first draft

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

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“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

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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!

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.

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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?