not demonstrate complete command of all the issues it raises, but it must be free of gross logical fallacies, and reasonably attentive to counter-arguments and alternative interpretations. In contrast to an excellent paper, however, the reader may still feel that something more needs to be said.
- The language and style of a very good paper may occasionally be flat or repetitive.
- Transitions between paragraphs, although generally natural and logical, may sometimes be awkward or misleading.
- The mechanics of a very good paper may reflect a higher degree of carelessness than an excellent paper, or a faulty command of the details of paper preparation. The overall impression, however, must still be strictly professional.
A grade of B+ or B is indicative of normal and acceptable graduate-level work, the difference between them being one of degree. Such a paper need not be especially striking or original, but it must still display workmanship, competence, and clarity. Its subject, although less complex or engaging than a very good paper, must be non-trivial, and it must be treated in a way that demonstrates an understanding of the basic facts. In addition:
- The central idea or argument must be reasonably specific, appropriate to the scale of the paper, and clearly stated in the introduction. This idea or argument must provide the main focus throughout.
- Assertions, judgments, and conclusions must be plainly stated. Supporting evidence may sometimes lack concreteness or relevance, but not to the point where the main argument is undermined.
- A good-to-average paper may contain some faulty reasoning, but it must not rely on faulty reasoning for its conclusions. Even if the argument is not entirely convincing, in other words, it must still be plausible and consistent with the evidence presented. If alternative points of view are not fully explored, neither are they totally ignored.
- Paragraphs must be coherent, and transitions between them, while not invariably smooth, must not be disorienting.
- The language of a good-to-average paper must be free of slang and jargon, and generally idiomatic. Words must be used properly and consistently.
- The mechanics of a good-to-average paper may be faulty in various ways, but they must not present a barrier to understanding, or call the credibility of the author into question. Errors of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, even if numerous, must be incidental. A paper on the Cold War that repeatedly misspells Eisenhower's name cannot be considered average work.
In graduate courses, a grade below a B indicates that a paper lacks, in some degree, the basic attributes of average work. The subjects or contents of such papers may simply be too general or inconsequential to meet the demands of the assignment. In addition, "C" papers display at least one, and "D" or "F" papers more than one, of the following serious defects:
- The introduction may fail to establish the main point of the paper. Or, if a central idea is presented at the start, the rest of the text may wander off from it in confusing and unpredictable ways.
- The conclusion may introduce irrelevant issues or confounding information; or it may bear only marginally on the main argument of the paper.
- The supporting evidence may include a large proportion of clichés, generalities, or irrelevancies. Unsubstantiated assertions and faulty reasoning may call the credibility of the whole paper into question. In contrast to an average paper, which may not be entirely convincing, a below-average paper will be quite unconvincing. Logical errors will not be incidental, but central.
- Paragraphs may lack internal unity, and transitions between them may be misleading or non-existent.
- The mechanics of below-average papers may be notably sloppy, including significant deviations from standard English usage.