Monday, May 16, 2011

8 Steps to Writing an English Paper in One Night

You may think it's odd I'm blogging about writing English papers as I am no longer in school, and what I want to write are novels, not more papers.

The thing is, I know very little about writing novels. Sure, I've read hundreds of novels and tons of blog posts, articles, and books about how to write them. But I’ve never written one.

What I have written a lot of are English papers. (I get points for sticking to "write what you know," don't I?) I hope that, by analyzing how I write academically, I can get an idea of the best writing process for me as I dive into my fiction project. I probably have a ton of bad habits I need to fix, and being aware of what they are would be the first step.

This is how I write English papers:

(Disclaimer: your mileage may vary; results are not guaranteed and you're responsible for the outcome should you try this at home.)

1. Pick a topic

As soon as I get the list of prompts, I cross out any prompt based on books I didn't buy for the class. (The best way to save money on textbooks is not to buy them, right? I think there was a semester or two when I didn't buy any textbooks. Somehow, I survived.) Then I eliminate prompts that look like too much work or too boring or whatever. Eventually I settle on a topic. Then I figure I've done enough work for the time being and forget about the paper until a couple days before it's due.

2. Read the source material and find all relevant passages

This is when being a fast reader comes in handy. I can (and do) read several full-length novels in one day, so I know I'll have enough time to read whichever book I've chosen to write about. If I've already read the book, it does make it easier to note all the sections related to the prompt, but I can do it on my first read through as well. I like to highlight and dog-ear every instance to make them easy to find. I tend to do this a day or two before the paper is due.

3. Collect potential quotes

The day before the paper is due, I'll complain to my friends that I have a paper due the next day and haven't even started (I can't believe they put up with me either; my friends are so nice!). In the afternoon I review my source material, and after dinner I start compiling the most useful passages in a Word document. This becomes my "brainstorm" file and it's where I outline the paper. Since it's still early in the evening, I feel like I have lots of time left. So I take plenty of breaks to play random flash games. It wouldn't do to overwork myself now, would it?

4. Make observations and organize the quotes accordingly

The previous step shouldn't take all that long, but time flies when you procrastinate. Eventually, I notice how late it's getting and make myself analyze the passages and find patterns and connections. I start with concrete details and build my paragraph ideas from there as I link together passages that support the same point. As before, this is accompanied by surfing the internet and whining to friends.

5. Come up with a thesis

By the time I finish it's probably around 11pm. Then comes the toughest part of the entire paper-writing process for me. I look at my potential topic sentences and try to think of an argument that ties them all together. This is hard. It has to say something interesting and compelling about the text or author that can be logically supported by the observations I've already made.

It's so incredibly difficult that I agonize over my lack of ideas, certain I will never be able to start writing my paper. I decide I will most likely fail the class. So I go look at something funny on the internet to make me feel better.

After a good laugh, I stare at my screen. A lot. And change my status to "I NEED A THESIS!" so all my friends know how tortured I am. And whine some more to make sure they didn't miss my subtle hint. And then let my conscious mind take a break with Bejeweled so my subconscious can work on the paper. And then blank out some more at my brainstorm file.

Around 1am (or midnight, if I'm lucky) I finally type out my beautiful, brilliant thesis and wonder why I didn't think of it sooner. To celebrate the amazing progress I've made, I let myself procrastinate some more by watching YouTube videos.

6. Outline the paper

Once I get my thesis, everything falls into place. I look at the material I have and rearrange the order to fit the thesis. I make sure the outline flows logically from one point to the next so my transitions would be smooth. I write out my topic sentences and decide which quotes to keep. Then I'm ready to start writing.

7. Write

Most of my paper assignments were in the 5-7 page range. From experience I know that, including time spent on procrastination and the inverse relationship between efficiency and sleep deprivation, I should budget about one hour to write each page.

By now I'm not so worried; the hardest part is over. I know the basic writing mechanics and I know what I want to say, thanks to my outline. I just have to churn out the words.

I write and edit sentence-by-sentence, making sure what I've written makes sense and says something useful before I move on. If I can't think of a good way to phrase something, I'll write SOMETHING GOES HERE and skip to the next section. But that doesn't happen often as I'm simply transforming my outline into prose. I already know what every sentence is supposed to say, whether it's the topic of a paragraph, analysis of a specific line, explanation of a quote, or a transition to the next point. Since I have a thesis, the introduction and conclusion write themselves.

But thanks to my terrible habit of procrastinating, I'm writing at a time when I'd normally be sleeping, so my brain isn't exactly operating at its optimum. I have to be careful that I don't start writing nonsense as my brain turns to mush. The longer I stay up, the harder it becomes to form a coherent sentence. Minutes pass by as I squint at the blinking cursor, trying to remember how I'd intended to finish the half-written fragment. I can't think straight at all — it takes too much effort to remain lucid.

I can't afford to get writer's block, so I don't. But I do let myself take a nap. Around 5am, I get so tired I let myself lie down and close my eyes. I always worry I'll oversleep and miss my class, not turn in the paper, and fail the course, but the thought is so horrifying I wake up every few minutes to check the time. I always get up in time to finish my paper.

8. Check it over and turn it in

I complete the paper about half an hour (or less) before class starts. I make sure I didn't inadvertently leave SOMETHING GOES HERE in my paper. I quickly reread my sentences and tweak them a bit, but the changes are minor. I don't have time to do an in-depth line edit, and much less any revisions, so I print out the paper and hope there aren't too many typos or awkward sentences. Even if there are a few careless mistakes, I tell myself it's the content that matters. I try not to be more than half an hour late to class, then finally hand in the paper.

And then it’s over! Yay! I struggle to stay awake during class and bolt out the door once it ends. I go home, stumble to my bed, and fall into a much-needed and blissful slumber.

This process works for me, for the most part. It's not perfect and sometimes my papers turn out to be less than stellar, but thankfully those B+ and A- grades were in the minority. The one time I got a C on a paper, I was absolutely appalled, but I talked to the grader and worked my butt off on the second paper and the final, so I still ended up with an A in the class (whew!).

So I'd say my habit of staying up all night to write English papers generally works ok for me, though I can't say how well it'd work for anyone else. (Don't try this and expect to get a good grade if you usually spend days writing multiple drafts of your essays.)

Anyway, that's how I write English papers. In my next post, I'll talk about what issues I'll need to work on as I tackle writing a novel (I bet you can already guess what some of them are).

How about you? How did (or do) you go about writing academic papers?


  1.  Wow, it's been a long while since I've written an English paper...or any schoolwork for that matter. 

    I procrastinated (and, boy, was my room clean), but I rarely pulled an all nighter. I'm way too fond of sleep.

    I haven't finished my novel, but the way I'm working toward it is more of a marathon than a sprint. It did take a while to shift my mentality.

    Since you like the thrill of the due date, have you checked out

  2. Hi Cam! Haha yeah I did a lot of cleaning around finals time, too. :)

    I tried doing NaNoWriMo a couple times but always failed. I think it's
    because I didn't have enough scenes planned ahead of time, so I wasn't sure
    how to get to where I wanted to go.

    Treating a novel more like a marathon is a great idea. I think I'll break
    down the project into smaller steps so I don't get overwhelmed.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Your advice would certainly be helpful for students who are finding it hard to write their English paper. It would also be applicable in writing academe paper like thesis and dissertation. Anyway, I think the most important advice would be to write. Just write and write!

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  5. I'm not that kind of procrastinator. I start working on essays a few days before they are due (in this case, 4 days before the due date) and I'll put in a lot of words, but as the deadline nears, I struggle to find additional content that I can put in to my paper to get a good grade. And of course, it doesn't help that I was a why-say-in-four-pages-what-you-can-say-in-two-type person in high school.

  6. I should add that adding quotes can help you fill up the essay, so definitely add quotes. In fact, if you've gotten to the end of the essay but still haven't met the minimum page length, go back through your examples and find some related quotes that you can throw in. Just don't overdo it.