Last-minute Essays: Should you REALLY be pulling an all-nighter?

In the early days of TheUniversityBlog, I wrote a popular piece about pulling all-nighters and writing essays at the last possible minute. And I wasn’t very complimentary about the process.

To see my friends in a fiddle and my peers in a panic was frustrating, because some of them clearly didn’t respond well to this regular ritual.

The one time I didn’t focus enough until it was too late…was my dissertation. Yes, I know, it annoyed me at the time too. Even worse, I’d been enjoying the research and writing at first and then simply stopped doing enough to make the project as scholarly (and awesome) as I could have done. Sucked to be me. 😉

So I knew that the last-minute wasn’t for me. By all means get close, but never get TOO close.

But can the all-nighter essay work for some students? Is it really the best way to get the right words flowing?

Rachel Toor, an assistant professor of creative writing, says this:

“What I’ve learned about writing and intellectual work is that there’s no right way to get things done, no ritual or routine that is effective unless it’s effective for you…If the products are coming out in ways that you’re not happy with, by all means, try to make a change in your work style. But…if you need the guillotine hanging over you to get that paper done, let it dangle. There’s no “right” way.”

My personal preference is to use the time given and aim to finish with time to spare if necessary. More often than not, it’s not necessary. I’ll set my own deadline in advance of the actual requirement, so I’m not tempted to run over for some reason.

I do it this way because I prefer to work when it suits me, often in small doses. It depends what I’m working on, but I generally feel comfortable, so see no reason to change.

And that’s the big deal. I see no reason to change.

Just as Rachel Toor explains, pulling an all-nighter is fine if that’s what makes you tick.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that it’s not what makes many last-minuters tick. It’s just what they’ve got used to.

I recommend you to do a little experiment to find out whether or not there’s another way for you. A better way. Take the time to work on a few assignments earlier than usual. Mix things up and see what happens when you spend more time on an essay.

If the slow approach doesn’t work for you, I have another thought. Pull an all-nighter and finish your assignment the way you normally would. But do it a week or two before the real deadline. Treat it seriously and do it as if there will be no more time left after this night. That may be hard to believe, but give it a go.

Because once you’ve got your last-minute attempt, you’ll still have time to revisit it in a couple of days and see if you truly think it’s the best darn paper you could possibly hand in.

Make an effort to explore new ways, rather than doing it once and not bothering again. Toor suggests three months of working differently, but you may be comfortable with something else. Just so long as you take it seriously, otherwise it’s not worth trying in the first place.

After that, if you’re still not convinced, maybe the all-nighter approach is the best way for you after all. The stress, the adrenalin, the pressure…I doubt it works for all the people that experience it, but a few will still find it’s the only way to greatness. In Toor’s words:

“See if it makes your life better. If it doesn’t, then I would say there isn’t a problem. Accept that you are a last-minute person and realize this: Writing is hard, no matter when you do it. Thinking that there’s a better, easier way is just silly.”

The difference will be that you tried and you understood. For others, the difference will be that they tried and they realised the wonders of a somewhat calmer approach. What works for you?

No matter which direction you take, at least you can now be certain!


  1. I can get very close to a deadline, but all nighters don’t work for me. I don’t mind working close to a deadline to get something finished but I think an all nighter feels too much like a punishment. I don’t think that puts you in the right frame of mind to produce the quality of work you are really looking for. Some folks really feel that this adrenalin rush is necessary, but I disagree. Get close, but not too close. Thanks for this. Great post.

    1. Yes, without the right mindset, you can’t do yourself justice. And what are the chances that you’ll conjure up the right mindset at the last possible moment, with no other opportunity left available? I imagine the number of people who truly thrive on the last-minute method is low. Procrastination is a very different thing! 🙂

    1. I like what you say about ideas. That’s what I take the phrase “write drunk, edit sober” to mean. Get the ideas out, write to your heart’s content, and say what you like even if it’s the middle of the night. But once you’ve done that, always leave time to return to make it shine.

  2. Reblogged this on Sequentur Verbe and commented:
    As a tutor, I often work with students who’ve left an essay until the last moment. It rarely works. All too often, they are scrambling in a panic to find that last remaining reference, while at the same time asking a tutor to review what they’ve written, then dashing off to class with a paper that has been inadequately reviewed and a citation that isn’t quite what was needed.

    1. I recognise so much of this. I remember some of my tutors explaining how they’d be happy to provide feedback and constructive comment, but that it was a gradual process as opposed to a ‘final hour’ touch-up exercise. That’s where I fell down with my dissertation. I should have engaged more with my tutor over the course of the year, rather than at the final furlong.

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