Good papers are a key ingredient in the recipe for student success. Yet for many students, writing a paper is a daunting prospect. You don’t have to spend days or even weeks exhausting yourself with the tedium of writing. A few simple techniques can help you knock out a paper in just a few hours—and often in two hours or less.
Incorporate these student success strategies into your paper-writing routine, and you’ll soon have more time for yourself, your family, your job, and even your hobbies.
Know Your Subject
We’ve all had the experience of gleefully talking (or writing) for hours about topics we’re passionate about. Knowing your subject well can mean the difference between having lots to say and nothing at all. This means that writing a quality paper as quickly as possible begins well before you sit down at the computer. Try these strategies to become as familiar as possible with the topic:
- Do all of your homework and assigned reading. If something is unclear or you don’t understand the paper topic, address this with your professor well before the deadline.
- Integrate the subject into your daily life. Talk to friends and family about your paper topic. Read news about the subject. Read and post to message boards and blogs. The more time you spend thinking and talking about the paper, the easier it becomes to write.
- If you are allowed to choose your own topic to write about, choose a subject that interests you. If the topic is pre-assigned, try to adopt an angle that’s relevant to your interests. For example, if your professor assigns you to write about good leadership, you might think about some leadership styles you’ve seen in previous jobs and how you feel about those styles.
Don’t let a great idea go to waste because you weren’t at your computer when it popped into your head. Pre-writing allows you to capture all the thoughts and ideas you have in one place before you begin writing. Carry a notebook with you, and jot down thoughts about your paper as they arise, however disjointed they may seem. You can also use the notepad on your mobile device to collect your thoughts no matter where you are. With enough pre-writing, you will eventually have enough information to form a strong outline. You may even find that some sections of the paper practically write themselves.
Multitask the Right Way
Most people think they’re great multitaskers, yet research consistently shows that multitasking is a myth. Trying to do two things at once usually means doing a worse job that takes longer. There is an exception to this rule, though: try using time you’d otherwise spend bored or mindlessly reading social media to plan your paper. Waiting in line at the DMV? Jot down a few notes. Convinced your doctor is never going to call your name in the waiting room? Make a list of paper sources. Then correctly format them and email them to yourself so they’re ready to go. Knocking out these small but tedious tasks can make writing feel seamless and easy.
Choose the Right Time to Work
To do your best work, you need to enter a state of flow. This happens when you’re energized and invested in your work, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in your paper. You’re not likely to enter this state when your baby is crying, your dog is barking, or you’re trying to sneak in some homework at your day job. Likewise, a morning person is probably not going to do their best work late in the evening, while a caffeine junkie may struggle to write before their morning cup of joe.
Think about when you feel your best and most productive. Then schedule your writing time around that period of prime efficiency.
Even when you’re passionate about the topic, writing a paper is challenging work that’s rarely fun. Many students attempt to ease the pain of schoolwork with digital distractions. One survey found that 97% of college students are distracted by their phones during class. Phones, social media, and other digital temptations are likely a distraction at home too. Half of adults say they check Facebook multiple times each day.
It might feel like a quick and harmless distraction, but five minutes here and there quickly add up to lost time. The cost of a brief break can be high, particularly when digital distractions disrupt a train of thought or prevent you from digging deeply into the material or getting into the state of flow. If you feel like you need a break, do something productive instead. Take a quick walk, do some yoga, play with the dog, or eat a healthy snack. Your brain will welcome the rest rather than be overwhelmed by the constant input of digital stimulus.
Of course, technology isn’t the only source of distraction. Every student has their own working challenges. To get the most done, try these strategies:
- Work in a quiet room behind a closed door.
- Ask your kids and spouse only to interrupt you if there is an emergency.
- Get everyone in your family prepared for some time away from you. Make food. Give the kids a game or toy. Then get to work knowing that everyone has all they need.
- Minimize ambient noise. If you can hear your kids fighting or the dog barking, wear ear plugs or try a white noise machine.
- If you work in a public location, choose a quiet one. Coffee shops are full of loud talkers and distractions, while libraries offer peace and quiet.
Outline the Key Points
When you’re deeply immersed in a subject, especially one you find compelling, it’s easy to waste time on distracting tangents or long, amorphous paragraphs. Minimize this temptation by outlining your paper before you write. Your outline doesn’t have to be detailed or heavily formatted. A list of key topics each paragraph will cover and your most important pieces of evidence is sufficient. Of course, the more detailed your outline is, the easier it may be to put pen to paper—especially if you link to sources in your outline. So spend some time brainstorming before you write.
Put Everything You Need in One Place
Sooner or later, it happens to everyone: You’re writing something you hope will be great, but you have 40 tabs open on your internet browser. You have to scan each tab every time you cite a source, and pretty soon you’re citing the wrong source—or navigating to social media to get a break from the chaos.
This subtle source of stress wastes time and cognitive energy. Instead, open a file and paste a link to each source. Consider adding a sentence or two summarizing what each source offers. Then, as you use and cite the reference, delete it from your list. The goal here is to have everything you need in one accessible location, without adding in anything you don’t need.
Become a Great Editor
Don’t let perfectionism slow you down with your first draft. The goal should be to get everything down on paper, even if there are typos or the structure is imperfect. So commit everything to paper, then step away for a few hours to clear your head.
Return with your red pen (or track changes), prepared to smooth rough edges and transform your paper. Making editing a key component of your writing process frees you to experiment and think creatively on your first pass. Then, when you return with a fresh set of eyes, you can critically evaluate what works and what doesn’t.
Leave Intros and Conclusions for Last
A good intro draws your reader in, while a conclusion ties up loose ends. You probably won’t fully understand how to successfully introduce and tie up your paper, however, until you’ve written the body of the work. Moreover, it’s the meat of your paper—your arguments, evidence, and analysis—that make the difference between a great paper and a mediocre one. So save the intro and conclusion for last.
SNU understands that transitioning from the workday world of conference calls and meetings to the universe of papers and homework can be a culture shock. We are committed to your success as a student, from your first day of school until your last. Our adult education programs are designed for people with busy lives and many commitments. We work with you to chart a course to success. We’d love to talk to you about designing a custom path to a better life.