2. Starting the essay and running toward the finish line

It has been said that the hardest part of most things is just simply getting started. That holds true for writing, especially when faced with a blank screen and blinking cursor or a blank piece of paper. However, when it comes to writing an essay, as a university student, you know it must be done if you want to succeed and get your degree. So, rather than procrastinating or plagiarising, there is a way you and prepare to write an essay and keep running toward that finish line. This chapter will cover how you can prepare your environment for effective essay writing, organise yourself, beat writer's block, stay focused on essay writing and seek out feedback and encouragement from other students and mentors.

Chapter 2 contents:

2.1: Preparing to write an essay

To get yourself ready to write is a lot like preparing to exercise - you have to do a little preparation that motivates and inspires you plus warms up the brain for what it is about to do in terms of analysis, critical thinking, and a dash of creativity. To do this means knowing a bit more about yourself in terms of the type of environment that helps you feel creative, stay focused, and keeps you comfortable.

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2.1.1: Discovering your ideal writing environment

This is where you come in and where you will fill in the blanks rather than us telling you what works best. While we have some general ideas for writing in terms of an environment that is not to say it would necessarily work for you.

We have worked with writers who say they enjoy absolute silence and those that work with speed metal music playing in the background to push them on and keep the creative juices flowing. It takes all kinds; the important part here is that you know what you like and what helps when writing.

The When

Your ideal essay writing environment is more than just where you work, what it looks like, and what is going on there - sure, those are important and we are going to be talking about those elements soon. But, first, your ideal essay environment must take into consideration the time of day you work best.

  • Are you a night owl or a morning person? How much sleep do you need to feel rested and alert?
  • Do you find the weekends are more suited to essay writing than weekdays that feel more stressful?
  • Know what works and plan your essay writing time then. No one knows your body clock and mood better than you, so take what you know and use this as one component in designing the ideal essay writing environment.
  • But, this comes with a word of caution because we know first-hand about university life. It can easily become a non-stop social life where you forget why you are actually there - to get a degree.
  • So, take this writing environment program seriously and know when you have to put that social life on pause while you get your essay or other studying done.
  • With that in mind comes the next component of your ideal essay writing environment - the location - which most likely should be far away from noise, friends, and especially parties.

The Where

That is not to say it has to be deathly quiet and always be the library. The same surroundings get boring, and boredom soon dulls the brain and leaves you uninspired. Because technology makes it so easy to go mobile with your essay nowadays, consider some other places that can stimulate and inspire, including coffee shops, parks, gardens or even just a different room in your house or university house. See what works and then mix it up.

The Space

When you get down to writing that essay, you need to de-clutter your writing environment. That is because clutter actually has been found to be distracting and interferes with the flow of thought (some people say good energy).

Whatever it does, thinking clears up when your workspace is free of papers, debris, piles of books, food wrappers and the like. Only keep what you absolutely need nearby so you can focus on thinking and writing for essay success.

The Mood

If there was a creative button (along with an easy button), the process of writing an essay would not need an entire book or strike fear in so many university students. However, as you know, creativity does not just turn on and off like a light switch; it comes when you are in the right frame of mind. To set the mood - and, no, this is not something that needs candles and soft music - put things around you that you find inspire or motivate your thinking and productivity.

  • For some, it might be fresh air or a light scent (okay, maybe candles or air freshener) while others might be drawn to different types of music - some go with classical or jazz but some of you may prefer something with a great beat to keep the thoughts flowing.
  • If you are living with others, you might want to invest in some headphones!
  • A more holistic method for setting the essay writing mood is to use visual stimulation in terms of picturing yourself in some ideal location and putting yourself into that place with all your senses reacting to that visualization. For some, this can really open up the thought process to greater productivity.

The Formula that Works

Whatever you find does work well as your ideal essay writing environment, keep it accessible so you can return to that mode whenever you have an essay assignment. You will be able to jump into your writing mode that much more easily and speed the time and effort it takes to get it done.

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2.1.2: Focusing on organisation

With so much going on around you, even this ideal essay writing environment may not be enough as you may still find yourself getting distracted by small and meaningless things that are really just 'time suckers.' Here are some ways to keep those distractions at bay so you can focus on the task at hand:

  • Turn off your mobile so you do not stop and check your email, text messages, and Facebook newsfeed every two minutes. Remember that you have scheduled time to work on your essay, which means that nothing and no one can interfere during this time. They can all wait a half hour or hour - there is nothing that urgent. Any other electronics should be turned off except for music, if that helps you. So, no television or tablet PC or gaming device.
  • Clear your mind of all the things you have to do or will need to do. They will also wait for you until you are done with your essay writing appointment.
  • Do not write if you are hungry or thirsty. Make sure you are satisfied in those areas first so you are not distracted by grumbles or dry mouth as this will interfere with the creative process. Just do not overdo it with a large meal that could end up making you feel sleepy. Keep water nearby and some snacks that can fill in the gaps and keep the brain buzzing. Avoid drinks that will over-stimulate the brain like alcohol, tea, and coffee.
  • Keep certain essay tools within reach so you do not have to waste time hunting down what you need. This could include books, notes, journals, pens, paper and pencils. When they are right there, time is maximized and you can stick to essay writing rather than a treasure hunt.

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2.2: Dealing with writer’s block

No matter how much you plan and create an essay writing environment that is conducive to success, writer's block will happen. It has happened to even the best-selling authors so you are not alone just because you feel you are a novice at writing. It is that familiar dread that you cannot think of anything to write and looking at a blank piece of paper or computer screen is only increasing that anxiety. It is okay; you are not always going to know immediately what you want to say or how you want to say it.

There are many ways to deal with writer's block to help it go away and bring back the ideas and words so that they flow onto the page or the computer screen. The next six sections will provide you with all sorts of ideas to break through writer's block.

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2.2.1: Overcoming fears

The blankness in your head that comes from thinking about essay writing comes from a fear of writing and being able to write well enough. It may be based on your past experiences with academic writing in school where you did not do well or where no one showed you how to make the process easier. You can talk to your tutor about getting writer's block as they will understand and can provide you with some kind words to help take the pressure off.

  • The most important thing you can do is just relax and tell yourself it is nothing to get worked up about.
  • This is where you remind yourself you must have a brain in there or you would have never been accepted at the university.
  • Try to focus on the positive and the idea that you will do well so you can get rid of the fear and the writer's block.

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2.2.2: Writing what comes to mind

As we have said before, the essay does not have to come from your brain perfectly worded and in the exact order that it should be in the essay. This will definitely lead to writer's block because you will be putting the pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. Even though there might be a perfectionist streak in most of us, no one does that.

  • Just start writing - anything and whatever comes to mind. You will find that, once you stop focusing so much on the idea of writing and just start with what comes to mind, you will feel the writing take over and it will just flow.
  • This is because writing is not the same as thinking. Your brain is obviously powering your thought process, but it is the act of actually writing that brings that can bring clarity and ideas to the page in a way that many long-time writers will tell you starts to feel as though it is just coming without them doing much more than writing or typing what appears.
  • If it helps to have anything on the page just to take out the fear of the blank page, then type the title page with your name and date or simply start putting any notes you have onto the page.
  • You can also type in the essay question or prompt and then start writing words that are associated with that topic until you can form sentences out of each. Then, that might trigger examples or ideas. Before you know it, you may have a full page or two.
  • If you followed the earlier advice about keeping a pen and notebook around or using your smartphone to write down ideas every day, you could also read through those and see if that stimulates some thoughts to put on the page so it is no longer blank.

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2.2.3: Talking it out

Writing an essay does not have to be a solitary experience, especially if you are struggling with writer's block.

  • Instead, talk it out - discuss it with others in your class or with your tutor.
  • If you can get your hands on a digital recorder, you could also talk out your ideas and thoughts to it and then play it back to yourself. Sure, it seems weird to talk to yourself, but you will be surprised at how this might trigger the words you need to write the essay.
  • That is because you are stimulating the brain with a discussion of the essay topic and the related topics.

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2.2.4: Visualising success

It is easy to focus on the negative and the fear, but the way out of this hole is to visualise your success instead.

  • You can use past experiences where you achieved something and then think about how that felt. That great feeling can help the fear disappear as you visualize the screen filling with words, the essay coming together, and the completed essay being turned in.
  • You can also tell yourself it is a work in progress and that any revisions or changes are just about making the essay that much better.
  • Now, there is also nothing wrong with aiming high and being ambitious about what you want to accomplish with your essay, but just bear in mind that you could be putting more pressure on yourself than necessary. Make sure the success you are visualising fits the essay assignment and does not put undue stress on you.

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2.2.5: Giving it a rest

Sometimes, it helps to just walk away for a bit and leave the essay, especially if the other methods do not seem to be working. Now, that may mean you have to adjust your timetable and you want to make sure you do not disappear for so long that you are then way behind. However, a mental break is good.

  • Maybe you can go for a run or bike ride or work on a hobby for awhile to take your mind off the panic and fear.
  • Take a shower or bath and even brush your teeth - all of this has the effect of reviving you and creating a new and better mood.
  • Even sleeping or taking a nap might help you as the brain continues to percolate undisturbed while you and your body rests.
  • Once you relax, then you can come back to the essay and blank screen and be in the right mental frame of mind to continue.

Whatever you do, make it something you know will result in making you feel good. It can be what works for YOU.

  • That could be something silly or it could be a game or just some quality time with someone you love.
  • And, since you are a student, it most likely should not cost you a lot of money to do. It even helps to keep something close by like photos of friends or funny sayings posted on a board where you can turn to for a smile or a laugh as a quick mental diversion that helps your frame of mind.

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2.2.6: Pumping up the brain muscle

While it falls into the same category really as giving the essay a rest, activities that stimulate blood flow and that pump up the brain muscle can also help you to clear writer's block.

  • One way is mental exercise like reading a book, article, or blog that has nothing to do with your essay topic. It could be the farthest topic removed from your essay and that would be for the best because you are giving the brain a way to react to something entirely different, which it needs to reboot for the critical thinking you will need for the essay.
  • Then there is the physical exercise that you need to get the blood flowing so that your brain can feel a bit more alive. This could be running or biking as mentioned earlier but it does not have to be so strenuous. It can be as little as some stretching exercises, yoga moves, or stair climbing.
  • This can also alleviate any tension that might have been building up in your neck and shoulders, which can lead to a headache and further exacerbate the potential for writer's block.

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