When a paper is looming, it can be easy to get into absolutes and assume that, unless you can get something really fantastic down in the next couple of hours, you’re doomed. But let’s remember the old adage Rome wasn’t built in a day - and neither was your essay, short story, or research project. All good writing comes from rewriting. Even the greatest writers on earth will admit that their first drafts and ideas were often lackluster. Sometimes downright terrible. So don’t be discouraged. Be willing to write poorly, and then be willing to improve! (Remember that growth mindset!)
It’s always best to start with some free writing, which used to be called brainstorming, to get your ideas down first. This can be done in a variety of ways, depending on the type of learner and writer you are. Some people benefit from diagrams and jotting notes, others outlines, and some (like me) get right to business writing paragraphs to then go back to edit and rearrange. You can even get creative and use apps on your iPhone! (Just, avoid texting.) Let your ideas flow. Don’t censor yourself. A good rule of thumb is to set a timer for fifteen minutes and to continue writing (or typing) for that entire stretch. Don’t worry during this brainstorming session if your ideas make sense or are good enough or are written in gorgeous prose. Just get the ideas flowing. This might be the place where you develop an interesting thesis statement or main idea or where you solidify several ideas to support your argument.
If you are a procrastinator, I recommend that you follow a strategy I used all through high school, college, and graduate school when I had giant papers assigned to me: start right away. I don’t mean write the whole thing right away. I just mean start. Ten minutes. Or two. Even if you only open a document and write a heading and a first sentence, this will help tremendously, because you will feel you have at least gotten your foot in the door. It takes some mental pressure off, and you will find you are more inclined to return to the document regularly over the coming weeks before turning in a rough or final draft. There won’t be a paper you haven’t even started hanging over your head. You’ll say to yourself, I’ve got my thesis or a paragraph down! It’s a great motivational tool and a stress reliever.
Once you’ve got your main ideas down in note, outline, or free writing form, hunker down and dig in. Again, set a timer, for thirty minutes to ninety minutes (or in other increments that work for you) and commit to writing for that entire stretch. Again, don’t worry so much if your writing feels shaky or “bad” - just write. Do this several times until you have what we call a rough or first draft. This means you have transformed notes and outlines into full sentences and paragraphs. You have structure to what you’ve written, whether that means a beginning, middle, and end of a story, or five paragraphs that help argue a solid thesis statement.
With this rough draft, the refinery process can take place, and this is where some real magic happens. I recommend first that you allow a teacher (if applicable) to review your draft and provide feedback. A peer editor can also be helpful, but make sure it is someone you trust to read carefully and closely and who understands the objective of your writing piece.
The last editor is you. Once you have your feedback and notes and the areas to remove or expand upon, enter the final phase, which requires close reading and the willingness to “kill your darlings” and tidy up each sentence in your work. Killing your darlings means you part with the words, sentences, or paragraphs that for some reason you really like but that you understand are not supporting the writing piece. As stated in an article on BusyTeacher, less is often more, especially in formal essay writing. And we don’t want to clog a story or narrative with unnecessary adjectives and adverbs or cliched metaphors. We want to tidy up run-on sentences. We want to say what we mean succinctly. We want strong verbs and eloquent prose, but we never want our writing to sound “fluffy.” Aim true. Kill off the words you don’t need. It feels great, trust me, like getting rid of clothes in your closet you never wear!
Once you have done a few rounds of close editing on your own and feel you have made the writing the best it can be, let go. Surrender. Feel proud. And walk away. If you’re really dedicated and have the time, revisit it again with fresh eyes in a day or two. But don’t get into the habit of nitpicking something to death from a place of anxiety and criticism. Be proud that you went through a tried and true writing process. You’ll know when you’ve really given it your all!
About the Author
Stephanie Ingraham is a former English teacher turned writer and tutor with a BA in English from UCLA and a Masters in Education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. She is deeply passionate about education, psychology, child and adolescent development, literature, and writing. She believes the education world can benefit greatly from the meditation world - mindfulness and self-compassion are key! In her free time she loves reading and writing, music, baking, yoga, dance, animals, and exploring new cities. She currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.