With the last two weeks being dedicated to midterm exams, an outpour of students came to the Writing Center to have their papers checked before having to submit them. A common issue I noticed was that many students had a big essay due in a matter of days, and yet had not managed to start it.
We have all been there: it is midnight and you still haven’t written anything. You tell yourself that you will start after this episode ends, only to find yourself at 2 am still having accomplished nothing. Procrastination is something we have all probably faced at one point or another (or, like myself, all the time!1 ). Whether it was a topic you couldn’t stand or a fear of failing, procrastination left you stressed, overwhelmed, and usually with a subpar paper.
Being a procrastinator, people would often tell me I did it because I was lazy. This is not the case. There are actually many reasons why people procrastinate.* Whatever the reason for your procrastination, everyone can agree that it is a hassle, and a habit we would rather get rid of.
For this reason I have come up with some tips and techniques on how to rid your life of that enemy we call procrastination.
Break it up
This is a commonly prescribed technique and I consider it very effective. The day you are given your writing assignment, sit down and break it up into bite-size pieces. Start off by dedicating one day to come up with ideas to write about. This way you can see what you already know, and start generating ideas of where you can take the paper. On the second day, write a thesis statement. This is a simple one sentence statement that tells the reader exactly what your paper is about. On the third day, write your introduction. Keep doing this bite by bite until you have finished writing your first draft. Getting started can be the hardest part, but once you have something written down, it becomes easier to get the rest out.
By separating the big paper into little sections, you alleviate the pressures of trying to tackle such a huge project. Also, having a game plan allows you to know where you are going next, and to see how much time you have to accomplish the task. No more rushed papers written at the last minute. This technique gives you time to go back and make changes to your paper, to make it stronger.
Working on a research paper? Check out this handy little tool for breaking down the assignment.
Time for commitment
At some point you have probably come across a paper that you found uninteresting, and therefore difficult to work on. It’s very easy for anyone, even those who are not normally procrastinators, to put an assignment like this off. For those of you who struggle with this issue, this is the strategy for you.
Remember when you were younger and parents would make you work on a homework project for an hour before you could go play outside? You would immediately get to work; you wanted to go play outside as soon as possible! This technique uses the same idea. By forcing yourself to work on the project for an hour at a time you get your paper written, and can treat yourself by doing something else that you want to do.2 Your writing remains fresh when you aren’t trying to write your paper all at once, fighting to keep your eyes open.
Comrades in arms
Often times, procrastinators are not safe when left alone to their own devices. Even with good intentions in mind, reverting back to old habits is common. Therefore, getting together with other students who are working on the same paper is a good idea. You can bounce ideas off of each other, clarify details, and keep each other focused. Plus, having people around can keep you from feeling that you are missing out on your social life, so you are less likely to blow a project off to go hang out with friends.
A peaceful oasis
Sometimes the simplest solution is often the best solution. When we are supposed to be writing a paper, things such as a T.V. often manage to steer us off path. How much easier would it be to avoid these distractions if we simply worked in a place that was free of them? Whether that means removing that beloved television from your room, or finding a room to work in without one, a distraction-free environment can be the key to the success of your paper. There are some distractions however, that just cannot be removed as easily . . .
With more and more professors wanting papers to be typed, the computer has become somewhat of a necessity in college. While the computer may offer a faster method of writing papers, it also offers what may be the biggest distraction of all… the Internet! With sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Hulu, the internet has a distraction to please any person’s taste. So how are you supposed to avoid watching hours upon hours of “epic fails” on YouTube all night?
Since the Internet can prove to be such a distraction, why not block certain sites, or the internet all together, during certain periods of the day? While parental controls are used mainly for the protection of children, they are also great for anyone trying to keep their distractions to a minimum. This guide tells you exactly how to set them up. To avoid going around the parental controls make sure someone else has the password to the account where all the controls are set. Now you can give that research paper your full attention, instead of checking to see what your friends are doing on Facebook.
Center your writing
Of course, visit the Writing Center! The consultants (myself included) are there to help you formulate a path for your paper, we would love to help you. Stop by and bring with you a copy of your prompt. Don’t be shy, we don’t bite! Sometimes just having a fresh pair of eyes, or someone to talk to, can make all the difference.
While these techniques may be useful, they probably won’t cure you of your procrastination habit. Knowing why you procrastinate is a good step on the road to stopping the behavior for good. This website lists some of the most common reasons why we procrastinate as well as additional tips for avoiding it.
The next time your professor hands you a writing assignment, don’t panic. Use some of these techniques and watch that stress slowly fade away. Take a deep breath and relax. You can do this!
Well, we’ve already covered quite a lot in these blogs…how to begin the writing process, how to find useful information on the internet, and even useful keyboarding tips to speed the writer along! I believe it’s time to tackle one of the most important issues…CONTENT. Now that is a very large and general word, so we’re going to break it down and focus on two of the main aspects: Ideas, and Details. Please understand, there is more to content than JUST ideas and details, but to go over every aspect would take more time than anyone reading this could possibly have. So, without further ado, let’s jump right into…
Personal Narrative, Research Paper, Poetry, Argumentative Essay–all writing, no matter what, begins with an idea. If you don’t have an idea when you set your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) then STOP. The idea that you base your writing on, no matter what writing it may be, is arguably the most important part of the entire writing process. It is the base, the foundation, for your piece of writing. I’m sure you’ve all heard the story of the man who tried to build his house on sand? If you haven’t, well, it’s not too hard to guess the moral: building a house on sand is a foolish idea. In the same way, writing anything without an idea, a purpose, is foolish.1
This may seem elementary or simple to you. You may be thinking “well, DUH.” I know it seems like an obvious thing, but you wouldn’t believe the amount of papers I’ve seen, from real people, who have no idea what they’re writing. It’s more common than you think. So before you ever sit down to write, think about the idea behind the paper. What are you writing about, and why are you writing it? It should be noted here that ‘because my teacher told me to’ should not be an acceptable answer. Your teacher gave you a prompt, yes–but why did you pick that particular thing to write about?
A completely fictional example: my teacher, a mean old man, tells me to write about the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I decide I want to write about the day my beloved hamster, Commodore Cuddles, died. It was the worst day in my life, and it made me view my own mortality in a different light. See? Right there, I was able to come up with what I was writing about, and why I was writing about it (or, if it’s an assignment, why I chose what I chose). This is instrumental to the writing process, because everything that gets included in my piece of writing from then on should be based around the idea of my views of mortality being influenced by Commodore Cuddles’s death.
Okay, so now we should have the idea behind your paper, which is an excellent start. To get those ideas across to the reader, though, you need…
So what exactly do I mean by details? I mean who, what, where, when, why, and how. With the exception of some poetry and particular creative writing assignments, every piece of writing should be able to answer those questions. Are you writing a personal narrative? Tell me who was involved, what happened, and where, when, why, and how it happened. Writing a research paper? Tell me what you’re researching, who it might affect, and where you got the information. Tell me when the topic is or was relevant, why the reader should care, and how it might affect their lives. Every time you write something, you should attempt to answer all of these questions…and very rarely is it considered acceptable to not answer them. By answering these questions, you should be able to include most of the necessary information for any piece of writing. If we follow the metaphor of building a house that we mentioned in the ideas section, we can think of details as the walls and roof of the house. Once we have the foundation (ideas) of the house, and the walls and ceiling (details) get constructed, all we need is to add some paint, furniture, and carpet (grammar, writing style, etc.) and we have a fully functional essay! Or house.
I briefly mentioned a concept dealing with details that should also be addressed in many pieces of writing: why should the reader care about your piece of writing? More often than not, this question is a handy thing to keep in mind for persuasive essays or research papers. This can sometimes be a tough question to answer, but it is nevertheless important. If you are writing a persuasive essay about gun control, why should the reader care? How will different gun control laws affect them? Perhaps you want to write a research paper on diabetes. Again, why should the reader care? Pull up some statistics on diabetes, and let people know that it is likely they know someone who suffers from it. Let’s say your history teacher assigns you an essay about the living conditions in Colonial America. Why should anyone care? Do a comparison on the living conditions of the American Colonies and the current living conditions in your area, and remind people how good they have it. Knowing why the reader should care can be a very important detail in any piece of writing, and sometimes it can be the driving purpose behind the whole paper.
One More Thing
Well, two things, actually.
Thing the first: the things mentioned here are not the only important parts of content. Content is a massive concept, and we could spend all day talking about it if necessary. What’s included here are just some of the issues that I feel are important. Truly, this is more of a tip-of-the-iceberg type deal.
Thing the second: even content as a whole is only one important step in the writing process. I haven’t even begun to talk about structure, organization, style, or any of a number of other important steps. My goal in telling you these things about content is to give you a springboard for ideas, and try to help you to find out what to include in your paper. After you get those things down, it will be time to move on to other problems…such as structuring your paper correctly.
So, I hereby release you to your writing! Go, and hopefully some of the things you’ve learned (or re-learned) here will help you in your writing process.
One of the most common questions I get from writers is, “How do I get started?” The question means different things to different people. For some it means, “How do I get all these ideas out of my head?” For others, “How do I write an introduction?” For others still, it means choosing a topic or finding a thesis. But for every writer, there are times when the scariest thing in the world is the blank page.
Each of the questions above is worth considering separately, and may well get its own blog post at some point in the future. Today, though, I’d like to talk about some approaches that can help writers in all of those situations figure out how to get started. For me, the hardest part of getting started is figuring out what I want to say. So the best way to start writing, then, is to figure out what you want to say before you start your essay. It sounds funny, but here are a few tools you can use to make it happen.
Focused Freewriting and Invisible Writing
One of the most useful tools I know for getting started is focused freewriting. Focused freewriting is a really simple technique that can make writing a lot easier. Basically: ask yourself a question, and write about it. The question should be related to your assignment, and a good place to start is something like “What do I think about this topic?” For some people, this technique will work more easily by hand; for others, it’ll be easier to do this on a computer. But think about this as thinking on paper rather than writing. You’re not starting your draft, and the writing you do may not become a part of your essay; the point is just to figure out what you think. Give yourself a timeframe–five to seven minutes usually works well, I find–and try to keep your pen moving the whole time. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, or even making sense, because you won’t be turning this in. Just try to figure out what you think about the question.
If focused freewriting is difficult for you, try its cousin, invisible writing. Some people find it difficult to ignore spelling and grammar errors, and get caught up in writing “perfect” sentences rather than just letting their mind work. Invisible writing is an easy way to short-circuit that kind of thinking. It works like this: open a new document in Word (or your writing software of choice), and turn off your computer monitor. Then, type for five to seven minutes. If you can’t see what you’re typing, then you can’t fixate on your language, and you can’t worry about being perfect. You can’t even keep yourself on one train of thought very well. Invisible writing will capture all of your digressions, your mind’s wanderings, and will help you get to new thoughts and perspectives on the question you’re exploring. If you’re not a good typist, you can also do this with a simple notebook–just close the notebook over your writing hand, so you can’t see what you’re writing.
These techniques allow you to get ideas out of your head, and to figure out what you want to say about your topic, without having to worry about writing an essay. You don’t have to think about spelling, grammar, punctuation, paragraphs, whether your ideas make sense, whether you’re on topic, or what your teacher will think, because the point is just to think on paper. When the time comes to write your first draft, you’ll come back to your freewriting and look over it, deciding which ideas will work for your paper and which won’t.
Another technique to get you started is called looping. It expands on focused freewriting or invisible writing by pushing you to think further about what you want to say. It works like this: read through your focused freewrite or invisible writing, and underline or highlight an important, interesting, or unexpected idea. Then, take another five to seven minutes and freewrite about that idea. Then, if you like, find another interesting idea in what you’ve just written, and freewrite about that. You can keep doing this until you’ve pushed the idea as far as you can take it, or you can go back to your original writing and find something else interesting to explore.
Once you have an idea of what you want to say, you can put together an outline. This can be done with varying degrees of fanciness. There are lots of formats for outlines, the most common of which is the Harvard (or Alphanumeric) outline, but you don’t necessarily need to follow a format if the outline is just for you. What matters in terms of getting started is that you put together some sort of list of things you want to talk about, in the order you want to talk about them. This will help you figure out how to move through your paper, and will limit how much you have to worry about what to do next.
Write the body first
The last piece of advice I can give about getting started has to do with when you actually sit down to write your draft. Most writers feel like they have to write the first sentence first, and that especially can be hard when you’re not certain what you want to say. A lot of the advice people give–things like “start with a hook,” or “start general”–aren’t much help, either, when you’re not sure where you’re going. And, for writers who feel like they need to have a thesis sentence in their introduction, it’s almost impossible. How can I write my thesis if I don’t know what my paper’s about yet? The best solution I know to this problem is to write the body of your paper before you write your introduction and conclusion. For me, getting a draft of my essay written before I try to write an introduction makes the process a lot less stressful, and usually means that I end up with a much better and more appropriate introduction.
In fact, when I write, I usually jump all over the place. I’ll often start one paragraph, get halfway through, get struck by something, and start another paragraph on another idea. If I feel stuck, I’ll go back to an earlier idea and flesh it out a little more, and come back later to look at the problem fresh. This way of writing certainly isn’t for everybody, but I think it’s worth mentioning. If you don’t know what comes first, start with what comes second–or fourth, or ninth, or last.
Hopefully, these simple strategies will make it easier for you to get started with your papers. Have your own ideas for starting out on a new paper? Share them in the comments!
Editor’s note: One of the most common questions we get at the Writing Center concerns how to deal with MLA format in papers. To most folks, MLA format seems like a maze of rules and requirements that don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason behind them. To help make sense of the problem, Writing Center consultant Kindra has put together a short essay that is both an explanation and an example of MLA format. Enjoy!
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