So, you watched 7 seasons of Supernatural when you should have been writing your Victorian Literature final? Or maybe you’ve only got 2 hours to write a comprehensive in-class essay about the merits of studying obscene literature? Either way, you’ve got a short amount of time to crank out a lot of words. Impossible, right? Nope.
After 3 years of IB High School English, and 4 years of an honors’ degree in English, Creative Writing and procrastination, I have some tips.
First of all, starting early is a tried and true way to do better on your papers. When you’re assigned the paper, print off the requirements, read carefully, and choose a topic that actually interests you. If you can’t find a way to make the paper interesting and involve your interests, it’s going to be a painful experience. If you try hard enough, you can make almost any paper something that interests you.
For example, after 7 years of Shakespeare, I was sick and tired of essay after essay about Hamlet and Othello, so when I had to write a paper on Venus and Adonis, I decided to incorporate my love of feminist theory to make the paper about the fine line between ‘sexy’ and ‘creepy’ in a piece of literature. Not the most academic thesis statement, but worded correctly, it got me an A!
Of course, life happens. Sometimes you will have the best intentions to start early but maybe you’ll get sick. There’s no shame in taking care of yourself, and regardless of your health, writing under pressure is unavoidable for nearly everyone. Many final exams involve writing an in-class paper in 3 hours or less, or writing a paper in 24 hours. Here are some tips to help you get through.
1. Find a topic you can love. This will make the essay go by more quickly, and you’ll have more background knowledge to work with. Then, make a quick outline of the paper.
2. Write a thesis statement (duh). But let yourself be flexible. It’s only natural that your thesis statement will change or refocus as your paper goes on. Once you finish your paper, review your thesis, conclusion and topic sentences to make sure they all align.
3. Stick to the same tenses and point of view. ‘The reader’ is a good point of view to use, and ‘present tense’ is often easiest. Try to avoid using the general ‘one,’ as it sounds overwrought. Use ‘I’ when your instructor allows it, especially if you can make the essay personal. Use ‘present tense’ while describing the plot of a book, poem, play or film.
4. Separate your ideas and paragraphs with headers. This is my foolproof way to keep myself on track regardless of how much time I have to write. You can make the headers fun and clever, or you can get rid of them before you hand in the paper. They will not only help make your essay look more organized, but they will force you to stick to your topics. Visually, headers makes it easier to see when you can shift a sentence into a more appropriate paragraph, so your hard work won’t be wasted.
5. Keep scrap paper around for scribbling out ideas. Sometimes you just need to unpack your brain in the middle of a difficult paragraph or unload all of your ideas before you begin to write. Trust me, this will save you time in the long run.
6. Take a break if you can. Whether this means spending half an hour at the gym, going for a quick jog or just taking 2 minutes to think about your weekend, giving your mind a rest will provide you with a fresh perspective and help you finish strong.
7. Edit. Edit as you go, paragraph by paragraph and do a quick edit once you are done. Get rid of unnecessary adjectives (if you have more than one adjective per 2-3 sentences, you need to cut) and I mean virtually ALL adverbs (they are completely unnecessary in effective writing). Do your best to get rid of the passive voice. An easy way to do this is to get rid of as many instances in which you use the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have.’ Eliminating gerunds (words that end in ‘-ing’) wherever possible will also help tighten your writing.
8. Vary your sentence lengths and eliminate run-on sentences. This will make sure that your writing is easy to read and engaging. Nobody wants to read a paper that is comprised of dozens of 5 word sentences or one that is comprised only of 30 word sentences. Add some variety and keep your reader engaged. If you had to read this paper, would you find it interesting? Reading your paper out loud helps you determine this.
Self-care is just as important as background reading and good writing skills. Drink lots of water. Wear comfortable clothes. If you’re not feeling well, drink some tea. Make sure your stomach is full and you have snacks nearby. Don’t drink too much coffee and make sure to get enough sleep.
All-nighters can be harmful to your health, but if you must pull an all-nighter, pick an interesting topic, plan it carefully, get out all your thoughts, take a break and edit. When you follow these steps and maybe disconnect Netflix and Facebook, writing your paper shouldn’t take more than 3 hours in-class or 5 hours of cramming the night before.