Fear and Loathing and the College Paper

Terrified of your first college writing assignment? Here are three ways to come to grips with the awful fear, angst, and procrastination that plague the college-paper writing process.

by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., and Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.

Three expert tips for taking charge of writing your college paper…

Technique #1: Devising a Timetable

One of the most sinister enemies of the college paper is procrastination. After all, you can put off researching and writing a paper in a way that you can’t put off studying for an exam, especially if you have an entire quarter or semester before the paper is due.

Some instructors recognize the prevalence of procrastination and assign preliminary projects, such as an abstract (or other statement of topic), outline, bibliography, and rough draft to keep you on task. Burdensome as it may seem to have all those extra assignments piled on you in addition to the paper, the instructor is doing you a favor. By setting up a series of deadlines for preliminary work on the paper, he or she is ensuring that you won’t put everything off until the last minute.

Your professor probably recognizes that students are much less likely to procrastinate if they frame their tasks in terms of manageable chunks. Students are much more likely to procrastinate after saying, “I’m going to write my paper today” than they are if their goal is a smaller, more specific component of the paper: “I’m going to develop my outline today.”

Even if the instructor does not give preliminary paper assignments, you can avoid procrastination and keep yourself on task by creating your own timetable — and sticking to it. As you develop your timetable, however, keep in mind that you’ll have other classes, assignments, exams, and, yes, even other papers. Be sure that the deadlines you set for yourself for each paper don’t conflict impossibly with other responsibilities.

Technique #2: Composing on the Computer

When it comes to writing the college paper, time is at a premium. Yet, most college students still make the writing process twice as long as it needs to be by first composing their papers in longhand and then typing them. Essentially, they do double the work. Composing a first draft in longhand made sense back in the days of typewriters; papers needed to be as polished as possible before being committed to final-draft form because it was so difficult to make changes on a typewritten draft.

Computers have changed all that. A computer with a good word-processing program makes it possible to compose and revise as you type. The delete key zaps any text that you would have crossed out on your longhand draft. You don’t have to make your word-processed draft perfect because you can always change it. You will likely find, in fact, that the ease with which you can move text around and make changes will free up the writing process for you and make you a better writer.

Old habits die hard. If you’ve always composed in longhand before typing, you may find it difficult to break out of the routine. For some students, the two-step process will always be the most comfortable way to write. Indeed, some of the world’s most successful writers still do their initial drafts in longhand. If you can learn to cut the two-step process down to one, however, you can save yourself enormous amounts of time. The faster you can write a paper, the less you have to fear and dread about the writing process. You can even allow yourself a little procrastination!

But how to break out of that compose-first, type-later routine? First, you need fairly decent typing skills. You needn’t master touch-typing (typing without looking at the keyboard) to be effective, but you won’t increase your writing speed dramatically unless you learn to type with more than two fingers. If you’ve never taken a typing course, you can obtain software that teaches you quickly and efficiently. Remember, too, that the more you type, the more you will improve your speed.

If you’re a technophobe who is petrified by computer hardware and software, your college or university computer-services office can probably help. Your school likely offers credit courses and noncredit workshops in various computer applications. And the wonks in that office can generally answer specific questions or make suggestions in a crisis.

Technique #3: Planning

Planning, the simplest, least formal way of organizing your paper, is essentially the mental process of picturing your paper in your head. Conjuring a mental image of your paper will reassure you; your paper exists — all you have to do is transfer that mental image to words on paper. You don’t have to write anything down in the planning process, but you certainly can do so if it helps you.

Some of the kinds of questions you may want to think about as your paper takes shape in your mind include:

  • How long should it be? This question may already be answered by your instructor’s assignment, but you’ll want to think about whether it will be difficult to write as much as assigned or to confine yourself to the assigned length. If you anticipate problems with length, ask your instructor’s policy on too-short and too-long papers.
  • What kinds of research are required and how long will the research process take?
  • Will you cite outside sources in your paper, hence requiring some form of bibliography? Will you want to prepare any charts, tables, graphs or illustrations? How long will they take? You may want to tackle these peripheral components first to give yourself a head start on some of the most painstaking parts of the paper.
  • Think about your audience — generally your instructor. What is he or she looking for?
  • What will the paper’s title be? If you can conceptualize a title, you’ll have an excellent starting point for writing the paper. Another way to jump-start the planning process is to imagine your paper is a newspaper story. What should its headline be?
  • How will you begin the paper? How will you state your thesis?
  • In what order will you express your supporting points?

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