There are few college experiences worse than sitting in front of a blank Word document, trying to begin a paper, paralyzed by writing anxiety, the pressure mounting with every blink of the cursor, unable to type a word.
Sounds pretty unpleasant, doesn’t it? And not only unpleasant, but unproductive, which then exacerbates the stress, which further prevents students from writing.
We created eight ways to help college students handle the stress that often accompanies writing assignments. Last week, we listed five of them. Today, we’re listing the rest.
These tips provide tangible ways for college students to calm their minds, begin a writing project with more ease and continue writing in less pressure-packed ways—so that they stay productive and produce their best work.
6. Begin Writing Wherever You Need To
Now, at long last, you should start writing the feared assignment.
But you don’t have to start at the beginning. It’s counterintuitive to say that. The verb “start” implies the noun “start,” as in the start of the paper.
But you might not be ready to choose those first words. And so it’s perfectly alright to begin wherever you can. When you get concise words on the page, you can write effectively no matter where you start. It might be at the first body paragraph, or the last, or at the conclusion. You can always work backwards and write the introduction last.
Here’s one example of beginning in the middle and filling in your paper from there:
Beginning Idea: Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s books made me realize that dark humor responds well to tragedy.
From this argument (dark humor responds well), you can work backwards with a bit of research into Vonnegut’s style.
Beginning Thesis: Kurt Vonnegut addressed the horrors of the 20th century with dark humor, minimalist language, and speculative commentary.
Body Paragraph 1: Dark humor responds well to tragedy because it admits pain while laughing away defeat.
Body Paragraph 2: Minimal language tells the story of evil frankly and doesn’t add beauty where there’s none to be found.
Body Paragraph 3: Speculative fiction tells stories connected to but not exactly like our own traumas, and that connection enables Vonnegut’s commentary on his society’s pain.
See how your own immediate idea can eventually form a larger paper? That first idea, that dark humor responds well to tragedy, became a body paragraph’s topic sentence, but it was still the doorway into the larger argument.
7. Write in Controlled Bursts
Once you’ve begun writing, you’ll need to write for a productive amount of time. If you begin an assignment sooner rather than later, you can shorten your individual writing sessions.
So if you’ve been assigned a longer paper or project, you might need to write a lot at once. But it doesn’t have to be grueling.
You can set regular stopping-points. We could recommend timed segments, but with all the distractions you can find on the browser behind your Word document, it’s easy to waste a ten- or fifteen-minute session.
So instead, base your mini-breaks on word count. Write a large chunk of your work before you allow yourself to step away or change to another assignment.
How many words you set as your own goal will depend. Consider the length of the piece, how long you have to complete it, and how much else you need to do.
Rule of thumb: Write in bursts of at least 250 words at a time. That’s about two hefty paragraphs, and if you can maintain that goal for a few sessions, your assignment will fill up quickly.
In between your word-count goals, take time away from your writing (five minutes at least but no more than ten). Refreshing yourself (stretching, walking, snacking, etc.) can help you string together a few mini-sessions for a productive day of writing.
8. Include Bread Crumbs for Tomorrow
At some point, writing will wring your mind out so thoroughly that you won’t want to add another word. Writing a few rounds of 250 words will eventually wear you out. At that point, go ahead and stop — much of what you’ll write after that won’t be any good.
But don’t quit before you’ve left a clue for your next writing session. That next session might come after a long draining lecture, or after a few hours of work, and you might feel less alert than usual. At that point you’ll want an entry point into the new session.
This is especially important to do if you leave off in the middle of a paragraph. The distance between one thought and the next becomes great once you’ve stepped away from your train of thought. It’s not as hard to begin a new paragraph at the start of a session, since you can simply refer to your pre-writing outline for the next step.
So make sure you finish your writing session with an extra sentence or half-sentence in a new paragraph—to signal where to begin writing next.
Check out our example (from the Vonnegut outline in tip #6) below.
Monday’s Last Sentence: In this way, dark humor by definition must account for trauma.
Where should you begin on your next writing session the following day? Body Paragraph 1 reads, “because [dark humor] admits pain while laughing away defeat.”
Monday’s last sentence should connect to laughing away defeat, and on Tuesday, it’s up to you to bridge the gap right as you start the session. That might be tricky to do.
However, leaving a clue at the end of Monday’s last sentence can help.
Monday’s Last Sentence (with clue): In this way, dark humor by definition must account for trauma. But that’s not the same as accepting defeat.
Tuesday’s First Sentence: Defeat is total immobilization, whereas Vonnegut’s absurdist laughter is a forward motion.
You can begin writing on Tuesday more easily if Monday’s last sentence hints at what you should write. Of course, on Tuesday you can guess at what you’d been thinking, but for the ease of finding your flow, add a bread crumb every time you stop writing for the day.
Use, Rinse, and Repeat
In total, we’ve given you eight intensive tips. Beginning them might feel like a slog. After all, each one requires you to make it into a habit. But the more you practice the advice, the easier the advice will be to practice, and the more you’ll use it.
Here’s our last disclaimer: these strategies take time and procrastination won’t help.
Waiting until the last minute to write your paper usually makes it frightening. But we understand that classes sometimes force you to begin a project later than desired. If you can’t start sooner, or end up procrastinating, refer directly to Steps 6–8.
But hopefully it won’t come to that. We created these steps to lead you into writing. You can learn the work at a pace that you can sustain. Writing isn’t painful, but it isn’t simple. It takes a certain discipline, one that’s within reach for anyone willing to try.