Essay Writing – Most of the Work is Getting Started

How long do you stare at a blank screen, willing it to turn into a completed essay? I don’t know if there are any studies on this, but I’ll bet many students spend more time generating the enthusiasm to begin than they do writing. I used to be one of those students (and I still have relapses.)

If you keep track of how you spend your study time (and you really should), you may be surprised to find that the act of writing is a smaller proportion of your time than you thought. Maybe you’re spending more time thinking about writing, avoiding writing, or complaining about the unfairness of having to write at all.

Delaying the inevitable eats up valuable time. You really just need to write. Even if you don’t feel like it, you really must get started. Try a few of these strategies to trick yourself into getting that essay, or any writing project, underway.

Don’t wait for ideal conditions. You may want a solid chunk of uninterrupted time to work on your essay (this is my great failing), but you don’t need it and may never get it. Just begin; even if you know you don’t have time to squeeze out an entire first draft. Drafting one paragraph, or even a few sentences, gets you closer to your goal.

Set the timer. Tell yourself that you are going to write for only ten or twenty minutes. Turn off every other distraction (yep, including the internet and mobile phone), set a timer, and do nothing but write for those minutes. Now you’ve got momentum and you’ll probably want to keep writing. Alternatively, pretend you’re writing under exam conditions. Write a 500-word essay in 60 minutes. If you can do it in an exam, you can do it now. Ready? Go!

Get to the point. If full sentences and paragraphs seem too daunting, begin your essay in point form. You can expand from your outline, or just start from scratch. When you think you have all your points written, put them in order and arrange them into full sentences and paragraphs. Voilà, first draft.

Word dump. Write down everything you know about your essay’s topic. don’t worry about complete sentences, spelling, or grammar. Write whatever occurs to you in whatever order it comes to your mind.¬† Don’t try to organize or revise. When you’re done, you may find you have enough material to organize into a first draft.

Reward yourself. Decide on a target and reward yourself for reaching it. For example, you may decide that once you reach 75% of the word count target for your first draft, you’ll give yourself a little treat (or at least turn the internet back on.)

Accept that a first draft is garbage. Nobody is ever going to read your first draft, so don’t worry about trying to churn out a masterpiece on your first attempt. Ernest Hemingway said that “The first draft of anything is shit” and he’s right. The important thing is to get the draft written, so you can begin molding it into something worth handing in. Your first draft is done when you stop writing. Immediately re-save the file as a second draft, retaining your first draft. Re-name and save each subsequent draft so that you don’t have to worry about losing something in a later revision.

Not many students enjoy writing essays, and I imagine few tutors enjoy marking them. But they are a fact of student life. I sometimes (okay, often) spend more time avoiding an essay (as evidenced by this Voice article from last year) than I do in writing it.

Like any task we procrastinate about, it really does feel good to get the damned thing done. And the only way to get that cursor to stop blinking is to get started.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario