Is “Just Get Words Down” Good Advice When You’re Struggling to Write?

When you’re struggling to get an essay written, should you just write whatever comes into your head? Does the advice to write first and think later really help?

James Hayton isn’t a fan.

My main issue with chucking out words in a rush is when there is a lack of context. Freedom to write anything in a quick burst has a time and a place.

When you’re faced with a blank page, you may be tempted to start writing, no matter what the outcome.

Free writing can work out, but there are caveats:

  • It depends on what you do before and after the free writing – Just like an all-nighter only allows a single draft with simultaneous editing (if you have the time for that at all!), rattling off an essay in a flash without giving it much further attention is a mistake. Rapid writing of a first draft (or any piece of text) should only ever be considered a rough start. If you lose the drive to work with the text after your initial approach, rapid writing is not for you.
  • If you don’t have enough understanding or knowledge beforehand, the rapid writing won’t help – You need to be clued up on the subject you’re writing about. A lack of plan means a lack of content, no matter how quickly or slowly you choose to write.
    If I had to write an essay on the fifteen century, or astrophysics, or igneous rocks, or symbolism in Shakespeare’s tragedies, I would be crazy to blast off some random text in hope that something may work. I don’t know about these topics enough just to start writing. In fact, I’d be unhappy writing an academic text in any field straight away, even if I knew a lot about it. At best, I’d make a few brief notes on what I aim to argue alongside the points I wish to make to support the argument as well as discussion of counter arguments and potential issues that arise.
  • The individual isn’t equipped (for whatever reason) to edit the content once it’s written – This can pose a problem when half the material is rubbish or guesswork or errors or a combination of all these things. Without a clear grasp of how and why you need to edit, a bunch of text spewed out as quickly as possible is not a good place to begin.
  • Should you be writing down whatever comes to your head, or making brief notes and outlines based on what you wish to include in the work? – Preparation is key. The advice to ‘just write’ is problematic because people can assume it means to write stuff without a plan. Even a bare minimum can make a huge impact. Think before you type.

I see no problem with getting the words written down when you are confident that you have editing capabilities (and are not just looking to hit a certain number of words). Likewise, it’s no big deal when you already have a clear idea of what you want to say. As Hayton explains, the writing needs to be tight. Just one misplaced observation or assumption can drastically alter the tone, impact and clarity of your writing. However, the first draft doesn’t have to be a place for that.

Any piece of advice, no matter how popular, is not going to work for everyone. And just because ‘everyone’ does something, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Getting the words down fast shouldn’t be recommended to everyone, but I’m equally sure that it is a mistake to recommend it to no one.

What do you do?

Why Mindful Lecture Notes Beat Writing Everything Down

A recent study found that a pen and pad is better for taking lecture notes than typing them on a laptop.

This may say more about the way we use tools for making notes. Fast typing can cause you to take notes word for word, even when you’ve been told not to. Change could be minimal, since the ability to take near-verbatim notes is there.

How do you take notes in a lecture?

Fear of missing out is one possible issue. As with social networks and instant message notifications, the fight to keep up can drive us mad. With a laptop and touch-typing skills, you can transcribe all the words. You know, just in case…

This ‘just in case’ method of writing everything down stops you from engaging with the content, even though you’re recording it all. While some students can revisit the content and engage with it effectively afterwards, many others don’t work this way. Either way, you set yourself up to spend more time on the lecture content than you need.

I see notes differently. I don’t bother with notes at all sometimes, although I begin with the expectation that I’ll write something down. Some of my lecture notes are two or three lines of writing and nothing else. I take down what I feel I need and nothing more.

At times, the notes have flowed and I’ve had a lot to get through. Unfamiliar topics can do that. But it’s still not the same as typing up as many words as I can, with the possibility that I’ll need it all. No matter how many notes I end up writing, the process is mindful. I engage with the content and act accordingly. Don’t just hear the words, hear concepts and ideas and questions and arguments.

After a lecture, a lot of information can be missing from the page, but not from my thoughts. Alternatively, I know that the rest of the information is elsewhere and in a format that I will fully engage with anyway.

In a lecture, the idea is to mindfully consider your notes and carefully listen to the speaker. By typing almost everything out, you’re noting down but not engaging with the information. When you come to the notes later, you read them almost as if they’re in book form…a book you’re coming to for the first time.

You need to work more deeply with the content. Repetition doesn’t help. It’s the same reason why advice to keep reading your notes until you know them back to front is not that helpful in boosting your understanding.

When your lecturer talks about something you aren’t clear about, write down key points and any questions you have. Treat the lecture as an information source that you’re selecting from, rather than a wall of noise that you need to grab as much as possible from.

That one difference in attitude should give you the ability to record your notes in whatever way you like. Even if you keep typing instead of handwriting, the secret is to extract what’s useful to you. You can only do that when you are mindful of the content.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore your notes. Write a brief summary outlining what you found out and explored in the lecture. No more than a few sentences. With a summary and your original notes, return to them in a week and then in a month.

  • Find out more about the things you’re still unsure about;
  • shorten notes and simplify where possible into key points as you become more familiar with them;
  • add context and additional findings where necessary;
  • remind yourself that the purpose of your notes is to strengthen your ability ongoing, with the ultimate aim to use them as a springboard to jump from when considering coursework and revising for exams.

When you no longer need the notes or when they have taken on a new identity, congratulations. You don’t need notes forever. You outgrow them. They get replaced by new notes. Eventually, they get replaced by the essays and exams that you’re proud of.

5 Ways to Get Around Essays Without An All-Nighter

Essays. They’re all about the numbers, right? Get that wordcount and you’re free.

writing essay

What would you do to get rid of an all-nighter, just before the assignment is due in?

Perhaps I can interest you in a few other methods…

Even paced

Deadlines are all different. You may have a week, a fortnight, a month, even the entire term before a piece of work is due in. Let’s say you have a couple of weeks from start to finish for a 2,000 word essay. You would need to write fewer than 150 words a day in order to get to the 2k mark.

Okay, you’ll need to leave time to edit and add more when you need to delete some of the less convincing stuff, but you only need to up your game to 200 words a day and you’ll have several days left to play with.

Quick first draft

This method isn’t given anything like the amount of love it should. When you’re set an assignment, it’s worth writing down what you can from the outset. You may get stuck at 100 words or you may cruise toward the limit. Whatever happens, you’ve started. Work from that place and it’s suddenly less daunting.

Outline in advance

It’s easy to lose track of all your amazing ideas. Start with a plan of what you want to say and the important points you need to get down in your essay.

Your plan can change later. The main reason for the outline is to give you a clear structure to work with. You won’t be left flapping about at the last minute, desperate to remember all the thoughts you had buzzing around your head when you were first given the assignment.

When it seems clear in your head, get those ideas down on paper so you don’t forget later.

Dictate

Gone are the days when you needed a dedicated dictaphone for a quick voice note. Now your phone will record stuff admirably (unless you’re producing broadcast stuff, of course).

Do you express yourself better when spoken out loud? Then start recording your voice! Speak your essay’s first draft and jot it down later. Even better, dictate it to a voice recognition tool that can print the text up on screen for you.

Whatever you can manage, chatter away about the topic and get that essay going now.

Quote first

I’ve never been a big fan of this one, but it might help you. When you’re stuck for ideas, grab some books on the subject you’re writing about and find some juicy quotations to work around. Let the work of others inspire you.

I’m not that keen on this approach because it may set you down a false trail or lead you to take on someone else’s ideas, rather than allowing you to form your own conclusions. There are dangers associated with this method.

Nevertheless, finding some great leads to use in an essay can be a step closer than simply doing some research before you get started. The very fact that you have some choice quotes typed up can form as a way to get words on the screen, stopping the scary blank white page. You may also stumble upon a theme or outline emerging from what you’ve found.

How do you get started on essays? Which approaches work for you?

How to Make the Most of an Unconditional Offer

Unconditional offers of a university place are controversial. They seem like a good thing, but critics are concerned:

  • Pupils firmly accepting a place may not bother with their A-levels after that;
  • A change of heart can be hard to deal with once you’re committed to a place. You’ve locked in.

Get your head around those two issues and there’s not much to lose.

Unconditional Offers

In 2012, nearly 92% of predicted grades were accurate to within one grade. Half the predictions were not correct, but still not too far off. Given that, an unconditional offer based on predicted grades is still statistically worth a punt for universities.

When you’re lucky enough to get an unconditional offer, how do you make the best decision for you?

  1. Only make a firm acceptance if you truly want to go to that university – If you choose to lock in to a course and you end up getting the grades needed for a place you would have preferred, you may regret accepting an unconditional offer. Some universities may let you back out, but that would take time and you may end up missing out on what you wanted anyway. Only commit to an unconditional offer if your mind is completely made up.
  2. Don’t write off the A-levels – You may be tempted to relax if you know the place is guaranteed. That’s all the more reason to enjoy your A-levels and see where they take you. And a CV with very poor A-level grades will make you look less capable than you really are. Relax so you can do your best, not so you can stop bothering.
  3. Make sure you know what’s being asked of you – Unconditional offers often stipulate that the offer only stands if you make the university your firm choice. On rare occasions, you will be allowed to make your insurance choice an unconditional place. See what you can do and choose accordingly.
  4. Plan ahead with lots of time and ease – Once you accept an unconditional offer, your place is guaranteed. Set aside 15-30 minutes a week to find out more about the university, the area, the accommodation, the activities, the subject, the initial reading, and everything you can think of that you want to know. Read up, research and prepare now so you don’t have to do it later. When you hit campus, you’ll have more exciting things to enjoy.
  5. Remember the life-skills! – The more time you have to learn about laundry, cooking, cleaning and tidying, money-management, and organising your time, the better. They may be chores now, but that’s better than learning to do it all when you’ve got other stuff on your mind. As a bonus, your new uni mates will be amazed at your superhero abilities to do everything like a natural. Just so long as they don’t start asking you to do all their washing for them…

If you’re serious about preparing for your degree, make sure you check out the blog archives. And don’t forget to sign up to my TUBthump mailing list, starting soon!