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The perfect paper

Very rarely does it happen, but sometimes writers bring in papers that I find really hard to comment on because they are just plain good. For example, a few months ago a student from Kenya came in with a personal research paper about her cat. Her cat suffered from a disease that was causing its fur to fall out, so the student started doing research about the possible causes. No, she didn't call it Mr. Bigglesworth disease, but she had found the disease, found what causes it, and began to implement possible treatments. While she read the paper out loud in the session, I completely forgot that I was even in the writing center. The paper was genuinely interesting, and her voice and her accent were somehow soothing after a long day. She blended personal experience with solid research in a very seemless way, which is what I try to teach my 101 students.

When I realized near the end of the paper that I really didn't have much to say about it except, "Wow. That was a really interesting paper," I got a little nervous. I had that "I'm supposed to be the expert here" panic attack. So, I scraped the bottom of my brain barrell, and came up with nothing. So, I just said, "That's a really good paper. I can't think of much to say about it. You seem to have nailed the assignment." She told me, "thanks," and then we chatted about Kenya for a little while. Then she revealed that she knew it was a good paper, and that writing was her passion, but that she had to come into the center to get credit for a class.

At first I felt bad about not being able to "improve" her paper. Then I realized that I had learned some things about writing as a result of the session. So, I chalked it up to providence, and now I have a great story to use as an example in my teaching: find a topic that affects you, that has personal significance, that might even save your cat's life, and it may lead to a more effective research paper.


  1. Hi, Greg. I am so glad that you decided to write on this topic. I also struggle with papers that appear to be perfect.

    ...what am I supposed to say about their work?

    Am I going to let the student down if I don't have anything of "value" to talk about with them?

    Your post made me feel a little at ease about questions--and fears--like these ones.

    I do agree that sometimes it's okay to just let the student know about their writing stengths and then just leave it at that.

    Poor kitty!

    Thanks for the great post.

  2. Hi Greg~

    I have issues with this topic, just like you and Alisha have said.

    I've had many, many papers that have come in and it seems that the writer has put a lot of time into either drafting it or revising it.

    Something that I especially like about papers that are in this state is they are always interesting! Isn't hearing and reading others' work part of the fun of working in a writing center? I do have to admit, I feel like a failure when someone comes in just for that elusive consultation record because they're required to have one for a class, and they seem to have already worked through their thoughts and the writing process.

    I also have to go with both Alisha and you on the idea that it IS okay to talk about what they did well instead of working on something they could improve upon. Sometimes when I come in, I just want that extra vote of confidence from another writer!

    The most important thing is that we make sure that we answer as many questions that we can if the writer may have them.


  3. I am not part of this blog. Today I was cleaning and found a flyer for your blogspot. So I came in to see what could lift up my spirits today because nothing seems to be working right. I am glad I came in.

    You helped me realize that all of these years I have been right. People look at me strangely when I talk at workshops and tell them that students need to feel the literature, that they need to feel for their lives. If a student cannot connect with their own lives first, then they will not connect with what is outside of their minds. So, as you say, students need to find what is around them to write about it.


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