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How do I write quickly and intelligently?
December 6, 2006 5:07 PM   Subscribe

How do you learn to write quickly? I have a good number of 5-15 page papers due in the next couple of days and they're killing me. I have no lack of ideas, I have no lack of outlines and notes I can create. But somewhere between holding the notes and writing the sentences down my brain sticks and I spend an hour writing and re-writing the first paragraph. What to do?

Part of it is my too-high standards. Given the immediacy of my deadlines and the amount of work to be done I know I need to just put something down, but the perfectionist in me makes this hard. When I'm turning in less than my best, I don't know whether "less than" means B or F and I feel so disappointed in my work I'd rather turn in nothing.

The other aspect is blanking. I blank on introductions, I blank on transitions, I blank on how to elegantly construct my argument. I can verbalize the topic with ease but when it comes to writing down more than a couple sentences on it and providing full elaboration I freeze. It's not an inability to construct an argument or talk about topics--I have had more than my fair share of long Internet arguments to attest to that. Something about the combination of writing for a class and not writing on a whim messes me up.

What tips do you have for writing quickly and getting papers done? I'm pretty good on the organizing front--I just need help getting it on paper.
posted by schroedinger to Education (40 answers total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
Write in pencil on paper with bad handwriting and mispellings (the idea is to avoid worreis about grammar, spelling, and well crafted sentences which can take up a lot of fiddle time on a compuiter).

Plow through the whole paper trying to put down the main ideas in a good order. If need be write "I really need to transition from A to B here" if you get stuck.

Once the sloppy version has most of the points and structure, type it into the computer with only minor revisioniong along the way.

Thereafter it is mainly a process of editing and polishing.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 5:16 PM on December 6, 2006 [2 favorites]

Six months ago I was in your situation. I'm sorry to say that I doubt anybody will have some kind of novel answer for you! You already know what you need to do: Fight past the perfectionist streak. It is a flaw.

That's what I had to do. It was extremely stressful for me to just spew out what I considered to be messy, unstructured babble with little to no grammar -- but I did it. You have to write stuff down schroedinger, even if you think it's poor quality.

You need to resist the urge to edit in the first stage. Write a bad first draft -> then you have earned the luxury of labouring over the first paragraph. Until you have gotten past that first paragraph, you are just wanking.

It sort of upset me, not having the time to write an excellent essay that I would be proud of. But the truth is, I didn't (and most people don't) have that time.

The good news is this: I handed in about six essays that I felt were substandard. Like you, I had no idea how substandard, so it was quite stressful waiting to see whether I merely passed, or got a C, or B or what.

I ended up with a GPA of 6.75 (In Australia, it's on a scale of 1 to 7). A huge surprise! So take my experience as an example, and realise that even your "worst" will still probably be pretty good! Get over your perfectionism, which is really just procrastination.
posted by mjao at 5:22 PM on December 6, 2006 [4 favorites]

Pretend you've already written a marvelous paper on the subject and you're trying to explain it to a friend. Write down the explanation that comes out — obscenities, bad grammar, hand-waving and all. Then, once it's all out, go back and tighten it up.

Whenever I had a paper to write in college, I'd picture myself in a bar. "Hey, what'd you write for that last paper for Dr. Soandso," someone would ask. "Well," I'd say, taking a drag off my cigarette, "all I was tryna' say was...."
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:26 PM on December 6, 2006 [10 favorites]

(Disclaimer: IAABoringEnglishTeacher) Everyone is allowed to have idiosyncratic writing process preferences, but when your working style is preventing you from getting the job done, then it's worth it to try a different approach. It's hard to make yourself do this (if you're me), but try to force yourself to keep going forward during the first draft. No going back, no deleting, no polishing. This generates momentum. When you blank on something, write BLANK and move on. Nobody but you ever has to see that first draft, so it doesn't matter how imperfect it is. Just get some dang thing on paper and get to the end. And then go back and revise and tinker. I've heard a fair amount of professional writers I know say that for them, real writing begins after they have a draft on paper. That's a productive attitude I try (with mixed success) to cultivate.

All the things you blank on (intros, transitions, diction) are things we do largely for readers, not ourselves -- although a great turn of phrase is enjoyable for the writer too. That's why those elements are often the toughest to write. Just because the intro is placed first, there's no reason why it has to be written first, and I've found that I can put together an intro better once I've drafted a body and know where I'm leading my readers.

Large-scale invention and organization employ a different sort of thinking from phrasing- and word-level crafting; trying to do both at once is like asking the brain to skip rope and juggle at the same time.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:29 PM on December 6, 2006 [6 favorites]

I find when I'm really writing quickly and reasonably well I'm actually talking out the sentences to myself faster than I can write them, kind of self-dictating.

I also routinely skip introductions and start in the middle of paragraphs. Beginnings are really difficult, so I skip them if they hang me up and go back to them later.

It can also help to make rules about when you're allowed to edit your work. No changes before the page is done, or before two pages are done, something like that.
posted by OmieWise at 5:30 PM on December 6, 2006

Allow yourself to say what needs to be said without regard to how it's said. Write the entire paper like this. Now go back and polish it up. The difficult part is stopping yourself from revising as you go; once you free yourself, you can bang it out quite quickly. And since you go back and fix it up, the quality is the same.
posted by luckypozzo at 5:33 PM on December 6, 2006

Write as though you're explaining what you're studying to a friend. In my experience, the words come more quickly when you imagine yourself gearing your studies towards someone you know well, because you'll take the time to make the appropriate connections for everything to make sense, yet it allows you some freedom to wander and speculate. Of course, make sure that you revise it a couple of times for clarity, but you just need to get it out on paper and it's easy street from there.
posted by perpetualstroll at 5:44 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

If it really is paralyzing to get the words out at all by hand, then talk the paper out aloud to yourself first or dictate the first draft into a recording device and then transcribe it.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:56 PM on December 6, 2006

Have you tried drinking?

I'm not really kidding. I found it helped get things moving and smoothed over the impulse to over-edit every word I wrote.
Don't get loaded and write nonsense, obviously, but a few well-placed drinks might be just the thing.
posted by willpie at 5:58 PM on December 6, 2006

All of this is great technical advice (which I'll be using myself!). But for me the problem is really more environmental. I can only write while smoking, listening to very loud heavy metal, and eating. Most preferably, eating cheese and crackers.

It sounds like I'm joking but I'm so not. I've actually had to leave the office sometimes (where I'm supposed to write) and go home, where there are ashtrays and big speakers.

So yes, break through that perfectionist streak, and try tape-recording, or any of those great things--but also I really think you need to find the place where your "zone" is apparent, so you can tear through these papers. Is it on the kitchen floor, listening to Debussy? In the bathroom, with earplugs? By hand on paper, or on computer? Only you can know.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:02 PM on December 6, 2006

If you can't write the first paragraph, write the next one instead. No, seriously: I do the same thing that you do. And when I get stuck on the intro, or something else, I generally end up putting "[TOPIC FOO GOES HERE]" in all caps, so that I'll notice it and go back and deal once I'm more inspired. The point is to get down whatever information I can; once I've started writing, I generally find it easier to go back and fill things in.

Additionally: go somewhere where you have nothing but your work. Make sure you don't have a way to waste time or get distracted. I'm horrible at doing this when the words aren't flowing well, and it's a dangerous habit.
posted by ubersturm at 6:03 PM on December 6, 2006

Start with an outline. A full outline of the entire paper, indicating your arguments and sources and so on. I'd do this electronically.

Then start filling in. It doesn't really matter what order you do things in, and you can expect the intro and conclusions to be last. Take it in stages: expanding a one-line/one-item outline element into three or four deeper elements is good work too. Start with a bare outline, and expand, and expand, and expand until you have nearly every line of the paper outlined out.

Then start shifting from outline form to paragraphs. When you have a lot of writing down in a given part, shift from outlines to making notes to yourself. ---ARGUMENT ABOUT ZOD GOES HERE--- Like that.

Also, inquire about preferred language. You're probably used to writing papers in English class for English teachers. But standards can vary from field to field, and some prefer a much tighter, clipped tone that doesn't fuck around with all that wordsmithing.

IAAP. I write papers, mostly 30--50 pages, for a living. The things that separate me now from my undergraduate self are:

(1) A willingness to just start writing, starting with the cool stuff, and worry about integrating later.

(2) A willingess to revise. Most of the papers I've eventually had published have been through at least 5 revision cycles before I sent them off, and then another before accepted (often with more that the reviewers don't see), and then one or two more after acceptance.

(3) I don't worry very much about language. I just put things down as simply, directly, and concisely as I can. Obviously, as concisely as I can is still not very concise. Some fair chunk of revision ends up stripping down the too-complex sentences I still put in, and stripping out nice turns of phrase that take an extra line, and so on.

Then it gets accepted, and the editor tells me to strip out a third to half of the paper, but leave in everything that matters. The embarrassing part is that I can.

Learning these lessons took years and years.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:05 PM on December 6, 2006 [16 favorites]

I have the same problem with my writing -- my high standards, plus my tendency to go into the editor side of my brain rather than the writer side. The trick is to just power through. Allow yourself to write mediocre crap the first time around just to get it on the page -- in fact, tell yourself to write mediocre crap. Let yourself off the hook any way you can. In grad school, in order to avoid spending hours rewriting that first paragraph, I'd write [INSERT KICK-ASS INTRODUCTION HERE] at the top of the page to kind of trick myself into just skipping the first paragraph and moving into the body of the text.
posted by scody at 6:09 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

Heres what I do (though it might not work for all).
1) in place of an intro paragraph I write only my main argument (my thesis) words in a sentence it doesnt matter. Just that, nothing else (til later).

2) Then I dig in to the first paragraph always glancing up at my thesis to make sure I am clearly connecting each point to the main argument.
... do the same for each body paragraph

3) Then with the conclusion restate the thesis adding in a bit more info than you did in the intro. Then, like you will go back and do now for the intro, name (explicitly) each of your sources/areas of study and ground your thesis in fact. Then, last sentence of your paper, and go back and do the same with the first sentence, expand it all to some universal/common/general theme and if its the last sentence suggest either how it can be further explored or how this thesis can be applied to other areas of inquiry.
posted by Meemer at 6:12 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

On-preview, ROU_Xenophobe's answer is great, and is a lot like what I'm trying to say.

The method I use it to Just Write - sit down with a caffinated beverage/juice drink (as preferred) and hack out an outline, even if you aren't 100%, leaving short notes on useful details for later. Then fill in as much of the gist of what you want to say as possible. Then take a short break, and come back and jump around filling out sentances/paragraphs as they come to you, all the while trying to keep a decent pace. At no point worry about spelling, grammar, elegance etc. Don't worry too much about into/outro as those will become clear as you revise.

By the time you're exhausted, turn your brain off for as long as is necessary (cook a meal, take a nap, play a game), then either repeat the process on another paper, or redraft the previous one, depending on your brain's mood.

If you anticipate needing to stay awake more than usual for a few days, plan ahead by getting a supply of decent, energising foods, and try to eat every few hours, avoiding large meals and excessively caffinated drinks. Try to nap rather than sleep if you can.
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:18 PM on December 6, 2006

I consider myself a technical writer/research tech. I think I'm a good writer. But every time I write something, the first 150 words are crap -- total crap, unusable crap, stupid and awkward and ungrammatical. Anyway that's what I tell myself. I expect to be unable to use a single phrase of that first 150 words in the finished product. So I just try to get them written as fast as possible, so I can start writing the real portion of the piece. I know I can't skip the crap-writing -- if I try, I'll just end up with crap in my finished version. So I just get on with it.
posted by Methylviolet at 6:20 PM on December 6, 2006


1. As everyone said up top, dump the perfectionism now and remember it later. A preliminary draft is just that--preliminary.
2. I regularly tell my students to put in a "placeholder" thesis, then go back and fix it once they've written the whole paper. You can do the same with topic sentences, transitions, etc.
3. Try a strict writing schedule, which is what I did in graduate school when I had three 25-30 page papers due at the same time. Do paper X for an hour, take a break, do paper Y, etc., etc., etc. If you have to stop in the middle of a paragraph or whatever, so be it.
4. On a different note: I've had several students with really high standards self-destruct this way, and it's murderously frustrating for the professor. It's OK if the work never feels up to your standards--that encourages you to keep improving. But, frequently enough, your "not good enough" = our "wow, that was a pretty awesome paper."
posted by thomas j wise at 6:23 PM on December 6, 2006

Start in the middle, pretending you've already written the beginning. Come back and write the beginning later. Works for me every time I'm stuck, to the extent that I can't really say I ever get stuck anymore. It's a computer, damn it; you can work on your paper in any order, and should.
posted by kindall at 6:31 PM on December 6, 2006

Here's the mantra that has served me through a 20-year career as a writer, perfectionist, and procrastinator:

Don't Get It Right, Get It Written.

As many others have pointed out, it's helpful to think of writing and revising as two completely separate tasks.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:36 PM on December 6, 2006 [3 favorites]

Just sit down and write and write and write, with absolutely no mind as to whether paragraphs are in the right order, if sentences could be worded better, etc. Just "get it down" on paper. You'll probably find that when you free yourself of constraints that it'll be able to get the ideas down that you want to. Then take a second look, and edit: you'll probably find that you did a pretty good job without trying, and mostly you'll just be moving things around.

When you let yourself write the same way that you let yourself talk - that is, without meticulous planning and editing - that your thoughts will come out on paper with the smoothness and logic that your conversations do.
posted by Kololo at 6:50 PM on December 6, 2006

As much as I hated it when I was in middle school, this method helps get me through the worst essay-block: T3SDC paragraphs. It's as basic as you can get and is pretty fool-proof, and a good jumping-off point.

Make one point per each of your paragraphs that back up your overall thesis statement (ie overall thesis like "the American justice system is inherently flawed because of xyz" for example) and have in each paragraph three supporting sentences that back up that particular paragraph's point. Then stick a conclusion sentence on each paragraph, which leads into the next one.

Also, the use of "therefore" and "In contrast" "Additionally" and other such transitional words to begin the next paragraph made things much easier on me. Also, don't be afraid to ask questions in your essay (for example, "Is it possible to address the question of the criminal justice system without changing xyz?")

Believe it or not, I won the National Council of Teachers of English essay contest back in high school using this method. It was a timed contest, and I froze up and resorted to T3sdc sentences and it went just fine.
posted by np312 at 6:55 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

What do you do for an essay exam? Do that. It will be fast. Then polish it some.

Editing, later, is fun, but you have to draft first. And if you want to get perfectionistic, do it at the right time, which is a day or two after you draft the thing. Using your editor's mind when you should be drafting is misapplied perfectionism. IE you are making a bad mistake. Therefore, perhaps your perfectionism can see that and you will be out of that hole for good.
posted by Listener at 6:56 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

Once you have a near final draft look at your paragraph structure. I knew an editor who often "helped" (science) graduate students with their theses. She said that many were vastly improved by swapping the first and last sentences of every paragraph.

I.e. instead of a "premise", "evidence", "conclusion" structure, change it to a structure of: "conclusion" supported by "evidence" which is derived from the pre-mentioned "premise".
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 7:18 PM on December 6, 2006

I second what many people have said, about writing as you would explain to a friend. This is my best technique for polishing an argument and summarizing a grander theme, and it is particularly helpful in getting through the tricky parts: introductions, transitions, and conclusions. Imagine your prof asking, "What's your paper about?" - that's your introduction. "What's the common thread here?" - that's your transition. "So, what does this mean? Why should I care?" - that's your conclusion.

I also agree wholeheartedly with RJ Reynolds about your writing environment - my particular hang-up is that I am a fidgeter, and I will just get up and leave my desk if I've stalled. To fight this, I developed an oral fixation; now I need to be chewing gum, or eating, or drinking, or doing anything with my mouth while I write. This gives me something concrete to do while I'm thinking of what to say next and prevents me from getting up and doing something unrelated.

I think the trick here is finding some activity you can do, physically, that will occupy you just enough so that you stay in that chair but not so much that it will stop you from thinking about what you need to say. (It sounds to me like your way of occupying yourself is constantly revising what you've already written; as you know, this isn't terribly constructive. Find something else that keeps you busy but also lets you think forward through your paper, instead of backward about what you've already done.) Staying in the chair and staying at the task at hand is immensely important when you're blanking. Eventually you'll get aggravated enough with the blinking cursor that you'll write anything just to make it disappear, and then you'll be off.

As for improving your speed, really, all you can do is practice. The more you write the faster you'll get. I know it doesn't help you now, but it's true. In the meantime, just don't get up.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 7:25 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

Speaking as an essay marker to your fears about what level "less than best" will take you to:

In general, it is the ideas and not strictly the form that I am interested in. Most undergrad essays are so poorly written and constructed that if you write with the same level of grammatical correctness and overall coherence as your question here, then you're already going to stand out as better than average. If you have actually done the research, understood the topic, and constructed something thoughtful that appears to have been edited at least once, then you do not need to be worrying about Fs or even Cs--even if it is far from your best work.

Always aim for clarity over cleverness (especially since you are obviously capable of it). A marker will not care about an awkward transition if your ideas are exciting to them.
posted by carmen at 7:50 PM on December 6, 2006

Write in pencil on paper with bad handwriting and mispellings (the idea is to avoid worreis about grammar, spelling, and well crafted sentences which can take up a lot of fiddle time on a compuiter).

Plow through the whole paper trying to put down the main ideas in a good order. If need be write "I really need to transition from A to B here" if you get stuck.

I follow basically this method with screenwriting, sans pen and paper. When I come to a place where I'd need to slow down and think, I write "XXX need to add something here XXX" or something like that.

Then, later, I do searches for "XXX" to quickly find all the spots that need work.

The key is to remember, as Hemingway said, "the first draft of everything is shit." Even the great writers need a few drafts to get it right. Once you accept that your first effort need not be perfect, you'll hopefully be able to stop hesitating.

Also, i used to beat myself up for getting distracted by TV, internet, etc. Finally I accepted that was just human nature (or at least mine), and decided to simply avoid the distractions. I close my browser, move away from the TV, or if necessary go to a coffee shop where my choices are basically "write" or "do nothing."
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:53 PM on December 6, 2006

I will second Xenophobe. Write everything in outline form and it will save you time and you will write excellent papers. Write an outline and print it. Scribble it up with any changes before you start your first draft. Set up the structure, make sure your information is clear, in the correct order, and sufficient to make your point. Then, begin writing the first draft. After it is complete add your prose style, go back and tart it up. I would also recommend a cup of hot water, 4-5 tablespoons of instant coffee and enough sugar to hornswoggle the gag reflex, before a paper writing session. Actually, I would not recommend it, but it worked for me.
posted by SMELLSLIKEFUN at 8:03 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

Go find Peter Elbow's "writing with power" at a library and spend two hours with it. Really. Disclaimer: I have been teaching writing for eleven years.
posted by mecran01 at 8:41 PM on December 6, 2006 [2 favorites]

I agree absolutely with all the advice here to just get words on the paper, to start. It is amazing how much easier the editing/reworking is (preferably after taking a break between drafts) than the initial writing.

Also I've found that going to sleep after writing a draft, or struggling with one, can really help. It can be just a nap, but you need to have been working on the essay just prior to going to sleep. Your brain will continue working on the material, and many times you'll wake up with some breakthroughs on wording or organization. Sounds like you don't have a lot of time though, so this might not help.
posted by torticat at 8:51 PM on December 6, 2006

torticat's advice might help you out... and if you are short on time you can try what edison (?) or some other prominent thinker who believed inspiration came from dreams would do: hold a bunch of marbles in your hand and fall asleep in a chair, when your hand relaxes you'll drop the marbles and wake yourself up in 1 second, giving you a really short nap.
posted by farmersckn at 9:23 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

JFDI: Just Fucking Do It. Pen on paper. Set yourself time limits. Then read it aloud to yourself: that'll likely pinpoint clunky sentences and bad transitions better than on the screen.

Zone yourself. You can only write one thing at one time, but you're backed up and it's like an upturned wine bottle that's airlocked and coughs out its contents. So, tip slowly. If you need to stop and write 'write this next' on the margin or just draw a big arrow to that future graf, that's fine. And you can do that with paper, where there's forward and sideways but no backwards.

And sometimes you do have to write the crap out of your system: it's like letting the tap run before filling the kettle to make the cup of tea that you need to begin writing, not to drink but to steam in the corner of your eye.
posted by holgate at 12:53 AM on December 7, 2006

Lots of good advice above. Remember this: Introductions are read first, but that does not mean you have to write them first. Writing an introduction is ruddy hard, because you have to catch attention, provide background, and preview your main discussion accurately but at low resolution. If you're also juggling ideas about particulars of the discussion, your introduction will suffer. The best way to load up your brain to write an introduction is to get rid of all those rhetorical ideas, then reload the concepts. And this is done by writing and rereading the rest of the paper.

In junior high, I had a good enough sense of rhetoric and simple enough assignments that I could basically sit down and through-write. In high school, stuff was bigger and harder and I learned to start with a mental outline (not huge, just a few points), maybe supplemented with ten words of scribbled reminders. In college, stuff got much bigger, and so the organizing and especially the transitions required a lot more attention. I started out by breaking ideas into thematic chunks, labeling them, and then sequencing the labels in my head (only writing down parts of the sequence that I was satisfied with) ... but that ate up too much RAM. It was the perfectionism problem at work: Various dissatisfactions with my organization were crowding my working memory and thereby further degrading my organization.

After much experimentation, I had a slow epiphany: If your organization and your writing don't connect, it's not because you can't write; you know you can turn out good discussions of a topic. It's because your organization isn't writing-friendly. It's probably very reader-friendly and coherent; but writing is a complicated process with psychological demands unlike those of reading.

In time, I evolved a way of outlining and noting that leads to definite writing tasks that fit a strong overall structure. It sounds like a lot of overhead, but it's not; it displaces a lot of time you spend ruminating and being dissatisfied and rewriting because murky inklings of your unwritten material are degrading your concentration or conflicting with your previous rhetoric.
  1. Any point you think you might make, anything you think you're likely to cite, goes on a little piece of paper or card. (Get someone to donate their unused business cards after their work address changes, or make slips of paper with a guillotine, or buy the ridiculously expensive 1X3 cards on a keyring.) Don't worry about ordering them, unless an order occurs to you (if it does, write it on a card and add that to the heap). Put sourcing information on the back (just what you need for your citation; keep the detailed bibliographic information of every book you read on a separate paper).
  2. Once you've got enough material, get a big flat space that you can see from above. (My kitchen counter was not big enough, even if my roommates hadn't enshrouded it in dirty dishes; I used the couches.) Throw slips into piles with other slips that they go with. Throw some slips, as appropriate, into a junk pile.
  3. When the piles' contents settle down, give each one a cover—a slip with a title for those thoughts, written big. You will make your large-scale outline out of these titles, and it will be good enough because it's driven by worthwhile content.
  4. Paperclip each pile into a pack, cover on top, and physically arrange these packs into a sequence. Sometimes, all them will be on one outline level; often, they will span two; if they span more, that's probably OK. Voila, you have an outline.
  5. Now take up each pack, in whatever order is mentally convenient, and sort the stuff within it. You might junk another slip or two. You might have another idea or two to add. You will often find good transitions to the previous and next topics within the pack, and if you don't, the context will suggest what you need to say. This is your information structuring your paper again: If the context doesn't suggest very much transition, then all you'll really need is a quick 'On the other hand' or 'Likewise'; but if the two topics are deeply intertwingled, all those slips that were hard to sort between them become an extensive, natural transition.
  6. If you have an introductory-ideas pile, great. Use it to write your introduction. If not, let it be.
  7. Take each pack in turn and report it in beautiful prose. This becomes easy to do because the ideas are already in a wonderful sequence.
  8. If there's a need to connect your findings to the wider world, you'll know because there's a pile for it. That's your conclusion. If not, just recapitulate your points and fall silent.
  9. Now that's done, write or revise your introduction. If you wrote one before, expect to change most of it. This will be a piece of cake because of all the connections that were formed by writing everything else.
This method allowed me to write things that would have driven me absolutely insane otherwise. Things I could not satisfactorily outline because an outline required much more holistic vision than I could get. Things whose parts massively overwhelmed my working memory. Most importantly, it assured me that I was writing them in their own true shape, not coercing them into some other, less perfect organization; and it broke things down into pieces of a size that I could revise immediately upon writing, and re-revise very soon, so that they didn't have to stay sucky for very long. This did wonders for keeping perfectionism in check.

So then, at the end of college, I had to write a 50-page thesis, and I had to take a class on how to write large academic documents like that, and I can more or less sum up that class by saying the above method scales by at least one order of magnitude. (In large cases, you can use a top-level outline a priori, because your field has an accepted way of organizing background, review of literature, statement of problem, statement of methodology, findings, analysis, discussion, and future work; but that doesn't restrict your work with the above method, it just puts it in huge initial piles that you can separately subpile later.)

The question of speed is a tricky one. Worthwhile stuff takes time. Fortunately, a lot of painful vacillation is not worthwhile stuff, and the above method lets you jettison it. Somehow it exposes the parts of the content that motivate clarity and grace. But actually turning the outline into prose, even if you know it's a great outline and will produce lovely prose, is still a time-consuming task. Sorry.

The only panic attack I ever had was while writing a college paper on a tight deadline. I had an outline but it just wasn't coming. Once I quelled the freak-out, I got 'er done and pulled down a clean A. So there.
posted by eritain at 12:58 AM on December 7, 2006 [7 favorites]

To pretty much echo what others have been saying, try to separate content and format in your mind. Then ignore the latter until you've done the former. You might have to use some sort of trick to achieve this, e.g.:

Dear Schroedinger's Imaginary Penpal,
You asked in your last letter what I was studying. Well, I've been learning about some fascinating thing called XYZ. What it means is.........

Seems goofy but I've seen this kind of thing work.
posted by primer_dimer at 4:38 AM on December 7, 2006

One more idea. If you are locquacious, especially when drinking, try doing some stream of consciousness dictation using the Speak-Write service. The cost is 1.25 cents per word, but it will give you some beginning text to work with.
posted by yclipse at 6:36 AM on December 7, 2006

Here's how I learned to write fast. In my senior year in high school, we had to read The Red Badge of Courage, in an edition that contained a nearly infinte supply of critical essays. We were assigned one to read and then the next day we had to turn in an essay about it. Then we had to read an essay for homework, with a topic in mind and come in and write that new essay in one class period. (repeat several times). Then we were assigned an essay to read and were given the topic when we showed up for class. (repeat several times). Then we were given the essay to read in class and the topic in class and had to write it up (repeat several times). The final step was being able to write two of these in one class period. That's right. Two. In our class time, that gave a student 5 minutes to read and think and 20 minutes to write.

As a results, every student that passed that class (1) could pass the AP Test in writing and (2) could knock out a coherent 5 paragraph essay in 20 minutes without a sweat. Mind you, the writing in one of these is never going to be stellar. Instead, it is efficient and direct with an economy of words. It makes a great draft for revision, though.

How do you write quickly? Practice, practice, practice.
posted by plinth at 7:37 AM on December 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

One thing that helps me is to remember I don't have to start at the beginning. Grab an idea that you find interesting and run with it. You can add the introduction later, you can add stuff and take out stuff and move stuff around.... later. Take advantage of the wonders of word processing!
posted by dagnyscott at 8:27 AM on December 7, 2006

Remember: writing your ideas down will help you to clarify them. You will better understand the material once you've written a paragraph or two, and your understanding will only deepen from there. Writing is a process. You can't skip to the end. You must allow your thoughts to develop.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:32 AM on December 7, 2006 [1 favorite]


1. get a kitchen timer (digital ones are best)
2. consume some caffiene
3. set the timer for for ONE HOUR
4. pretend it's an exam and WRITE. force yourself to FINISH the skeleton of the paper in an hour. just like in an exam, you don't get to be picky with your wording, there's no time. just finish a draft.
5. feel proud of yourself. go for a short walk and have a coffee.
6. set the timer for 30 minutes and revise the first section.
7. another 30 minutes, another revision on another section. you can take longer per section if you want, but if you decide benchmarks ahead of time, like "i will be happy with these two paragraphs in under 30 minutes" you'll be able to keep track of your time when you start getting nitpicky and obsessive. it's a little kick in the ass to keep moving forward.
8. keep setting benchmarks and setting the timer til it's all done.
9. if possible, do the whole essay in one night the day before it's due, then print it and sleep, then read the hard copy one more time in the morning before you hand it in, in case there's some glaring thing you should change.
10. don't feel too bad about leaving work til close to the day it's due-- the due date is the ultimate alarm, and i think it's okay to use a deadline as a motivator.

hopefully the timers make you "just do it". it sounds like you just need structure. draft 1.0 doesn't have to be perfect. just write a crappy skeleton and beef it up in the revising phase.
good luck!
posted by twistofrhyme at 11:28 AM on December 7, 2006 [5 favorites]

One tip I just learned is to write the introduction last. That way you already know what you wrote about so it's easy to introduce it and say what you'll be writing about.
posted by GregX3 at 9:30 PM on December 10, 2006

I agree with the others who have suggested letting yourself use placeholders when you're stuck rather than fretting over them. Write the parts that are easy/interesting first, then come back for transitions, organization, & introductions. I personally make good use of the highlighting & text color features of my word processing program to make sure I don't forget the spots I need to come back to.
posted by pril at 5:27 PM on April 20, 2007

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