Writing is often one of the toughest academic assignments for students. Unlike a math problem or physics lab, there's no one right answer you're searching for, and no one path that is guaranteed to lead you towards a finished project and away from your desk. Instead, as writers you have to forge your own path, and, no matter how good you are or how well you've prepared, getting all those words on the page is a daunting task.
Fortunately, if you're struggling with a writing assignment, you're not alone. We've all sat down to work only to open up Facebook or turn on the TV instead. But, if you're serious about writing and getting the job done right, there are plenty of tricks and techniques out there to help you stay focused and on task.
The Pomodoro Technique
Sometimes it isn't the writing itself that's so difficult - it's the task of actually sitting still long enough to do it. Particularly if you're not working with a tight deadline, it's awfully tempting to browse the internet or hang out with your friends instead of painstakingly writing two thousand words on the idea of fate in Hamlet.
If your main problem is just staying focused, the pomodoro technique might be right for you. The main idea is pretty simple: you set a timer for a certain period of time (usually 25 - 30 minutes), and work until the timer goes off. Then, you get a 5 minute break before starting the process all over again. If you want, every three or four sessions you can take a longer, 15 - 30 minute break.
The idea behind the pomodoro technique is that most people focus best in short bursts. If you sit down for 4 hours of aimless writing, you'll likely write for a few minutes before wondering over to another activity, then wondering back again. But if you set yourself a strict time limit it will be easier to focus on what needs to be done. Think of it as imposing an artificial deadline on yourself. We've all had the experience of putting off a big project for weeks only to knock it out in the half hour before it's due. By setting a timer, you're recreating the intensity of that last frantic half hour but without the fear that you won't be done in time.
Timeboxing is a trick that similar to the pomodoro technique, but with a bit more flexibility. Instead of just always setting your timer for a certain period, with timeboxing you start by making up a list of tasks you want to complete. Maybe you want to finish a particular section of a paper or format all your references correctly. Once the list is complete, you decide how much time each task should take; for example, you might think it will take you an hour to finish your introduction or 30 minutes to redo your references. Then you simple set the timer for that length of time and spend that entire period focused only on that one task.
Timeboxing is perfect for people who find themselves easily distracted when writing. Maybe you start writing but then notice editing changes that need to be made, or you decide there's a particular book you need to read before you can go on. Timeboxing will cut away those distractions: until the timer dings, you can only work on one assigned task and nothing else.
If you want to use timeboxing for larger projects, try breaking the project down into smaller tasks. Work on a single paragraph or read one chapter from a book, then cross that task off your list and start on the next one. As with the pomodoro technique, you should take short breaks between session to relax and re-energize yourself so that when you turn to the next task you're ready to go.
Other Tricks and Tips
When it comes to time, aim for quality, not quantity
Sometimes it can actually be better to sit in front of your computer for less time, not more. Spending all day trying to write is probably going to lead to a lot of procrastination and work that isn't very good. After the first few hours you're probably just going to want to get away and won't be really focusing on the work you need to do.
So, if you've got a project to work on, set aside two or three hours to really work, then move on to something else. You'll find that the time you spend working will produce better quality work and you'll probably enjoy having some time off to do something else (even if it's just other assignment). The key to making this work, though, is that you have to plan ahead. If you wait until the last second you'll have no choice but to write for eight hours straight, but if you start earlier you can get away with a just a few quality hours a day.
When it comes to word count, aim for quantity, not quality
There are lots of perfectionists out there who think that their writing should be complete the minute it makes its way onto the page. But there's no reason to spend hours agonizing over the perfect sentence or paragraph. When you're trying to write, you'll probably find that you get more accomplished if you just write - don't stop mid-paragraph to revise, rewrite, or spend ten minutes trying to find the perfect synonym for a word you think you've used too much. Instead, just barrel forward and get as many words as you can down on the page.
Once all that work is done, you can start the process of revising. All those bad sentences and poorly organized ideas can be rewritten and reorganized-a task you'll find much easier once everything has been written and you're not trying to keep all your ideas organized in your head. Remember, nobody's rough draft is perfect, so there's no point in wasting time trying to get everything right on the first try.
Start in the middle
Introductions and conclusions are often the most difficult sections for students, in part because they try to write these sections at the wrong time. You can't introduce your work if you don't know what you're going to say, so why would you write that section first? Similarly, you can't wrap up your paper until the body is finished, so don't start work on the conclusion until you've got your main arguments all laid out.
If you're having trouble gettting started, try working on the middle part of your paper. There's nothing wrong with picking up mid-section or even mid-paragraph, and often these are the parts you'll feel most comfortable working on. Once the main ideas are on the page, then you can start working on introductions and conclusions. And remember, if you start in the middle don't worry about getting things out of order-that's a problem to be handled in the editing stage.
Get rid of distractions
We all know this is a good idea, but that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to do. If you want to get your work done, though, you've got to get rid of all those distractions. Of course this is especially difficult in the age of the Internet, when a seemingly infinite number of websites are just waiting to draw your attention away, and cutting out these distractions can be even harder if you need the Internet for research or help with writing. But if you're constantly finding yourself on Facebook or Twitter, you need to find ways to keep yourself on task. Block the sites if you have to, or use one of the time-keeping techniques discussed above to limit the time you spend on non-work tasks.
Distractions can come from outside your computer as well, so when you sit down to write make sure to limit those as too. Don't work in front of the TV (no matter how much of a multi-tasker you think you are) and don't try to work with chatty friends or in a place that you know will be distracting.
Work in public
That being said, sometimes writing in public can be one of the best moves for those struggling to keep focus. Particularly if you're with a group of friends who are also working, the social pressure to keep typing away at your paper can often be enough to keep your nose to the grindstone. After all, if you're fooling around on Twitter at home there's no one to see it, but at coffee shop or library people will be able to see what you're doing. Even if they're people you don't know, you'll still feel accountable. For this plan to work, however, you need to make sure that the people and things around you are going to be helping you focus, not keeping your attention away from your work.
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