Writing Essays – Don’t Fool Yourself

Studying Late

I’ve seen it so many times.

I’d ask my mates if they wanted to go out and do something. One would say, “I’ve got an essay due in tomorrow by 10 o’clock.”

“How much have you done so far?” I’d ask.

“Well, I’ve got some of the quotes I want to use, and I’ve photocopied half a chapter from one of the books in the library on the subject, so all I need to do is write the essay tonight.”

“So you’re going to sit down and write an essay from scratch in the 15 or so hours you’ve got before it needs to be handed in? Are you even going to get any sleep?”

“I doubt it! I’ve got an essay to do, remember!?”

I shouldn’t have always been so surprised. This type of conversation happened regularly. With lots of different people. Rather than work steadily through an essay over the time period set, they were using a dangerous ‘last minute’ method so the ‘punishment’ lasted as little time as possible.

I don’t know why this method of working won’t go away, because:

  • It’s not useful
  • Your grades will suffer as a result
  • A high dose of stress is never a good thing
  • It gets in the way of reality. Everything stops for this essay.

Don’t kid yourself that this is a good way to work. In fact, don’t kid yourself that it takes away the stress in the long run.

Say you have an essay to complete that requires approximately 1500 words. Let’s add that you have about a month before it’s due in. That’s 30 days to play with.

Here’s what you can do with that time:

  • Make a few very brief notes on what you think your answer would be. Total time shouldn’t be more than about 20 minutes. It’s just to get your mind working.
  • Get down the library just before or after a lecture (so it’s just another part of your day, rather than a forced need to be somewhere). See what books are there, take out any relevant books and photocopy any snippets you think will be helpful. Total time will depend, but you’d be doing this at some point anyway, so you might as well get it out of the way quick, while it’s fresh in your head (and before everybody else has taken the books out that you wanted…)
  • After digesting your research, see if it’s changed your viewpoint to answering the essay questions? If so, spend another 20 minutes or so roughly sketching how you would now see the finished essay.

Hopefully these elements can be done in the first few days of being given your assignment. It should already put you in a commanding position. Next:

  • Try to write an introduction and a conclusion. It doesn’t need to be perfect, because you can make any changes later down the line. Total time = 1-2 hours (possibly quicker if you already have a strong arguement/opinion in your head already).
  • Now you’ve got a clear path, take the research notes you’ve made and look for quotes, passages, names and references that can help strengthen or prove what you’re trying to argue. Total time depends on how much background research you’ve got, but it won’t be too long and you can even do it in quick bursts of 10-15 minutes when you’ve got a few free moments.
  • If necessary, go back to the library and find more good quotes and references. This is optional and you may feel you already have enough to go on.

With all this sorted, you can now work bit by bit on the last thing:


Some people work well with a word limit. Whether you set 150 words a day, or 500 words, just try a few short jabs and you should quickly be on the way to a full work.

Other people work better on time limits. Rather than spend a stressful 10-20 hours writing an essay just before it’s due in, it’s good to give yourself lots of sessions, somewhere around 30-60 minutes each time. Once you get over the worry that you’ll be obsessing over your essay all the time – exactly what you’re aiming not to do – you should realise after a few sessions that the work is naturally progressing. With your initial concern over, it shouldn’t be a problem for your future essays.

At some point, with your arguments written up and about the right word count, you’ll need to focus on making what you’ve written as good as possible.

But just think, you wouldn’t have had that chance if you only used one shot at writing the essay in a tired and hurried state.

So instead of using a huge and inappropriate 15 hour writing binge at the last minute, split it into little chunks over the whole time you’ve got.

And if your style works best when doing it all in one go, PLEASE don’t do it at the last minute. Try to make your binge much further away from the deadline. That way, you can still spend an extra hour or two ironing out the creases.

It’ll be worth it for your grades AND for your sanity!



  1. Good point you have here. Hopefully people will read it and learn!

    “they were using a dangerous ‘last minute’ method so the ‘punishment’ lasted as little time as possible.” – I have never thought of it this way. Makes me think…

  2. @narziss, thanks very much for your comment. Hehe, you’re teasing me with the ‘almost’ part!

    @Armand, doing an essay ‘last minute’ is still a favourite technique amongst students. Shame it’s a rubbish way to do it…so I share your hope that this will help move some people away from the habit.

  3. “they were using a dangerous ‘last minute’ method so the ‘punishment’ lasted as little time as possible.”
    I find that the “punishment” begins the minute the essay is set, just because you do it at the last minute doesn’t mean you don’t have constant desperation and panic for the few weeks before. And yes, I am currently writing an essay due in tomorrow. Sigh.

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