Walking Reggie ’round the block has gotten infinitely more interesting now that various neighbors have gotten into the Halloween spirit. One house in Newton has a white filmy ghost on a stick that Reggie looks at, askance and uncertain, every time we pass…but this morning in Keene, Reggie walked by, oblivious, when a motion-sensitive tombstone outside one neighbor’s house started flashing and emitting creepy sounds as he approached. Apparently my four-legged ghost-buster isn’t fooled by high-tech decorations, but he is spooked by sheets.


I’m offering these ghoulish images by way of a “drive-by post” before heading back to this week’s paper pile (or one of them, at least). Taking a break between drafts, I clicked over to Jo(e)’s only to find that she, too, is facing (and blogging about) her latest paper pile. What Jo(e) says is entirely true. The biggest challenge in reading student papers isn’t actually reading them; it’s figuring out how to make insightful comments that help students move from a relatively weak early draft to a somewhat more workable next one.

In both my first-year and intermediate writing classes, I have the luxury of working with students who are writing sustained, semester-long projects I see in various incarnations over the course of fifteen weeks. By semester’s end, I’ll have seen the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…but not usually in that order. Right now, I’m typing second draft comment letters to give to my students in small-group conferences: tomorrow afternoon, pairs of students will sit down with me for fifteen minutes, during which time I’ll give them a typed sheet with my impressions of their draft so we can talk about where they’re going next.

This practice of typing rather than scribbling my second-draft comments is one I borrowed from one of my teaching colleagues: it turns out that both writing and the teaching of writing are works-in-progress. After years of writing too many nitpicky comments that never seemed to encourage students to re-see their papers in radically different ways, I’m borrowing a colleague’s strategy for getting students to look at the “big picture” when revising. It’s too easy, as an English teacher, to offer a line-by-line commentary on any given draft, which typically means getting bogged down in surface-level errors in paragraphs that might not even make it into the next draft. (Like Jo(e), I’m often tempted to write “You could improve this essay by cutting this paragraph out completely,” but that’s a dangerous statement to make when you find an entire string of dead-weight paragraphs.)

Cool ghoul

In reading this and last week’s sets of drafts, I’ve held my pen when it comes to surface-level edits. This time around, it’s about looking the Bad and the Ugly straight in the face and trying to figure out how to uncover the Good that’s in there trying to get out. “You have a lot of information to share about Topic X,” I find myself typing again and again, “so as a reader, I’m wondering what you want me to do with that information: what point about Topic X are you trying to prove?” From previous semesters, I know that many students won’t figure out What They’re Trying to Say until they’ve written a full 15- to 20-page draft…at which point many of them will sit up in their seats, the proverbial light-bulb illuminated above their head, and utter some version of “I totally know how to write my paper now, but only after I’ve already written it!”

In looking up where I’d blogged that statement, I see the proverbial light-bulb flashed last December, still about a month from where this semester’s students currently are. That means both my students and I have another month or so to stare the Bad and the Ugly in the face before the Good staggers through the door: “Were you looking for me?” Although Reggie is scared by spooky sheets, luckily I’m not scared of paper sheets, having seen more than a few dreadful drafts pass over my desk like Halloween shades.