I’m not gonna lie: writing papers can suck. Even as someone who basically writes papers for a living these days (like this article), I still viewed every college essay writing with a tinge of dread.
After all, writing a paper isn’t like working on math problems or reading a chapter of a book. As frustrating as those activities can be, they always seemed more finite than the monumental task of “writing a paper.” You can’t just open the book and start working: you have to brainstorm, research, outline, draft, edit, and add those pesky citations.
As I moved through college, however, I developed a system for cranking out papers in record time. This let me spend more time on things that I enjoyed, such as writing for this blog and taking long walks through the woods. Today, I’m going to share this process so that you too can write papers more quickly (without a decrease in the quality of your writing).
Understand the Assignment
The ultimate waste of time when writing a paper is to write something that doesn’t even answer the question the professor is asking. Don’t be afraid to ask the professor to explain any part of the assignment that’s unclear.
If the assignment seems vague, it’s not because the professor is trying to trip you up. Often, it’s that they know their field so well that it’s easy for them to think some things are “obvious”…even when they aren’t to us non-experts.
Remember: asking for clarification because you don’t understand the assignment doesn’t make you stupid; what’s stupid is to complete the assignment without understanding it.
Yet, when I was an English TA in college, I saw this problem all the time. Students would spend hours researching and writing a paper on a completely different topic than what the professor assigned. It doesn’t matter how good a paper is–if it doesn’t answer the question, it’s going to receive a bad grade.
Best case scenario, the professor is nice and lets you rewrite it, but why do all that extra work? Furthermore, asking the professor for clarification shows initiative–that you care about the assignment. Demonstrating this level of engagement with your assignments can only boost your grade.
Research with Ruthless Efficiency
Once you understand the assignment, you need to start researching. But beware! If you’re not careful, research can be one of the best ways to procrastinate. “One more source” can easily turn into hours that you could have been writing.
To overcome the temptation to procrastinate on research, I employ my favorite approach for beating all forms of procrastination: setting a time limit. As I explained in my guide to research, you shouldn’t spend more than 30 minutes per page of the final paper researching. That is, if the paper is supposed to be 5 pages, don’t spend more than 2.5 hours on research (maximum).
Spending any more time than this puts you at a point of diminishing returns. Don’t worry about not having enough information. If you find that you need more info after you start writing, you can always do more research. The goal of your initial research session is to give you just enough material to start writing. Get into the library or database, find your sources, take your notes, and then get to writing.