How to write an essay without losing your mind

Word count: 758 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

If your son or daughter — or you — needs to learn how to write an essay or a shortish report, here is a column you might want to copy and tape to your fridge….

It’s a red-letter day in my household. Our 18-year-old triplets are all starting post-secondary school.

Claire is heading for General Sciences. Duncan is going to the Faculty of Music. And Alison is studying to become a Social Worker. It’s hard to imagine three more divergent paths but one thing I know for sure: Two-thirds of my kids aren’t going to have to write many essays.

On the other hand, one is going to be buried by a mountain of them.

This column is for students like Alison. The advice will work whether you’re in college, university, or still at your local high school. And it will even help if you’re a professional who has reports or other documents you’ve been hoping will disappear if you ignore them long enough.

I know how to meet deadlines, in part, because I grew up in a family that ran a weekly newspaper. But I certainly don’t recommend the deadline skills I employed as a teenager. Then, I procrastinated, drank way too much coffee, and logged many, many late nights. Don’t do what I did!

Instead, here’s how to write an essay without losing your mind:

1 Start your assignment on the same day you receive it. I know this sounds obsessive-compulsive, but getting started is almost always the hardest part of writing. If you make an ironclad rule that you will always start right away, you’ll save yourself so much misery. And the starting doesn’t have to be hard! Just grab a calendar and attach a deadline to each of the following steps. (This will take all of five minutes. Don’t tell me you don’t have five minutes!)

2 Make a plan for doing your research. An essay is not the same as an encyclopedia. It’s a small slice of something. In planning your research you should strive to limit the amount of work in front of you. Don’t ever vow to read “everything I can find.” Instead, identify a slice and concentrate only on that. Talk to your professor, teacher or boss if you need to but you can probably figure it out yourself. It doesn’t matter if your decision is arbitrary. Life is arbitrary! By sharpening your focus, you will save yourself enormous amounts of time.

3 When your research is complete, get away from your desk, the library and/or your computer. I’m not suggesting you go to the cafeteria or the bar! Instead, do something that leaves your mind free but your arms or legs busy. This could be walking, swimming, driving, cycling, cooking or washing dishes. Think. Mull things over. Figure out how you want to attack the essay. Do this away from your computer.

4 Do a mindmap. I’ve written about mindmaps before so I’ll not harp on them now, except to emphasize that mindmapping is very different from outlining. It will help you figure out the point you want to make. Note: if your essay (or report) has a point, your professor or boss will be insanely happy.

5 Write as fast as you can without stopping to edit. My fatal flaw when I did my degree in political science was that I polished each sentence as if it were a diamond that needed faceting. The trouble was, I always left essays til the night before they were due. As a result, most of my sentences remained dark as coal dust. Hemingway advised: Write drunk. I don’t endorse this literally, of course, but I agree you need to write as if you had no cares in the world. Spelling? Punctuation? Grammar? Marks? What marks? Ignore all that stuff until later.

6 When your first draft is done, put it aside for at least a day. Remember, near the top of this column, when I told you to schedule this step? It’s crucial because it helps you get enough “distance” so that you’re in a better position to self-edit. This is not the same as “goofing off.” It’s the reward you’ve earned by writing the first draft early and quickly.

7 Allow plenty of time for editing/rewriting. The typical layperson thinks that good writing means producing just the right words. It does – but this doesn’t mean they appear as if by magic. Good writing is about effective rewriting. When Hemingway said “write drunk,” he also added: “edit sober.” (Thanks, Robert Hendrickson for that terrific quote.) You should spend twice the time on editing that you did on writing the first draft.

I only wish someone had told me this before I headed off to higher education.

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