by Xavier Neier
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
The final project is due tonight. Two weeks have passed and your untitled “Document1” paper is still blank. Your only options are either to spend the next six hours writing a mangled, unorganized final paper or nervously asking for an extension.
Writing past the rough draft stage is the filter that separates finished papers from the rushed papers that no great writer can “fix” within the next twenty minutes before the deadline. Rough drafts, for new writers, are seen as an optional stage of writing, where it takes a lot of time and mental energy away from what we want to do: write in one sitting and be done with the assignment. Even though some classes will require the class to turn in rough drafts before a final paper is due, students can (and will) make one draft and hasten through required revisions from the professor’s comments. At the end, what is left is a rushed paper, made only to meet the expected criteria to just get through the class. The incentive for college students is to create only one draft with the minimal amount of contact so we can avoid the anxiety of writing.
I have talked with friends and classmates about how their papers have come along during the semester, and the typical response is “I haven’t started yet.” Sometimes that is my response as well. Even as an experienced writer who prefers essays over exams, I can also be a master of procrastination. I thought about why college students delay their papers, often at the rough draft stage. Everyone knows writing in advance is good advice and it’s easier to brainstorm interesting ideas two weeks ahead, but the act of writing with a thought-out plan requires more mental energy. Writing a brief 200-word essay is doable in a short 30-minute session. A final paper requiring a full annotated bibliography with multiple sources to fill a lengthy paper cannot be done in one sitting. To mentally imagine a complete paper with multiple pages and sources formatted correctly (and you’ve just now passed the idea stage!), it is draining, demoralizing, and unmotivating.
Without a plan and a series of drafts, sitting down and brute forcing your way through the writing will be inefficient. At worst, your mental processing energy will focus to worrying about the small details and imagining the best possible paper, without actually writing anything down.
It’s hard to see your progress until either the project is complete, or you are forced to turn in the paper, regardless of its condition. In passing conversation and when reflecting on my own writing projects, writing seems to have carried this dreadful connotation. I think the missing component for writers is the absence of a planned structure with a positive perspective.
A lot of college students view writing as a dreadful experience, and this perspective harms our ability to get our writing done. When people are given a task that will evoke negative emotions, we become efficient at ignoring or stalling that task. We know it’s better to work ahead of long-term tasks, but our brains consistently work against us by only worrying about the short-term consequences. When we experience fear or anxiety of a situation, we tend to create only one solution instead of considering all available options. For most students, it tends to be procrastination and only meeting the minimum requirements.
Even in avoiding writing a paper, students still turn in something, even if just for marking a project “complete.” I have heard claims that some students are capable of writing an average paper right before the deadline; this rush of adrenaline gives them the critical boost to write out the minimum of five hundred words. Power to those people who can write coherent papers under that pressure, but even for the best of writers, turning in average papers after so much anxiety about meeting the deadlines in that short amount of time is not productive or efficient in the long run.
But what if there are ways to make the writing process not only easier and produce better papers, but also makes writers feel positive about their writing experience?
I believe writing is an important skill to learn and grow; it is just a matter of changing our perspectives of the writing process. Common advice shared is often repeated: make time for your project, find a space to work in, write in chunks of timed sessions. These pieces of advice are good, but they don’t address the resistance to writing. I want to share some more detailed advice to overcome this problem of perspective in order to start the drafting stage of writing.
- Write down the reason why you want to get this project done: Be honest if the reason why is to just get the class requirement done but be specific in your intentions for the project. If it is for a business project that important people will see, or if it is a passionate creative writing piece, write it down why it is significant to you. We are more willing to get things done for things that we care about.
- Plan out the stages: Show yourself that there is light at the end of this tunnel by planning out exactly what are all the steps you need to do to get the project done. Labeling the stages and planning in days in advance helps to divide the work into smaller, manageable sessions that will get more progress done without rushing an hour before the assignment is due.
- Ask yourself how much time you want to put into the paper: Will 2 hours of dedicated writing get the project done? 5 hours? How many sessions do you envision needing to get the project done? A common error for students is underestimating how long assignments actually take to get done and not having a timer to track their progress. After I started planning smaller papers to only take 2-4 hours, I have gotten more work done in that session than if I just wrote without thinking about managing my time expectations.
If you believe a discussion board will only take 15 minutes, set a timer to see if that is true. If you believe a senior thesis final paper will need 20 hours put into it, keep track of it on a schedule to watch your progress.
- Think about your writing space: Mark specifically where you expect yourself to work, and only work there. Ideally, this space is where you know you are able to focus on assignments and not use the space for unrelated work. It is also important to think about any potential distractions, such as a noisy environment or if the place is too relaxing to focus on. For me, my writing space has been at the library since that is the location I know as my dedicated work area, and I won’t be distracted by other people.
- Mark time boundaries for your work: In a one-hour session, work for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, and repeat within the hour. This is similar to the Pomodoro Technique and I recommend reading this article (https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/pomodoro-technique) to learn more about this effective, productive technique that has helped me keep track of my sessions and allows me to get a lot of work done.
- Find other writers to review your work: Everyone can use a second set of eyes on their papers, and it’s helpful when you have another person take a look at your work. Typically, I read my own work to catch grammatical errors. However, when I want to know if my ideas are coherent or if my thesis is unclear, I ask for another person to read what I have written. I use feedback from others to see what areas of my work need more clarity and see if my intended message is communicated.
There are two groups of people that I ask for help with my papers: my friends and the University Writing Center here at IUPUI. My friends have been more than happy to read over my work and give me feedback, ranging from quick grammar edits to questions on what I was trying to say in a specific section. However, my favorite group of writers who are always ready to help are the consultants at the University Writing Center! I recommend getting familiar with our services here (https://liberalarts.iupui.edu/programs/uwc/) and meet with writers who help writers with their work. Whether its brainstorming ideas, reading quickly to see if the verb tenses match, or if the citations are correct, the writing center is an excellent service to use as a writer.
- Reward yourself with rest: Schedule meaningful breaks and days off from writing the paper. During the writing process, you should create some scheduled time to step away from your work. Allow some time to pass to get a fresh perspective on your work.
Everyone is capable of writing; it is just a matter of intentional planning and acting like a writer. We need to change our perspective of writing as a tool for communicating our own thoughts and ideas, rather than an academic chore to rush through. I hope students will take this set of advice and see how it can drastically improve their writing. I encourage all writers to see writing as a meaning-making process, a process meant to showcase our thoughts and ideas to their fullest potential. If we can do that with less stress for our next set of papers, I consider that a success.