I’m completely sympathetic to anxious students struggling to even start papers for grades, and I never call it laziness. It may be debilitating perfectionism. It may be lack of successful strategies. Or fatigue. Whatever the causes, procrastination becomes paralysis and makes it impossible to move from clear thinking to complete sentences. Here’s help.
Get words on the page with one of these focus/motivation strategies
“Writer’s block” has only happened to me a few times in my years as a feature writer, but these three little words from editor Erin Orr have worked every time. Tell a friend. As in, tell a friend what the story is about. In that spirit, here are some strategies for long, complex assignments, and a link for additional reading.
“Tell a friend”
Imagine your friend asks you, “What’s that book about?” What one- or two-sentence answer would you give? Say it out loud. This will be what you consider most important.
Why this works: It’s so easy to get bogged down when writing about a complex novel or group of sources. But it’s easy to come up with a short summary you would SAY to a friend. Use this as your springboard.
“Tell a friend” recording of main points
If the actual mechanics of WRITING is creating a roadblock, use your phone to record your answers to the usual group of questions you’ll have to answer for a paper.
These may include the basic Who, What, Where, Why, When, How of the book – or the critical components of Author, Time period, Audience, Purpose.
Why this works: Once you’ve recorded your answers, it’s much easier to go back and jot down the bullet points of your answers.
“Brainstorm, group and research”
–What do you recall about the book? Anything at all. Move quickly. Don’t dwell on anything in particular. Make a list down the left side of your paper. Include characters’ names, scenery, mood of the book/passage, how you felt reading it, etc.
–Read through the list and decide which points will be useful in answering the writing prompt. Put a star by those.
–Group these into 3-5 topics you’ll include in your paper. There’s no need to rewrite them – just make symbols, draw lines, highlight in different colors, whatever will help you see themes.
–Utilize your favorite form of research (e.g. Google search) to find the required number of useful sources according to the assignment. *Here, it’s most important to focus on exactly the questions you’re trying to answer to avoid wandering down online rabbit holes.
Note! – If after no more than 5 minutes you haven’t found a single source, review the assignment, refocus your search, and begin again. If within 10 minutes you haven’t found at least one good source, change your environment: turn off music, put phone in a different room, get a drink of water. Try again. Daydreaming, multitasking, and all other forms of distraction quickly become discouraging. (Eye on the prize here, which will either be showing your instructor what a brilliant thinker you are or just getting through this crummy assignment! 😉 )
— Take good notes, bookmark sources for easy attribution later, and be sure to find as much as you need BUT NO MORE. It’s pointless to gather more than you need; it’s a of waste time researching, waste of time writing, and waste of time cutting a paper that’s either too long, too wordy, or both.
Putting it all together
Your lead/thesis will be the “tell a friend” statement and road map of the salient points you’ve chosen.
Your body will be the salient points, cited, researched, and developed according to your instructor’s preferences for style and content.
Your conclusion will restate the lead/thesis in different words.
Be creative and have fun arguing your point! If you have an instructor who likes “bold,” be bold! If your instructor likes to be right all the time, no matter what, decide if you can live like that and go forward!
The main thing is to get a first draft on paper. Then take a break before editing. Come back to it and make any changes. Then take another break before final proofreading. This will keep your eyes and insight fresh, ensuring the best grade possible for your very best work.
For additional information, visit such online sources as Odegaard Writing & Research Center.