all-nighter

Hand in a first draft or a draft worthy of a First?

first-draft-or-draft-worthy-of-a-first

“Let’s go to work.”

From Reservoir Dogs

One of the best ways to improve your essay writing skills is to draft and redraft.

Drafts let you revisit later, they give you a chance for preliminary feedback from tutors, and they let you consider your mindset at different points in time.

Doing all the work in one go is tempting, but it’s a false attempt at saving time. You can’t produce your best work either.

The problem with an all-nighter, or any attempt to get the essay right in one attempt, is that your first draft is your only draft.

There are other reasons for going with a “one and done” approach:

  • It’s a way of procrastinating;
  • You don’t want it bothering your schedule all over the place;
  • You’re uncertain or unclear about editing;
  • The work stays on your mind until you’ve finished, so you focus on the end more than the process.

Most of the reasons boil down to worry at some level. Take procrastination, for example. When you worry about the task at hand, you put it off. Why bother with multiple drafts when you find it hard enough to muster up the courage to deal with the essay in a single session?

How do you work best?

On one hand, the pressure is huge when you don’t break the work up in chunks. If you’re in that camp, the enigmatic idea to “Write an essay” certainly is overwhelming! Little tasks are much easier to handle. Make a list of what it means to write an essay and tackle the smaller tasks instead.

On the other hand, you may like the pressure. If you’re in that camp, you don’t have to wait until the last minute for a monster writing session. Instead, create a false deadline. You can manufacture the pressure before the actual deadline.

If you’ve got two weeks to write 2,000 words, set a deadline in one week and do your single session before that time is up. Make the deadline as real as you can, otherwise you’ll just ignore it. Take it seriously. If you can manage that, you’ll have another week to go before the hard academic deadline.

During that extra week, you can ask for feedback on what you’ve written, read your attempt out loud for a fresh perspective, make edits, and so on. You get the pressure, but you also get the extra time to re-draft. Bringing the work forward gives you the best of both worlds.


Bit-by-bit

Another issue is writing an essay in chunks, but still focusing on a single draft. So you write an introduction, write a section, write another section, write a conclusion, that kind of thing.

There were times when my friends and I would take this bit-by-bit approach. But in a way, it’s like doing a more spaced-out all-nighter.

We improved our approach by adding an extra task to the process. After writing in parts, we left time before the deadline in order to read the piece as a whole. Unsurprisingly, it could be pretty embarrassing to read through!

The good news is, it didn’t take too much to re-draft again. You can get a lot done with one more assessment of your writing. A second draft can make  a big difference.

My personal sweet-spot, however, is three drafts:

  1. First draft – Get your points and arguments ready. Address the question. Search for good ways to answer and explore. Look for areas you’re not yet clear on or convinced about.
  2. Second draft – Shape your argument. Work on the structure of the essay. Create a killer introduction and conclusion. Make sure references are plentiful and relevant.
  3. Third draft – Ensure the question has been answered properly and in full. Make sure the essay sticks to the point throughout. Check for a good reading flow (reading out loud is a big deal here). Find the clearest ways to state your case. Make sure your most important points aren’t buried away in the text.

After a third draft, we’re probably talking minor edits and nitpicking only. Call that tidying up as opposed to another draft. And remember not to let that perfectionist voice in your head mess you about. Your job is to do well, not do perfectly. It’s not possible to get it perfect, regardless of what that internal editor in your head might be saying!

Too many re-drafts and it may take too much of your time. Too few and you’re liable to miss out on your best attempt. Unless it’s a fluke, you won’t get all the marks you’re capable of from a first draft attempt at writing.

Find your sweet-spot and your process

Keep thinking about your sweet-spot. Work out what each draft means to you. If you don’t agree with my list above, make your own. Keep working on the piece until you reach a stage where any time spent poring over your work won’t yield enough change to warrant it worthwhile.

Put it this way, spending half an hour or more obsessing over the order of words in a single sentence is rarely good use of your time.

Here’s the main takeaway for each way of working:

  • If you get most of your work done through a single session of pressure, bring your deadline forward so you have room to improve (and re-draft) before you hand the work in.
  • If you write in chunks, but don’t tend to re-draft, it’s a similar drill. Bring the deadline forward and re-draft.
  • If you already like to work in drafts, just remember not to go overboard. My own sweet-spot is for three drafts. Whatever you choose, have a clear idea of what your aims are for each draft you work on.

What is your essay-writing process? What would you like to improve?

Get to Grips With Your Essay Writing: TUB-Thump 005

tub-thump-logo-small

 

I’m talking essays for episode 005 of TUB-Thump.

There’s mixing up the order of your writing, knowing when to stop researching, finding texts that talk to you, and much more on today’s show.

Whether you’ve got weeks until the deadline, or it’s due in a few days, check out these tips and find something that suits you.


Here are the show notes for the 15-min episode:

  • Write in whatever order you like while you draft. (01:10)
  • Keep thinking about how you feel, from the moment you get the assignment to the point of finishing (and reading through). Has your opinion/argument changed? How has it changed? Have you reflected this? (02:30)
  • Know when to stop reading and researching. If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed or you’re going over the same ground, it’s probably time move on. (04:10)
  • Find the clearest, most relevant references that make your point. (05:20)
  • There’s no need to be offended by help. There’s always more to learn. (05:35)
  • Discuss your drafts as you’re going along (07:40)
  • More on telling you to stop doing all-nighters! (08:20)
  • Think critically. Reason and references rule. (10:00)
  • Use/Find your own academic voice. And why the word ‘clever’ doesn’t mean much. (11:10)
  • Bullet-point planning. (12:10)
  • Check out what’s going on at your uni. (12:50)
  • Not all books and texts will talk to you. So don’t stop at one text and simply give up. (13:15)
  • Gaps in your knowledge aren’t weaknesses; they’re challenges. (14:30)

Music for TUB-Thump is Life, by Tobu, which is released under a Creative Commons license. Check out more of Tobu’s great sounds on Soundcloud, YouTube, and his official site.

TUB-Thump is part of the Learning Always Network.

Keep being awesome!

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!