College Writing: What to do when you get stuck writing a paper

I’ve seen many students complain about writing assignments because they can’t seem to find a clear direction or come up with an idea, this is especially the case with more open-ended writing assignments. Students stress out of fear of coming up with ideas that are either “unimpressive” or “stupid.” In many cases, this anxiety boils down to factors such as self-confidence or strictness of a professor, not lack of skill. That being said, it doesn’t have to be a torturing experience, there are some pretty good strategies for overcoming the wall of procrastination and frustration caused by feeling overwhelmed.

Begin Writing

Instead, the goal shouldn’t be to write a spectacular first sentence or paragraph, the intention of free writing is to begin an inner dialogue about the topics you want to tackle.

Just beginning the process of writing can jump-start the creative process. Many of us feel scared and shy to jump into the fray, but sometimes the best medicine for getting out of the rut is to just do it. This is easier said than done, though, and requires rethinking how we approach writing.

A common misconception amongst students struggling to write their papers is that one must aim for perfection from the start. This probably stems from the fact that they’re surrounded by eloquent, experienced researchers and read writing that is very polished and highly edited. It creates this false impression of what your writing should look like from the very beginning. Instead, the goal shouldn’t be to write a spectacular first sentence or paragraph, the intention of free writing is to begin an inner dialogue about the topics you want to tackle.

You’ll quickly realize during the first few minutes that you may lack knowledge on specific details, are unsure about your thesis statement, or feel as though your argument is not coherent. The important thing is that instead of just deleting those sentences and passages, highlight them and add the corresponding comment using your word processor. This is an invaluable skill because it teaches you to correct yourself in a similar way to that of your professor. Avoid any words or expressions that are judgmental. Instead, be objective with comments such as: “need to confirm this claim,” “possible contradiction,” and “is this really true?” Microsoft Word works really well with this because it lets you reply to comments and resolve them as you go along – a valuable feature when you want someone else to look at your paper before you submit it.

Asking yourself questions like this is healthy, and will heighten those critical thinking skills. It doesn’t mean that every time you ask yourself this you’ve made a mistake, in fact, sometimes it helps reinforce your argument, and serves as a reminder that a statement may need to be backed up on your paper even though you already know its justification in your head.

Free Writing & Brainstorming

Writing with this amount of adaptability does mean that you’ll have to become comfortable with making multiple revisions. If you feel particularly uncomfortable beginning the writing process this way, I recommend that you use an app like Evernote or OneNote (or a simple sheet of paper or whiteboard) to brainstorm. Start writing, exploring different directions through different paragraphs and tangents as you see fit. Afterward, take a five-minute break and go through your notes. Start piecing together the ideas with potential and weed out the bad ones. The idea is to connect the dots so you begin to have that initial thesis statement.

Tone Down Perfectionism

Perfectionism can sabotage your productivity.

Be flexible and quiet down the inner perfectionist. That voice will come in use after the first rough draft is complete.

I’ve met students that torture themselves on getting that perfect thesis statement on their first try, but it’s really not an ideal goal to pursue. Writing is a process, and it’s not that surprising to change your mind on a thesis statement by the end of your paper. Not surprisingly, I've had multiple instructors during my undergrad years say that they write the introduction last, only after they have written the conclusion.

Be flexible and quiet down the inner perfectionist. That voice will come in use after the first rough draft is complete. In the beginning stages, the obsessive in you will advocate for excessive caution that will bring your productivity to a grinding halt.

In conjunction to toning down perfectionism, aim for a very rough first draft, then apply the same technique as in the beginning, annotate your paper as if you were a neutral third party, catching inconsistencies, faulty arguments, and grammar mistakes as you go along. It’s a very systematic way of improving the quality of your paper and keeping accountability on your writing. As a former classmate and good friend of mine once said: Aim for a B class paper first, then improve on it. This is a good philosophy to have not just when writing essays, but for any challenging endeavor – it’s a marathon, not a race, pace yourself.

Aim for ideas first - focus on precision later

Work on the concept or group of ideas that work towards the narrative you want to present.

This is a common problem with college writing. It probably has to do with the utter bombardment of information students receive whether it’s the case undergraduate or graduate studies. There’s a tendency to prioritize facts and information, hoping that they will make sense once they’re on a piece of paper. Personal experience and hours of talking with professors have shown that the opposite is true. Instead of listing sources and facts, begin with an idea. Work on the concept or group of ideas that work towards the narrative you want to present. It doesn’t have to be stellar or airtight in the beginning, just keep working on it as you keep annotating your paper through multiple revisions. Once you have a solid narrative, look for the facts that strengthen your arguments. Otherwise, you might end up filling your essay with unnecessary information.

Start sooner rather than later

Focus on double checking your core argument for inaccuracies, if you catch mistakes there, you should be able to maintain a reasonably strong case throughout, even if you’re in a time crunch.

The earlier you begin, the more clear-headed you’ll be to apply the strategies I’ve mentioned. When you have only twelve hours to write a ten-page paper from scratch, it can be hard not to fall into the all-or-nothing mentality. That being said, all of us have at one point for some reason or another left a paper for the last minute.

While this is a topic for another post, I recommend the same strategies, with the modification of quickly narrowing down on a thesis and focusing on having a coherent argument over factual accuracy. Professors tend to be more forgiving of inaccurate claims if there’s an internal logic in your argument. Focus on double checking your core argument for inaccuracies, if you catch mistakes there, you should be able to maintain a reasonably strong case throughout, even if you’re in a time crunch.

Hopefully, these tips will help you feel more at ease when writing papers and serve as a roadmap for getting out of the cycle of procrastination.