Smell Your Eggs Before You Eat Them!

By James Work

It’s after midnight.

You’ve had way too much coffee. Your eyeballs feel as though they'd been rubbed with 120-grit sandpaper. You hallucinate that the pile of ungraded papers is growing toward the ceiling. You wonder if the caffeine and aspirin might explain the strange curvature of the walls and the odd rainbow of colors coming from the desk lamp.

Hmmm…might be time to try the pre-paper idea.

I learned it from Dr. George Arms, one of my English undergrad professors and, at the time, an editor of The Explicator. Briefly put, students must submit a satisfactory qualifying essay before being allowed to submit one upon which they will be graded.

It’s as simple as this: you set the students a topic and give them your list of criteria for a successful essay. Let me suggest that you make your topics VERY limited. I had good results with:

  • Book prices in the student bookstore (economics)
  • Sunglasses as personal image (psychology)
  • Types of shoelaces on campus (social studies)
  • Graffiti in various buildings (folk literature)
  • Evidence of insect life on campus (biology)

You already know the requirements: clear thesis, logical organization, valid support, correct spelling, proper grammar, and so on. Force them to make it short, too—no more than four pages.

Think of yourself as a book publisher or journal editor.

Before a writer is invited to submit a manuscript in the professional world, a proposal is required. Same thing here: Students hand in their pre-papers not for a grade, but to earn the privilege of submitting a gradable paper.

The gimmick to all of this is that you can whip through these pre-papers in short order: you’re NOT grading them. I’d be willing to wager that half of my grading time went toward justifying each letter grade. This is different: as soon as you find something to disqualify the submission, stop reading. You get one or two badly worded sentences and back it goes; no clear thesis, back it goes; printed in 8-point Black Adder Script, ditto.

Those who qualify on the first go-round earn your praise. “Very good! Your graded paper should be excellent!” With such commendations, you help them raise the expectations they have for themselves, increase their confidence, and make them feel that someone actually gives a damn.

Those who don’t qualify can keep on trying. Show patience; be firm. Keep handing back the same essay until they get it right while reminding them each time that the clock is ticking; the deadline for the REAL paper is looming ever nearer.

I had a student once...

  She turned in a three-page essay five times. Each time I rejected it for stylistic reasons. It was clumsy, awkwardly phrased…but one beautiful day as she handed me the sixth revision, I said to her “So, Lori, is this one good?”

“You’re damn right it is!” she snapped, her eyes flashing.

It was. She’d nailed it, and she knew it. Big breakthrough!

The pre-writing assignment gets students working toward accomplishing something—not merely meeting a deadline, coming up with something to write, writing it, and then slumping away afterward with their “C” or “D” just glad it's over with.

I can hear you (see “caffeine overdose” above) saying that you NEED to assign ten graded papers per semester. And I disagree. One excellent paper proves a student knows what writing is and how to do it. Ten substandard papers prove no more than does one.

So, does it matter how much they write?

I’ll close with an anecdote and hope you see the connection. In my junior year as an English major I had a professor renowned for his high standards. One day I walked into his office and proudly handed him my term paper (it was on the double irony of The Pardoner’s Tale, as I recall).

He read the first page. He read the first page a second time. Then he leaned out of his chair and dropped all thirty pages into the wastebasket.

“Do it again,” he said. “You have two weeks.”

“But!” I protested. “You only looked at the first page!”

“Mr. Work,” he said, in the sort of voice one uses in explaining quantum theory to a four-year old, “one need not consume an entire egg in order to determine that it is rotten.”