On the first day of class, your instructor described a future writing assignment. The deadline was nowhere in sight, and you had plenty of time to work on it. Or not work on it. But, eventually, plenty of time dwindled down: the paper is due tomorrow and you still haven’t begun. To finish the paper on time, you are forced to binge-write, maybe even pull an all-nighter and, after hours of anxious and stressful writing, you complete the assignment with only seconds to spare. Sound familiar? It certainly does to me. As a young college student, most of my writing assignments were completed during what I now refer to as crash sessions or while binge-writing. Not a pleasant experience!
A routine like this could cause a student to question her own writing abilities or dislike writing altogether. But these experiences do not accurately speak to a student’s skill, since successful writing is not the product of a binge-writing crash session; it is the product of a collaborative and custom-made writing process that includes four integral steps: starting early, avoiding an attempt at a perfect first draft, receiving feedback, and allowing time away from the paper.
No matter how far away the deadline, it is never too early to start brainstorming– the earlier you begin, the more developed your idea will become. Brainstorming techniques include free-writing, creating concept maps, outlining, and beginning relative research, which can be practiced in solitude or with support. If working privately hasn’t been incredibly successful for you in the past, try swapping ideas with a fellow writer. As college students, we have so many ideas inhabiting our minds it’s challenging to keep them all organized. Taking time to chat about your writing assignments allows you to think aloud and really concretize your ideas, arguments, theses, etc.
While writing the first draft, keep in mind the keyword: first. A first draft implies that there are future drafts to come. And the purpose of the first draft is not to achieve perfection, but it is to get your ideas on paper. Prioritize “big picture” concerns such as overall content, thesis statements, and organization—if your paper were a skeleton, these concerns would make up the spine, the foundation. While writing a first draft, you are creating your paper’s spine.
To progress to your next draft you need feedback from others, maybe even tutors at your local writing center, ☺ which will allow your draft to be read with a fresh perspective. Now is the time to focus on elements such as topic sentences, supporting evidence, voice, intended audience, etc., as if attaching the bones to your skeleton’s spine as you go along: her skull, arms, and legs. Receive feedback, revise your draft, and repeat as needed.
It is important to remember that receiving feedback can also be challenging. There is always the grim possibility lurking in the corner that you are not answering the teacher’s prompt, or there is a huge contradiction in your thesis statement, or you are missing a thesis statement altogether…and you. have. to. start. all. over. This happens at least once to every writer, and when it happens to you, simply take a deep breath (and maybe a nap) and confidently head back to the drafting board.
Depending on how far away the deadline awaits, take some time before revising (or re-drafting). If a writing assignment becomes too familiar from reading and re-reading, then some obvious red flags may go unnoticed, and simply placing that assignment in a drawer or computer file for some time can give you just what you need to revise with fresh eyes. And once you feel confident in your revisions, you can finally submit the paper to be graded or (who knows?!) be considered for publication.
Now, this is merely a rough overview of the “typical” (whatever that means) writing process. Every writer’s process is unique to their own person. You have to figure out what works best for you; custom make your own writing process. And, while doing so, remember these four crucial steps: start early, don’t attempt a perfect first draft, receive feedback, and take some time away. Remember, no one can complete that process overnight.
To quote my alma mater, “Friends don’t let friends binge-write.”
November 10, 2015