Dear 100 Hour Board,
I have a very hard time writing essays, and by hard time I mean it's undoubtedly the most difficult thing I have to do on a regular basis. Because I find it so difficult I've developed a fear (if that's even possible) of writing essays and it's gotten to the point that I'll do whatever I can to avoid writing an essay. In high school I would just procrastinate a lot and then eventually write them, but since I started at BYU it's gotten worse. I failed my first-year writing class and keep getting bad grades in any class that requires writing essays because I just can't get myself to start writing. Unless I actually find the topic very interesting, which pretty much never happens, I'll just stare at a blank page for an hour or so until I give up and take the zero.
So this is my question: What can I do to motivate myself to write? The 3% of my grade doesn't seem to do it, but I really need that 3%.
I had this problem, though to a lesser degree, in high school.
One thing that helped me was giving myself a reasonable time limit and writing whatever came into my head, no matter how bad it was. I discovered this technique when I was taking a final which had an essay format. I sat there and stared at the page for an hour and then, panicked, I wrote whatever came into my head frantically until my time was up. Surprisingly, I ended up getting a good mark.
It turned out the main problem I had was anxiety rather than a loss of motivation or ability. If you think this might be your problem, I would strongly recommend visiting the University Accessibility Center. They might be able to help you out with this.
Also see Board Question #76926. I think that the #1 thing that will improve your grades is accountability. Take advantage of the Writing Fellows; that's what they're there for.
I have to write full-time for my job, and although it's something I'm passionate about, sometimes I get writers' block, too. The best advice I can give for that is to outline your ideas in bullet points. Then you have something on paper and no excuses.
In my experience as a language arts teacher, the "blank page" you mentioned seems to be the most common frustration people face when writing essays. My best piece of advice for this is to never come to the blank page unprepared. If you open a word document and start a staring contest, the blank page stands a good chance of winning. As Portia has said, coming to that blank page with your ideas is your best bet; if you've already gone through some pre-writing steps, it will be much easier to get started. You can "pre-write" many different ways. You can by jotting down lists or charts of ideas, simply thinking your whole paper through, or having a conversation with a friend or even with your professor. Once you have a good idea of what your essay needs to cover, the writing task itself becomes much less daunting. Of course, this approach requires advance planning; you can't procrastinate this.
Here's an example of how this process might actually break down. I have an upcoming 15-20 page paper due about a theme in Victorian literature. This morning, as I fixed my hair and did my makeup, I thought about several different texts I could include, historical information that I needed to find, and different ways I could organize my paper. I will keep thinking about these ideas until I have them worked out to my satisfaction. This weekend, I will be seeing a good friend of mine who is working on a doctorate in literature (if you don't have such lucky connections, you can always talk to a TA, or like Portia suggests, a Writing Fellow). I find that trying to articulate my thoughts out loud for someone else really helps transfer my ideas into explanations I can use in an essay. Then, while the ideas are still fresh, I type out a draft of my essay. Ideally, if I've used my time wisely, I will be able to leave my paper alone for a couple of days, so I can revise it with a fresher perspective. After revising and editing my paper, making sure all ideas and words are how I like them, I finally submit.
Bottom line: Don't try to punch out a whole essay in one go. Plan, discuss, draft, fix, then submit.
Best of luck to you!
Dear Zero (to hero),
I'm a journalist and an English tutor, and I have noticed that it can be easy to get hung up on the hook of your essay. That first paragraph is daunting! It's helpful to me to pull up that word document and just start typing - get down any coherent idea I know up front that I want to include. That means I often start the story or the essay somewhere in the middle and build around it. You're going to be editing all along, so who cares which part you actually get down on paper first? One of the most important parts about this is that it doesn't require the exercise in creativity that is your first paragraph - it lets you start with the easy part and then get ideas from yourself. Plus, seeing immediate progress is motivating.
I second the outline idea, too. This is going to sound opposite to my previous suggestion, but it's just two different approaches - I generally have my tutoring students plan and write their thesis first, then just fill in bullet points that support the thesis. After that, they write out a full conclusion. That gives them enough of a blueprint that filling in the middle stuff feels almost like an afterthought and they can do it quickly. They can always go back and tweak those first and last paragraphs, but having the prompt staring them in the face while they write the thesis, and then having the thesis staring them in the face while they write out the supporting points helps them make sure those body paragraphs are all pointing directly and clearly back to the prompt. After that, it's all just filling in details.
I combat this problem by typing nonsense. Usually the word "farts" shows up a few times because I have an eleven year old boy's sense of humor. And after a bit of that, I might try some on-topic nonsense.
"Farts farts farts, sbgsbesuhsg, Gatsby as Peter Pan, can't accept possibility of change or failure. Doot doot doooooo, um, green light, green tunic? No. Eternal childhood, reclaiming the past, inhumanity. But it's Daisy who runs away--so she's more like Peter Pan and not like Wendy. But then who is Gatsby?"
From there, I can merge into actual thoughts, though they're still poorly written. Finally I pin down some sort of thesis and main body paragraphs, and from there I can start filling in the paper. I usually don't start with the intro, either. When I do start there, I usually delete it and come up with something better later. My first ideas are bad, and I know it when I write them down, but if I get started writing then better ideas often follow. So just put words down. Start with farts, if you have to.
First of all, you have to admit that you have an irrational fear--it's like being afraid of cracks in the pavement. I'm not saying that in a pejorative sense, so don't tell any therapist that I said that. Part of that process may be confronting the consequences and thinking through things on your own: what is the downside of writing this paper?
I will now be a hypocrite and tell you to do something I have not yet mastered in 33 trips around the sun: STOP PROCRASTINATING. Find a way to dive into essays as soon as you can--long before they are due. This will allow you to put something on paper, then let it simmer for a while. Then you can come back to it and decide if you still like what you wrote.
From just a strategic standpoint, I'm a big fan of the OUTLINE. Even if you can't WRITE the essay early, sit down and build an outline in Microsoft Word. Try to stick as much information into that outline as possible. That lets you decide what you are trying to accomplish with the essay, and may make it easier to actually write stuff. You can then face the abhorrent writing assignment in manageable chunks of terror: write a paragraph from your outline between classes one day. It's like approaching your fear of shellfish by getting fried shrimp one day. It's fried... so... you know, of course it is edible.
And, back to the downside: JUST WRITE SOMETHING. It can suck. But, you will make progress by just writing SOMETHING.
Like any irrational fear... you just need to admit it exists then try a bunch of different ways to fix it.
That is all.
Dear Fellow Writer,
I write for a living so I'm well aware of the intimidation you feel staring at that blank screen (although clearly not the same levels of intimidation since, you know, I do it every day). That being said, I endorse the previous advice/direction and would summarize thusly:
1. Start with an outline. Then start filling it in.
2. Start by writing nonsense. I adapt this to my own use by intentionally writing things I think are funny (*cough* immature *cough*) and, specifically, things I know the client will never approve. That usually gets the ball rolling for me.
3. Don't start looking at a blank Word document. Find a cheap notebook, a cheap pen, and start scribbling down random thoughts you have about the subject at hand. Like the subject? Don't understand it? Think it's boring? What about it is boring? If you were all powerful, how would you change it so it wasn't boring? Write it all. Ask and answer your own questions. But do it somewhere other than a computer screen. And don't worry about making it look pretty, or saving space in the notebook, or even using paragraph form. The only requirement is that it's legible enough to refer back to later.
Best of luck!
- Beemer Boy