Guest blogger: Joanna Novins
Part 1 of the Series “Becoming Unstuck”
The other night I got a call from a college student with whom I’ve worked in the past. The deadlines for several papers were looming. “I don’t know how I’m going to get this done,” he said, his voice cracking with a mixture of panic and fatigue. “I don’t know where to start.”
“What can I do to help?” I asked, trying to calm him down.
“Do you have a time machine?” he muttered miserably.
While I couldn’t set the clock back so he’d have more time to work on his paper, after nearly thirty years of working as a professional writer and researcher, I could share some of the simple steps I’ve developed to help relieve deadline panic.
Stop beating yourself up. Yes, you could have started earlier, yes, the clock is ticking, but making yourself feel worse about the situation isn’t going to help. Focus on the things you can do now. To fight deadline panic, you need to take both mental and physical control over your situation.
Read the assignment instructions again. While this may seem simplistic, reading the instructions to make sure you understand the parameters of the assignment is an important first step. All too often unfinished projects become like monsters in the closet, their dimensions growing larger and more frightening with each passing moment they’re kept locked in the dark. Take a close, careful look at what the professor is asking you to do. Chances are it’s not nearly as overwhelming as you imagine.
Can’t find your assignment? Clean up! Often when you allow work assignments to pile up, you also allow other things in your environment to pile up. And while, yes you do need to start your project, it’s worth it to take 10 or 20 minutes to straighten up your room, desk top, and or backpack. Think of it as “administrative time.” File paperwork according to subject matter, class, or assignments. Mark upcoming assignments and other deadlines on whatever calendar system you use—computer, paper, post it notes on the wall. Throw out papers you don’t need. You may be surprised how much calmer you feel when your workspace looks (and is) less chaotic.
Still can’t find it? Don’t understand it? Reach out to classmates or your instructor. Never hesitate to contact an instructor if you’re running into problems; you’ll have a far better chance of resolving them if you ask for help before the situation becomes a crisis than after you’ve failed to turn an assignment in. It may be embarrassing, but bear in mind that you’ve been given the assignment because your instructor wants you to learn the material, not learn to fail. (Note: Keep in mind that you’ll make a better impression on your professor if you can show what efforts you’ve made to resolve a problem, and possible solutions, rather than simply asking him or her to “fix it.”)
Break the assignment into manageable chunks. As you’re reading your assignment, pay close attention to the verbs your instructor has used. For example, are you being asked to describe, compare, and assess/analyze/or give your views on a subject? These are three different actions. Tackle them separately. Are you being asked to write about the impact of an event or issue? Define the event or issue first, lay out the history or background leading up to it, then describe the players and their concerns or conflicts. The more detailed and specific you are about breaking out the components of your subject matter, the easier you’ll find it is to write about the subject.
Write a messy first draft. The most important thing to do when you’re writing under a deadline is to get your ideas down on paper. Don’t worry about crafting the perfect introductory paragraph, whether you’re starting in the “right” place, or how the parts will fit together. Most importantly, don’t worry about whether what you’re writing is any good. All too often, what stymies the writing process is a desire to write a final draft rather than a first; I’ve seen plenty of students waste precious time rewriting the beginning of a paper or trying to polish an introductory paragraph. Polishing comes later. You can edit and organize anything but a blank page.
Stuck on the first paragraph? In the next segment of this series, I discuss how to avoid “verbal gridlock.” Finished your messy first draft and wondering what’s next? In the third and final post, I discuss developing and using an outline to transform your draft into a finished paper.
Read the entire “Becoming Unstuck” series:
Writing Term Papers—How to Avoid Verbal Gridlock
Writing Term Papers—How to Turn a Messy First Draft Into a Final Paper
If you need help with your writing skills, First Impressions College Consulting can guide you through the writing process to make it easier and more effective. Gain confidence in your writing. Contact www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com.
With over two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author and writing consultant Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or marketing yourself or your work. She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna is a writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting. You can reach her at www.joannanovins.com or www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com