As an English and Sociology double major, I wrote a ton of papers in undergrad, and I learned how to write them fast. With a desire to get the most out of my college years as I could, I didn’t want to spend too much time on my assignments – just enough to showcase my knowledge of the material and learn a thing or two, but not so much that I sacrificed a ton of precious hours I could have been using to spend time with friends or go on an adventure.
I found the sweet spot where I could spend just enough time on a paper to get a great grade, but not so much time that I wasted my life on something that wouldn’t really matter in a year or two.
I didn’t realize how many time-saving writing techniques I had accrued until I was about to graduate. My senior year of college I was writing a paper on “To a Skylark,” a super boring poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was a 4-page paper and I brainstormed it and wrote it in under an hour because I had someplace to be later. But when I was done I realized the poem was very familiar…had I written on this before?
I dug through the masses of Word documents in my laptop until I found it: a folder from my first semester of freshman year filled to the brim with drafts of a “To a Skylark” essays. Apparently I had been given a similar assignment in another class – a 4-pager on this very poem. And I wrote seven drafts. Seven!!!
Imagine how much time I spent on one stupid paper to write seven drafts of it. That’s a wild concept to me. Did I learn anything by writing seven drafts? Probably not. But I most likely wasted a lot of my time and energy on it when I could have been making memories with people I cared about.
Now that I’m in grad school, I’m known for writing my papers with ridiculous speed and ease. And I have my college years to thank for teaching me all the tips and tricks for writing great papers on no time.
Here’s what I’ve learned on how to write an A+ paper in the fastest time possible.
Before you start writing…
1. Stop stressing out.
Seriously, you’re not doing yourself any good. When I find myself starting to worry about an assignment, I typically ask myself whether my performance on it will matter in 5 years. If the answer is no, I feel better knowing that in the grand scheme of things my grade isn’t super important. If that doesn’t work, I repeat the one phrase that helps get me through stress until my anxiety dissipates.
2. Read the directions carefully and pay attention when the professor discusses them in class.
The prep work you put into getting ready to write the paper should be where you slow down and focus. Reading the directions carefully and noting what your professor says he or she is looking for is crucial because it enables you to pick up on the small phrases that indicate what will get you the best grade. Then you can ensure you hit these points in your essay and stop worrying about the rest.
3. Know your professor.
There’s a common divide between professors in the English world: half of them want you to spout exactly what they’ve discussed in class without deviating from their ideas, and the other half want to know that you can take what they’ve said in their lectures and expand on it with your own voice and thoughts. There are other nuances between professors as well, and understanding what kind of teacher yours is will help you write the paper to the taste of the person reading it.
Helpful tip: Go to office hours if this is offered at your school. Normally you’ll pick up on extra hints about what your professor is looking for in a paper, and if you don’t, you’ll at least make your name known, which the teacher will remember when he or she grades your work.
4. Write a short, quick outline of what you think your essay will look like.
Some people swear by making the longest, most detailed outlines known to man, but I don’t like this approach. The outline is not supposed to be where I’m doing the writing. It’s just to help me get an idea of where I’m going with the paper so that once I start putting words on the page, it’s full steam ahead and I don’t need to stop to figure out what I should say next. Typically my outlines start with my thesis, and then I plan out what points I’m planning to make in each section of the paper with what evidence I will use to support my arguments. It’s just a rough sketch and shouldn’t take a long time – maybe 30 minutes at most if the paper is going to be long.
5. Plan when you’re going to write.
Look at your schedule for the next week and find a chunk of time when you can write. If I know I have lots of events during the week, I find a time on Saturday morning or in between my Tuesday classes when I can get the paper done. I only pick one time block – if I know I will only give myself a set few hours to write the paper, I won’t waste time when I sit down to compose it. That’s my only shot at getting it done!
6. Don’t write everything.
Seriously, don’t. Unless my professor has specifically stated what she wants me to say in my essay, I won’t necessarily use all the arguments I can come up with to make my point. There may be ten different pieces of supportive evidence to back up my thesis, but if the minimum page requirement is only six pages long, I’m not going to get into all of them. I don’t have to in order to get a good grade, so why would I? Most of the time I write until I’ve hit a decent length and then I stop, even if my next few paragraphs would have been bomb. It’s just not worth my time.
Helpful tip: You don’t need to meet the maximum page requirement. The minimum is fine. I’ve turned in papers that just barely make the minimum page requirement and gotten As. The professor may silently thank you for not making him or her read more than necessary.
7. Don’t feel like you need to base your point on the reading. Find the quotes in the readings (or outside articles) that support your point.
I see people make this mistake the most. They feel that they need to read the assigned readings in their entirety before they make their thesis statements or plan out the supportive paragraphs because they think they should be basing their arguments on whatever the reading is saying. They worry that they’ll miss something important that the teacher wanted them to catch. I never do this. If I’ve been paying attention in class, I most likely already know the gist of what the readings say, especially if the professor has explicitly discussed them. I can make my point and then scan the reading for quotes that back up my idea. And if the professor wants me to use outside sources we haven’t read for class, I’m in even greater luck. There are so many research articles and essays out there that I am sure to find one that has even a single sentence backing up my idea and I’m golden. You could say almost anything and find some decent literature to bolster your claim. Don’t waste time reading every word of every assigned reading unless you feel it will truly help you become a better professional in your chosen field.
Helpful tip: If you don’t have time to do all the assigned reading before a class discussion in which you are expected to participate, read the introduction and conclusion to get a sense of what is being talked about. If there isn’t a sufficient summary in either of those two sections, read the first and last sentence of every paragraph in the reading. Normally this helps me get a good idea of what I can bring up during class time.
8. Start writing way in advance.
One time I had a final paper assigned in a class and I wrote it all on a Saturday a month in advance of the due date. Since that was the last assignment of the semester, I was essentially done with that course way ahead of my peers. Writing in advance gives me the leeway to sit back and relax when the deadline approaches.
9. Write at the last second.
This completely contradicts the last tip, but hear me out. Sometimes I like to write at the last second because it forces me to compose the entire essay in one sitting. If I write in advance, the temptation is to take my time because I can always come back to it at a later date, and I end up throwing away too many hours on a single assignment. If I wait until the night before an assignment is due, there’s no waiting around. I have to get it done quickly and my time isn’t wasted.
10. Proofread as you write, and then once more at the end.
A lot of people claim it’s best to just write without proofreading and then go back when you’re done to correct all the errors. I don’t really do this. I proofread as I am writing and then go back and do one more read-through. This saves me time because I’m able to make sure the sentences flow well together and I don’t have to restructure anything at the end. Sometimes I feel so good about it when I’m done that I don’t read over it again when I’m done because I know I’ve been editing my work as I wrote it.
11. Put the essay away and enjoy your life.
You’re done! No need to worry. Now go on an adventure with your friends and have a blast. Make some memories. Enjoy your life of freedom away from pesky assignments. Good work!
Anything I missed? What are your tips to getting assignments finished so you can spend your time the way you want to?