4 tips you haven't heard before for writing hard papers

When I returned to graduate school after a decade in tech/business, I was surprised to find that I had to learn how to write a paper all over again! Staring at a blank screen with a 10 or 12 page requirement looming left me, at first, paralyzed- so I began to apply the kind of creative problem solving to the paper writing process that worked so well for me when I launched products and projects during my business career.

In this process, I located four methods that really helped get the ball rolling when I was faced with a big paper to write but not much idea of what I wanted to write or how I wanted to approach it. The problem was just too big, and I found myself procrastinating some really big papers and turning in work that I wasn’t particularly proud of. As a result of those early papers and of some trial and error, I found four ways to beat the paper writing procrastination by breaking my early paper-writing process down into small, manageable pieces.

Here are four tricks to getting started on a big paper (even when you’re feeling overwhelmed)

1. Set Your Phone for 23 minutes

Think of it like the student version of Kimmy Schmidt’s “You can do anything for 10 seconds”. If Kimmy can turn the mystery crank for 10 seconds, You can do “something productive” towards this paper for 23 minutes.

kimmy schmidt

The secret: 23 minutes is a small commitment. Anyone can set their phone and commit to not being distracted or procrastinating for just 23 minutes. 23 feels small. It feels survivable.

Try setting your phone for 23 minutes and just attempting one of the methods for starting your paper below, once you’re 23 minutes in, you might just find your mojo to keep working. In either case, you’ll be 23 minutes closer to finishing.

2. Pull out a Piece of Paper and Mind Map your Ideas

For some learners, the best papers emerge visually. Often we have some idea of what we want to write but don’t really know what’s important or where our thoughts are concentrated- Mind maps can help.

Tip: ditch the keyboard for a piece of paper and a satisfyingly smooth pen. If your ideas feel extra chaotic, grab a marker and an extra large piece of posterboard and just begin spilling any thoughts connected to the topic of your paper onto the page.

I’ve written about mind-mapping for paper outlines before, but the main goal when you are at this place, stuck at the very start of a paper, is to use the mind map as a way to figure out what IS in your brain around the topic you are assigned to write about. For the mind map stage, there are no bad ideas.

a. Begin by writing your teacher’s writing prompt in a box in the middle,

b. then begin adding boxes of your thoughts.

c. Critical ideas are welcome on the page, as are

d. voices from teachers or authors other than yourself (just mark them with a star or special color so you’ll know to cite them later).

e. As you add words and encircle them with bubbles, draw lines to connect each bubble to other bubbles containing related words or ideas.

As you fill your page and connect bubbles, you’ll probably start to see bubbles with lots and lots of connecting lines and bubbles with very few connections. Read over your map and highlight bubbles with lots of connections- could these be your main points? And if you have several main points, could they together form a thesis statement? Locating main points and a thesis means you are well on your way to finished paper.

A mind map paper outline I did to located my thoughts about a difficult writing prompt in my second term of grad school.
A sample mind map


Brain Dump then Slice & Dice

One version of procrastination is the voice that convinces you to delay starting because you have too many ideas. Sometimes you may have many swirling thoughts about a topic in response to a writing assignment prompt, but it’s difficult to make sense, find themes, or create a structure from your thoughts.

One method for slaying this particular version of procrastination, is to sit down and give yourself permission to “brain dump” your thoughts into a document with no regard for spelling, grammar, structure, or style. Sit and simply “dump” any and all thoughts that are relevant to this writing assignment into the document, typing fast, without stopping, and without judgement. (Software such as Write or Die might be helpful if this method works well for you.)

When you’ve committed to words, at least crudely, all of your existing thoughts, THEN you can begin to edit and organize them into a outline. As a visual thinker, I think this is best done via…

Slice & Dice Paper Outlines:

Cutting a first draft apart paragraphy by paragraph can be a helpful way to organize into an outline a chaotic first draft.

Print your “brain dump” document and cut it apart paragraph by paragraph (a school library papercutter makes this quick work). Sit down with glue and a large piece of paper (Try a glue pen and Post-It Easel Pads) and begin to physically move paragraphs around until they form an outline with main points that flow from paragraph to paragraph.

When the structure of the paper begins to take form, glue paragraphsto the page  in the order you’ve arranged and use a pen or marker to add comments- such as prompts to add transitions where needed or bridge missing paragraphs.

Once rearranged on paper where you can see the essay start to finish in one place, make these same changes to the word document. Once you’ve edited your document of “dumped” words, you’ll likely find you are more than halfway to calling the paper finished!


Voice Record or Transcribe Quotes

When you absolutely can’t get started on a paper and believe you have no thoughts to share on the topic, you can still get a start on your paper by using quotes from sources as a crutch to get you started.

Voice dictation software is a lifeline- and may actually enhance memory retention for some learners. Dictating is a great way to transcribing quotes for research papers. Once set up with this method, you can read quotes aloud from a comfortable chair and your computer will transcribe them into written form.

Not only does transcribing quotes help add length drafts (which helps add fuel to the paper writing process), but also the process of reading aloud usually helps us understand information on a deeper level and may prompt users to add their own ideas verbally as they dictating an author’s quotes. When they’ve completed dictating quotes, many students find that the paper becomes much easier to write: as a thesis becomes clear and arguments made via putting the quotes in conversation with one another take shape.

For a paper here or there, phone dictation may work, but to get hassle free results voice dictating, you’ll need to invest a little. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is the industry leading voice dictation software. Pair it with a  conference mic with a 20′ range and you’ll be free to lounge on a chair across the room, read qotes aloud, and watch accurate transcription appear on your screen. (For reference, most of us average types can type around 40 words a minute if we really focus, but we talk 120-160 words per minute- at a pace that speech recognition software can, today, easily keep up with)


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