We’ve all had those days where we’re struggling to finish a paper for class or are simply nervous about doing well. Either way, we all know what it’s like to stress about writing college essays. This a guide to help you do your very best, so you can relax and focus on other things.
1. Set Aside at Least Two Days to Work on a Paper
Even though it’s easy to procrastinate and leave your paper until the night before, this is one of the worst things you can do to yourself. Not only are you in a rush to finish it, but you’ve eliminated extra time to revise.
Since most students don’t spend weeks and weeks writing a paper, the best strategy is to spend at least one day writing the essay and a second day editing and revising it. Two days is, of course, a minimum. Generally, the more time you put into writing and reviewing your paper, the better it will be. Proportioning this time is important too. For example, you will want to spend more time on papers that are more important, such as finals and mid-term papers.
2. Form an Outline First
I always start my papers by writing out my thesis and main points. It’s pretty simple and doesn’t take much time since I type a simple sentence explaining my point and then build on it to fill in the outline. Outlining first ensures that you’ve thought through your points and that each argument will flow into the next. I’ve found that this also keeps me on-topic and makes it easier to continue working after each break.
3. Get Rid of Distractions
When it comes to working on a paper, most students will use any distraction as an excuse to put off writing. Even when you’ve turned off the television, it can be all too easy to get lost in the internet, which is why I recommend turning off your wifi connection while you write. There are also apps you can download that will block social media channels (hello, Self Control), allowing you to focus on your paper instead of Facebook notifications.
Another thing that distracts a lot of people is listening to music while they write. I’m guilty of this as well, and all too often end up typing song lyrics into my essays. Luckily, there is still music you can listen to while you work, just without lyrics. My personal favorites are movie soundtracks because they are designed to be motivating.
(Here’s a Spotify playlist for studying that I like to use.)
4. Write Your Introduction and Conclusion Last
These two paragraphs are usually the most difficult to write, so why not leave them for last? The opening and closing paragraphs are supposed to introduce and sum up your thesis and main points, so it’s smart to wait to write them until you’ve finished writing the body of your paper.
When you do get to writing your introduction and conclusion, don’t stress too much. Many students feel unsure about what to write, so they rush something they aren’t confident in. It’s important to remember that the introduction is just proposing the topic and setting up the background for your paper. The introduction sets up the discussion and the conclusion highlights the most important points. The conclusion is a summary of your whole paper – what were the important points and why is it important? Try to tie the introduction and conclusion together by using similar opening and closing statements.
5. Take Breaks
Depending on how efficiently you’re working, you can take this between every paragraph or after finishing several. Don’t let it be too long; I like to take a break to check notifications on my phone (which is another distraction you should put away while you work), or watch a short video on YouTube.
Taking a break allows your mind to clear and let new ideas in. It also gives you some perspective on what you’ve just completed, just like the first point about putting some time in between writing and revising. If you’re really stressed, this can be when you switch subjects and work on another assignment or reading you need to do, but it’s preferable to do something unrelated to school work to allow your mind to stop working for a short while.
6. Keep Referring to Your Professor’s Guidelines
It may seem like a no-brainer, but professors almost always have their expectations on the syllabus. They may even have an outline of content they expect to see and how they grade papers. Professors may also list places you can go for extra help on a paper, whether it’s meeting with them during office hours, on-campus resources, or websites, so it never hurts to check the syllabus.
7. Reference Class Materials Before Looking Things Up Online
When it comes to citing information, it’s better to use what you already know than to grab bits of information you found online. Using your notes and textbook shows your professor that you paid attention in class and know the material.
8. Don’t Use Words You Have to Look Up
It can be tempting to use a thesaurus in order to sound more educated on a topic, and, while it’s true that an expanded vocabulary adds flavor to the diction of a paper, looking up new words just for an essay is not a good idea.
Sometimes this can lead to word-vomit, a pile of overly complicated sentences that distract from the message of the paper. You also run the risk of using words that don’t fit into the definition you intended. For Friends fans, you may remember the episode when Joey uses a thesaurus to describe Chandler and Monica but ends up calling them “humid, prepossessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps” instead of “warm, nice people with big hearts.” This is the last thing you want in your paper, and, rather than making you sound more intelligent, you sound silly and desperate.
9. Fix Formatting After Finishing Your Paper
If you’re anything like me, you tend to waste an hour adjusting the formatting of your paper instead of actually writing. You fiddle with the text size, font, spacing and paragraphing, and then, you take a break even though you’ve accomplished nothing. I’m certainly guilty of this all too often. A better option is to start writing; eventually you’ll get into a writing rhythm. Once you’ve finished writing, or at least made a good start, you can go back and adjust the format. This is a step that I usually leave for last, along with my revisions.
10. Read Your Paper Out Loud
Spell-check doesn’t catch everything, so this a good method to find small errors in your work. Another alternative is to copy and paste sections into Google Translate and listen to it. It’s easy to miss spelling and punctuation mistakes when you’re skimming through a computer screen, but reading aloud is a pretty good way to catch some of those since it forces you to look at each word individually. It’s also a great way to make sure your sentences make sense outside of your head. Not only is it good for catching mistakes, but it also gives you a break from sitting at the computer and typing.
Ultimately, the best strategy for a good paper is to put in a lot of work. Multiple revisions will never hurt, nor will taking a lot of time to think through what you’re writing and researching on the topic. College papers shouldn’t be anything to stress too much about and everyone has their own champion techniques. Good luck on that essay!