In Search of the Perfect Paper
Ashly Bender, Assistant Director
While working with a fellow writer this weekend, we started discussing the desire for the “perfect paper.” As each of us pour ourselves in dissertation chapters, we often unreasonably hope that the response to our drafts will be something along the lines of “This looks great; start on the next chapter”—or some other kind of confirmation that we are done with that piece and can move on. This desire is something I believe that my writing students and the many clients we see in the Writing Center are familiar with. It’s more than wanting to know that you did a good job. It’s wanting to know that you did the best job and that you can be released from further labor on a piece that certainly demands a lot of physical and mental effort. Bronwyn Williams posted earlier this year about the intensely personal aspect of writing, and how that connection—even to a writing that is seemingly impersonal—makes receiving feedback difficult. So we continue to yearn for the “perfect paper.”
The conversation this weekend forced me to wonder what the perfect paper look like. How do you know when you’ve achieved it? The most common answer seems to be that this essay would, above all else, receive no marks, nothing to mar the masterpiece the writer has created. It requires no response because it is beyond reproach. This conception of the perfect text is reinforced often in classrooms by tales of red ink and grammar-meanie teachers. Almost all of us have a story of getting back a paper that was “torn apart” by a grader, had more writing by the teacher than the writer, or had a seemingly scathing and long note attached to it. What if though, just to venture out on a limb for a moment, that the unmarked, pristine essay was not actually the “perfect paper.” I know, I know—it’s outlandish, but bear with me for a moment.
When we write, it’s always for an audience, even if that audience is just the writer herself. Writing communicates a message. It may or may not be personal. Either way, it aims to connect with the reader, to invoke a response in or from them. Writing can be compared to telling a story. If you share an experience with another person, you expect that they will demonstrate that they heard you—hopefully with words, but even a nonverbal recognition could satisfy you in some cases. If we accept that this is also be true about writing, then the “perfect paper” is not at all clean and empty of feedback.
The “perfect” piece of writing is covered with commentary from the reader, and that commentary verifies the power of your writing. It proves that your work connected with your reader, made them think, and made them want to share those thoughts with you. That feedback might be in praise or it might be contradictory, but it recognizes you as a writer worth communicating with. Isn’t that the kind of respect and recognition that we all want?
The pristine perfect piece is definitely a myth, but unfortunately the comment-filled version of perfect writing can be just as elusive. While the pristine piece is a myth because it ignores an important aspect of writing, the marked up piece is rare due to very real and practical factors. When you submit a piece to your boss or your teacher, their focus is often on improving or fixing perceived errors. Their lives are filled with many demands and priorities that can make the ideal response, which takes time and focus, sometimes difficult to achieve. For this reason, when we receive comments on a piece of our writing, especially comments that address both our text’s strengths and weaknesses, we should truly appreciate our reader and our work. It’s the closest we can really get to the perfect paper.
While the Writing Center still works under time constraints, remember that we are here to help you experience this ideal version of the perfect paper: one that receives earnest, focused feedback from a reader who wants to engage your ideas and your work. And, when you find a good reader, whether in the Writing Center or among your colleagues/mentors, remember to value them and their feedback as they help you craft and re-craft the perfect paper.