I’m not gonna lie: writing papers can suck. Even as someone who basically writes papers for a living these days (like this article), I still viewed every college paper with a tinge of dread.
After all, writing a paper isn’t like working math problems or reading a chapter of a book. As frustrating as those activities can be, they always seemed more finite than the monumental task of “writing a paper.” You can’t just open the book and start working: you have to brainstorm, research, outline, draft, edit, and add those pesky citations.
As I moved through college, however, I developed a system for cranking out papers in record time. This let me spend more time on things that I enjoyed, such as writing for this blog and taking long walks through the woods. Today, I’m going to share this process so that you too can write papers more quickly (without a decrease in the quality of your writing).
Sound impossible? Read on to see how it works.
The ultimate waste of time when writing a paper is to write something that doesn’t even answer the question the professor is asking. Don’t be afraid to ask the professor to explain any part of the assignment that’s unclear.
If the assignment seems vague, it’s not because the professor is trying to trip you up. Often, it’s that they know their field so well that it’s easy for them to think some things are “obvious”…even when they aren’t to us non-experts.
Remember: asking for clarification because you don’t understand the assignment doesn’t make you stupid; what’s stupid is to complete the assignment without understanding it.
Yet, when I was an English TA in college, I saw this problem all the time. Students would spend hours researching and writing a paper on a completely different topic than what the professor assigned. It doesn’t matter how good a paper is–if it doesn’t answer the question, it’s going to receive a bad grade.
Best case scenario, the professor is nice and lets you rewrite it, but why do all that extra work? Furthermore, asking the professor for clarification shows initiative–that you care about the assignment. Demonstrating this level of engagement with your assignments can only boost your grade.
Once you understand the assignment, you need to start researching. But beware! If you’re not careful, research can be one of the best ways to procrastinate. “One more source” can easily turn into hours that you could have been writing.
To overcome the temptation to procrastinate on research, I employ my favorite approach for beating all forms of procrastination: setting a time limit. As I explained in my guide to research, you shouldn’t spend more than 30 minutes per page of the final paper researching. That is, if the paper is supposed to be 5 pages, don’t spend more than 2.5 hours on research (maximum).
Spending any more time than this puts you at a point of diminishing returns. Don’t worry about not having enough information. If you find that you need more info after you start writing, you can always do more research. The goal of your initial research session is to give you just enough material to start writing. Get into the library or database, find your sources, take your notes, and then get to writing.
“It’s impossible to figure out every detail of your argument before you sit down, look at your sources, and actually try to write. Most students abandon their hierarchical outline soon after their fingers hit the keyboard.”
– Cal Newport, “How to Use a Flat Outline to Write Outstanding Papers, Fast”
Ever since I learned the traditional method of outlining papers in 8th grade, I felt the system was broken. I never created an outline with bullets and numbers and letters before writing the paper. I always just made one up afterwards because I was required to turn one in with the final paper.
Starting in college, I developed my own outlining technique that was much more effective. As it turns out, my technique wasn’t so original after all. As Cal Newport explains, it’s called a flat outline. In Cal’s words, the flat outline works as follows:
- Don’t build a hierarchical outline. Instead, list the topics you want to tackle in the order you want to tackle.
- Revisit the library to find sources for the topics that still need support.
- Dump all relevant quotes from your sources under the topics.
- Transform your topic-level outline into your paper. Don’t start from a blank screen.
Isn’t this so much better? The flat outline works because it mirrors the writing process. No one sits down to write with a perfect idea of what they’re going to say. You discover what you’re going to say through the process of writing. The flat outline gives you just enough structure to overcome the dreaded “blank canvas” while still leaving room for discovery.
Okay, so you have a rock solid understanding of the topic, you’ve done your research, and your flat outline is ready. Now, you need to sit down and write the sucker. But not so fast: where you write makes a difference.
Because after procrastination, the greatest obstacle to writing a paper quickly is distraction. If you don’t have an environment where you can focus, you’ll waste hours jumping back and forth between the paper and whatever distractions come your way.
To make sure you have the focus of a zen master, you must create a writing environment that enables zen-like focus. For a full guide to creating a distraction-free study space, check out our article on the topic. In the meantime, here’s a summary of the best practices:
- Go to a studious place. This could be a quiet part of the library, an off-campus coffee shop, or even your dorm room. Wherever you know that people won’t distract or interrupt you, that’s the place you must go.
- Make it comfortable. You won’t be able to focus on writing if your chair feels like a bed of nails or the table wobbles. Take care of your base physical comfort before writing anything else. Caveat: don’t write while in bed. Your bed is only for sleeping and…you know, that other s-word.
- Block digital distractions. Depending on how bad your internet/phone addiction is, this could be as simple as closing unrelated programs and putting your phone in airplane mode or as drastic as installing an app such as Cold Turkey Writer that blocks everything on your computer until you write a certain number of words. If you need the internet to write (maybe you’re writing in Google Docs, for example), then you can install an app such as Freedom or SelfControl to block distracting sites.
- Assemble your supplies. Sitting down to write and realizing you left one of your sources back in your dorm is a definite productivity killer. Be sure you have your computer charged, sources assembled, and coffee/tea at the ready before your write a word.
- Put on your pump up playlist. If you don’t find it distracting, then I recommend using music that will get you in the zone to write. I have a few albums on rotation that get me into a mode of writing flow. For example, when writing this article I put on Muse’s The 2nd Law. You better believe I felt ready to conquer the world with that in the background. If you’re looking for a killer pre-made collection of study music, have a look at Thomas’s Ultimate Study Music Playlist.
Each paper you write should not feel like reinventing the wheel. Your goal when writing a paper for a college class is to fulfill the assignment requirements in a way that goes just above and beyond enough to impress the professor. You’re not trying to break new ground in your discipline or redefine the way we use the English language (if you are, then you don’t need to read this article).
The way to make sure that you don’t get caught up in the structure is just to pick a standard structure for your discipline and follow it. Save the originality for your arguments. So how do you find these elusive standards? Ask your professor. They can point you to some relevant guides or examples.
Also, pay attention to the readings your professor assigns for the class. This should give you some idea of the academic conventions you should follow in your papers. It’s easy to go through an article and focus so much on the information that you ignore the structure (which is a good thing–the structure shouldn’t distract you). But if you spend a couple reading sessions paying attention to structure, you’ll get a feel for how it should go.
If that seems too advanced or too much work, then another option is to Google “SUBJECT NAME paper template”. Just be careful about the source–a template from a university is fine; one on some random student’s Blogger page, not so much.
If the paper is supposed to have a final page count of 5-7, you may be tempted to write a paper that’s 7 or even 8 pages. After all, more is better, right?
Wrong. Every professor I had in college told me that they would always prefer a good 5-page paper over an okay 7-page paper. Frankly, some topics don’t need 7 pages–5 is plenty. If you try to stretch it out, you may end up diluting your argument.
If you’re not convinced, consider this: I rarely wrote more than the minimum page count, and I consistently received A’s on papers in English, History, Religious Studies, and Education classes.
Knowing this, why would you ever write more than you need to? It’s not just a waste of time or effort; it may even be counterproductive.
Of course, your paper has to be good for this to work. For advice on improving the quality of your papers, check out my post on 6 Writing Tips to Make Your Papers 300% Better.
Editing and drafting at the same time is, like all forms of multitasking, inefficient and ultimately impossible. Don’t do it. Write with your full attention and effort, and then edit.
Similarly, never stop to look stuff up when you are writing. If you don’t know something, just make a note of it and come back to it later. At best, looking something up takes you away from writing, but even more likely it will pull you into an internet rabbit hole that will really derail the entire writing process.
The goal of writing this way is to keep you in the flow state as long as possible. Because if you can just get to a place of flow, your momentum will be unstoppable.
One of the greatest barriers to starting a paper is coming up with an introduction. If you think about it, this difficulty makes sense: how are you supposed to introduce something you haven’t even created?
This is why you shouldn’t write the introduction until you’ve finished the main body of the paper. I know it seems like a counterintuitive approach, but I challenge you to try it. This method avoids what has happened to me more times than I can count: writing the paper and then realizing that my intro doesn’t even fit with the final paper.
The same goes for the conclusion. Write it last. After all, how can you conclude when you haven’t even finished writing? If you want more advice on the specifics of writing solid conclusions, check out my post on how to write a paper.
When you’re writing the draft, you need privacy and focus. But when you’re editing, having someone else to look over your work can speed things up. Why? Because you’re inherently blind to the mistakes in your writing. You’ve been looking at the draft so long that mistakes won’t jump out at you the way they will to a fresh set of eyes.
When it comes to finding someone to help you edit, you have a few options:
- Get a trusted friend to read the paper. Just make sure they don’t end up distracting you.
- Take the paper to your college’s writing center. Don’t expect them to be your copy editor, however. More than likely, the writing center staff will have you read the paper aloud to them. This lets you catch the errors yourself while still having the accountability of another person in the room.
- Ask your professor for feedback. This won’t always be possible, but sometimes your professor will be willing to give you feedback before you turn the paper in, especially if it’s a term paper or capstone project. Professors often build this feedback into the assignment by setting separate due dates for a proposal, a draft, and a final version. But even if they don’t, it never hurts to ask for feedback. The worst they can say is no.
Adding citations is the worst, especially when you just spent hours writing a paper and are so over it. If you don’t want to spend further hours paging through some arcane style manual, do yourself a favor and use a citation management/generation tool.
My favorite is Zotero, which allows you to keep track of research sources and even has a browser extension that will pull the citation info from a library catalog web page. But I also have friends who prefer EasyBib. It doesn’t matter which one you use–just pick one and watch your citation worries evaporate.
That being said, it doesn’t hurt to glance at your citations before submitting, as these tools aren’t perfect (especially when it comes to digital sources).
This tip isn’t strictly part of the paper writing process, but it can make a big difference in your writing speed and quality. At my college, the definition of “writing intensive” varied from professor to professor, but it always meant a class with lots of writing, often one (short) essay per week in addition to a 20+ page final paper.
Each of these classes was intense, but at the end I always found myself a better writer. This went beyond just getting faster, although that was a major benefit. I also found that the quality of my arguments and analyses increased, along with massive improvements in my research skills.
If your college offers classes specifically geared to improve your writing, do yourself a favor and take a least one. Strong writing skills are always a benefit, both in college and beyond.
At the end of the day, writing a paper is still a lot of work. But if you follow the process in this article, you’ll be able to do it more quickly without a loss of quality.
What tactics do you use to speed up the paper writing process? Share them in the comments below, or discuss them in the College Info Geek Community.