It’s 2 a.m. Your brain feels like it’s being dragged through molasses and you’re not sure when it’s coming back . . . and your paper is due tomorrow before class. You know you should have started it last week, or even yesterday, but you weren’t sure what to say. You still have no clue what to write, and time is short. What do you do? Here are some tips that have helped me when midnight finds me writing.
Seriously. Inhale deeply and exhale slowly, letting yourself calm down and refocus. Although an adrenaline boost can occasionally spur greatness, more often than not, panic is going to prevent you from focusing, thinking clearly, and being productive, so take one minute to refocus.
And if you’ve already read it, read it again! An easy yet costly mistake is to just skim the prompt and then wonder for the next few hours why figuring out what to say is so difficult. Give your brain a break and save yourself precious moments of sleep by taking the time to understand the prompt before your fingers touch the keyboard. Can you summarize what it’s asking and what you will need to write in a few sentences? Once you can do that, it’s time to start writing!
You’re probably thinking, “No duh. I never try that hard, especially this late at night.” Alternatively, you might think you shouldn’t do your best, but neither of those is what I mean. Put in effort and definitely do your best, but don’t get stuck on perfect writing, (aka finding the perfect word, perfect analogy, or perfect comma use). For the first hour, focus on getting your main idea on paper, because if time runs out, having that perfect word won’t matter if the paper’s only half done. Write as quickly as possible, and for the moment only think about answering the prompt.
This one’s hard, but some basic brain function exists as long as your eyes are still open, so skim your paper. Think big picture, ask yourself easy yes/no questions, and focus on content, clarity, and organization. Here are some examples:
Now’s when you reread your paper and find that perfect word you missed before or look up comma rules. If time is short and you’re afraid you’re too tired to see the typos, encourage yourself with this: you have already accomplished the most important part – you’ve written the paper! Do your best with what the remaining time and resolve to start your next paper ahead of time. Be thorough, but balance that with your need for sleep.
Congratulations – You did it! Go get some shuteye, and next paper if you’re not sure what to say or where to start, try swinging by the Undergraduate Writing Center for some help brainstorming early in the writing process. I look forward to seeing you there!