Writing an essay on a topic that you are less-than-thrilled about can be a pain. It’s easy to put off working on a boring assignment indefinitely, and then be left scrambling to put the paper together at the last minute. When you’re in middle school or early high school, this may not hurt you too much. However, as your assignments get longer and comprise more of your grade, it can be hard to break out of bad habits. Even worse, writing assignments that you’re not proud of (whether you get good grades for them or not) can leave you convinced that you’re not a good writer, with no idea of how to improve. Here are some tips for the next time you’re overwhelmed with a project:
Change the Game: Sometimes you just get stuck with a rough topic, but if you are assigned a paper topic that you really don’t like, you can always ask to switch. Just make sure you do this as soon as possible. Your teacher is also more likely to approve your new topic if you choose something related to the old one and you show that you’ll have enough to write.
Use Mind Maps Brainstorming and prewriting are often overlooked, but they are great tools for organizing your thoughts. To make a mind map, place your topic in the center of a page. Then, branch out of the middle with possible subtopics, examples, themes, symbols, or whatever else you can think of. Don’t focus on which ideas are “good” or “bad”…you’re just brainstorming, so try not to filter your thoughts. It can help to include color or doodles in your mind map. Another prewriting method I like to use is to come up with as many questions as possible, and then see what I can answer. For example:
- What does X mean?
- What caused Y? What does Y cause?
- What would have happened if Z was different?
Page Budgeting So, you tend to fall short on length requirements. It’s okay. What’s not okay is stuffing the end of a paper with rambling thoughts because you’re desperate to meet a full page. You can avoid this with a little planning. The first thing you should do is figure out an outline. This is not your actual outline, more of a shopping list of what types of paragraphs you’ll need. (For example, an introduction, a background paragraph, x number of body paragraphs, counterarguments, and a conclusion.) Then, draw out the number of pages you’ll need, aiming for the middle of the length requirement. Mark off how much space each paragraph will need, so you can pace yourself throughout the paper instead of scrambling at the end.
(Ab)use Google Do you know how to spell that word? Do you know if you’re using it correctly? HOW DO COMMAS WORK? WHAT IS A NOUN? HOW DO I WRITE OMG ASJKSD…Stop. Ask the internet. Repeat as necessary. Avoid semicolons unless you’re sure; they’re so easy to misuse.
Create False Deadlines If the idea of doing an entire paper is daunting, it can be easy to procrastinate. (Let’s face it, procrastinating and then falling on your face is almost a rite of passage.) The obvious answer is to break the project into smaller pieces, but even that might not work if you don’t have clear deadlines. For example, you might say you’ll write a first draft this week, until this week is next week and the paper is due tomorrow.
Instead, find some way to make yourself accountable. You could set up a meeting with a friend in your class to peer review rough drafts, for example. One thing that works for me is tricking myself into thinking the entire paper is due the day before. This is an option because I’m really forgetful and live by my calendar, so if I write that something is due a day early I will genuinely believe it.
Look at Examples A pretty popular piece of advice among writers is really simple: read. However, it never occurs to many students to look for examples of what they’re writing, even if they have no idea how to write the essay. If you’re writing a literary analysis, read literary analysis essays. If you’re writing a persuasive piece, read persuasive essays. Keep in mind, you may want to avoid essays on your specific topic, unless you’re willing to cite the essay in your paper. The idea is to get a feel for the format and style of the type of paper you’re doing, not to (accidentally) steal ideas.
Write a Zero Draft If you’re not ready to write a “proper” draft, a zero draft can help. A zero draft (also called an exploratory draft) is an unfiltered draft where you write down your thoughts on the subject as they come to you. Later, you go through and sort out anything that you might want to keep for the rough draft. (This is a lot like free-writing…it gets your brain thinking about a topic without concerns about quality.)
Distance Yourself from Your Writing You may insist on writing the entire paper in one night, but you’re doing yourself a disservice. Even if you write the rough draft two or three days in advance, if you’ve had time between writing your draft and revising it, you’ll be able to look at the piece more objectively. Pretend that you’ve never read the piece before and critique it like it was somebody else’s. (Don’t feel bad if it feels like there are a lot of errors! Being honest during the revision process will actually help you create a better final draft.)
Read It Aloud This is a great way to catch awkward phrases, choppy sentences, or repetitive word use, even if it feels silly at first.
Of course, none of these suggestions are substitutes for your own ideas and work, but putting a little bit more effort into a project can make a huge difference. Plus, no matter what you’ve convinced yourself, stress is not good for you OR your paper. Sorry to disappoint.