Tips and tricks for writing (and finishing) grad school papers?
August 6, 2020 1:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm struggling to write a paper for one of my grad school courses. It's for a Linguistic Policy class, and I'm feeling overwhelmed. The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent disruption of in-person classes hasn't helped, but even without everything going on in the world, I would be daunted by the length of the paper (15-20 pages).

I have my research done and a rough outline and a couple paragraphs, but this was due in the spring semester (my very understanding professor gave me an incomplete and is flexible on when I turn it in).

Here's what I think the problems are:
- I've NEVER written a paper this long before. I'm sure for many students it's not even that long, but I don't have any experience with it (my undergrad major was a totally different subject).
- Anxiety about COVID-19 making it difficult to concentrate.
- Constant changes to my routine and uncertainty about work schedule
- Wanting to spend precious time doing other (more enjoyable) things - and justifying it because of all the craziness in the world

What has helped:
- Using the Voice Typing tool in Google Docs just to get some ideas down
- Setting a timer and working in little chunks

I would feel so much better if this paper was done and behind me, but I'm really struggling to concentrate. Any tips or tricks for getting papers done would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks so much :)
posted by Shadow Boxer to Education (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes more detailed outlining can help me. Go from the rough outline, to a more detailed outline, to a even more detailed one. Put what you want to cover in each paragraph instead of writing the paragraph itself. Then you can bring in sources, examples, etc.
posted by demiurge at 1:41 PM on August 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yes to the detailed outlining. I would outline to the point where every idea had its place and my active writing was just putting everything into complete sentences.

Also, just write. As my grad school advisor said to me many times, "Write shit, edit later." Just get it out of your head, don't worry about how it sounds or if it's perfectly comprehensible. The important part is just to get that draft done.

Find a way to manage your anxiety. Add in a short daily meditation, listen to calming music, whatever. I often use either a classical playlist to listen to while I'm working, or if I'm really anxious, I'll queue up a bunch of ASMR videos to listen to with headphones as I work.

Finally, your perception of this paper as a bear can be getting in the way. Section it off and start thinking of it as 4-5 much shorter papers of a few pages each. This can also organize your writing to make sure you are staying on topic within each section. If it helps, write and edit each smaller paper separately and then put them together. Or go paragraph by paragraph. I've used the technique of writing the paragraphs on topics I need to cover, printed them out, and then spent a little time arranging them physically in a way that makes the most sense.

Good luck! You've got this.
posted by Fuego at 1:51 PM on August 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Absolutely outline. Absolutely work out of order. Start with whatever section is easiest, just to get you moving. Absolutely save your introduction and conclusion for last -- they'll be much easier to write once you have the body written.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:53 PM on August 6, 2020

I don't have advice on grad school writing in particular but in general I do!

From Anne Lamott: "Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said. 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"

Sometimes it helps to write at the same time each day. Other people shake it up. Lots of writers had rituals to get started like sharpening X pencils. For me personally, the morning is the best, but after a walk or a bit of exercise. I have chai tea when I write and (mostly) only when I write. Some days I just sit there for the allotted time.

Listen to favourite music.

A tip for actually starting the writing part: Start writing nonsense, like ABSOLUTE GIBBERISH. At some point your brain is probably going to say 'fix this' and start writing sense.

Find an accountability partner.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:53 PM on August 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

I struggled with this too. A bunch of caffeine and headphones on with an upbeat track on repeat with a resolve to get it done in one sitting and pushing through. Even if it was absolute garbage, I set a goal for a specific date and time and I do not quit until I am done. I got all my notes and sources and just start typing. In the Before time I did this at the library or a coffee shop. After I get a rough draft meeting all the requirements, then I go back and re-read what I had and then edit.

This is essential because staring at a blank screen is what paralyzes me and is what the wall of writer's block is supported by. This may not work for you but that is the only thing that got me writing. It is not going to be perfect the moment your fingertips touch the keys. You got to start somewhere.

Worst case scenario, you get an IF and have to take the class again. However, don't wait too long because they eventually have to submit grades so do not assume you have a full semester or two to turn it in so just get it over with if you can.
posted by VyanSelei at 1:56 PM on August 6, 2020

I'm currently writing my dissertation while working full-time, so I feel your pain. Covid has made it insanely hard to concentrate for me as well, and my academia friends have also said the same - it's not just you.

Some things I've done to get through it:
1) Just like demiurge, I spent a bunch of time increasingly detailing outlines. Be really, really honest with yourself too - you've done the research, but are you _sure_ it's enough? Do you have a really clear perspective that you're trying to argue? Sometimes when I'm having trouble writing, I come to the realization that I don't have anything to say - and take that as a sign that I have some more work to do on the paper topic/research side of things. Building a robust outline really helps with this.
2) I took some time off work specifically for my dissertation writing and treated it like my job (same hours, etc). This may not be feasible for you but just in case.
3) I shrink my font to 10 pt, single-spaced and change it to something that I would never use for the actual paper (but still readable). This keeps me focused on the actual content rather than dwelling on how much I've actually written. If it comes up short once I've converted it, I take a look at areas that could use some fleshing out -- usually though I've found I've written too much and need to edit down.
4) I give myself VERY achievable goals for each day (e.g. finish 3 pages and then I can do whatever I want for the rest of the day; write this single section of my outline). What helps is to give yourself a reasonable deadline and work backward from there -- e.g. you have to write 15-20 pages. Let's give you a deadline of August 31. That gives you 17 weekdays, plus 8 weekend days. If you can write 1 page each weekday and spend an hour or two on the weekends revising/formatting, you'll be good to go.
5) If I'm having a really REALLY hard time staring at my blinking cursor, I write a few paragraphs down by hand to get my brain going.

You can definitely do this! Good luck!
posted by thebots at 1:58 PM on August 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

First, please know you are not alone. I too have had much more challenging times trying to concentrate than normal. This is such a stressful time, so please be as kind to yourself as you can in recognizing that you are doing what you can in the midst of global upheaval.

Personally, I use Scrivener because it helps me to break down the paper into sections and then set my focus on those smaller chunks. It's also nice that it has a sidebar that shows each section and lets you easily reorder. You could approximate this in Google Docs (or Word) by creating section headers and showing the document outline. Click on the headers to go back and forth between the sections.

Okay, you might be asking, how do I know my sections on a paper this long? Personally, if I'm working on something that doesn't have a specific format (e.g. not a research proposal etc.), I'll start with Introduction, Body, and Conclusion sections. Then, I look through my references and start taking some notes, writing about the content in ways that I could easily adapt to be the actual text of the paper given some transitions. As I go, I try to sort each piece into topical areas, and periodically I skim through to find if it'd make more sense to reorder each of these groupings for flow. So, for example, when I look through my first source, I write out 7-10 sentences on individual lines (with citations using Bookends). Then I look through source 2, and see are there things that relate to what I already have or do I need to expand my thinking, and add more sentences where they maybe might be appropriate. After doing this with a few more, I'll start to get more of a feel for how this might be structured and I can start to create those bigger section headers.

Once I have section headers then the magic starts: now you can choose to sit down and focus on one section at a time if you need. As you do this, of course, you do need to keep in mind the larger scope of the paper so you don't completely wander off, so keep one eye on the structure. But as long as that is in the back of you mind, you can almost think of each section as a mini-paper: intro, a few paragraphs, and a conclusion that links to the next section. Is there enough to cover the points or argument that you think is needed? Do you need more research to make this section robust? Does this section support where you'll be going in the next section and down the road?

Then, once you have your sections mostly drafted, read all of those body sections in a row. Does it make sense, and only need tweaks to the transitions? Or does it need a bit of reordering to fit together? Does it need more connection between the pieces? Then, once you have the parts mostly flowing, look at the intro and write about why this matters and set up the reader expectations for the content of the paper (which you already know now!). Then, lastly, write that conclusion and reiterate all of the great points you've made. Read it all again, and add in any other transitions/edits that you need. If you're in Scrivener, compile it into a single paper and let Bookends make you a reference page to clean up. Congrats, you are done!

I'll say that I've discovered that my method is not the same way as others necessarily write--I think I tend to build my writing organically. Some people are really good at making detailed outlines, and other people (who I cannot understand) are able to write from start to finish in order. But this is the method that works for me.
posted by past unusual at 2:01 PM on August 6, 2020

I just finished grad school; you have my sympathies! I want to echo warriorqueen's "bird by bird" quote/advice. Try not to even look at the page numbers as you go! I would even consider a little post it note or piece of tape over that display in Word. 15 pages sounds like a lot, but under duress I've been able to write (less than fantastic) papers that length in one or two long days, assuming I already had my research done.

It sounds like anxiety over the writing is more your issue than the writing itself. I think for most graduate students, this is rooted in imposter syndrome. Sure, your undergrad degree isn't in the same field, but you were accepted into your program because you belong there! You can totally do this. Progress, not perfection. Aim to get words on the page, no matter the quality, and don't look back until you're done with a section or the entire draft. Editing is easier than generating.

Try outlining; if it works for you, great! If it doesn't, there's also nothing wrong with just writing straight through without one.

And for what it's worth, every college professor I know is being flexible and kind with their grading right now. I pretty much gave all of my undergraduate students an A on their final as long as it was at or close to the page count and I could tell they had put in some effort. I also gave extensions to anyone who asked. Does your institution have a writing center/free writing support? It's a crazy time and everyone knows and wants to be accommodating of that.

Hang in there! You'll fee amazing on the other side.
posted by nancynickerson at 2:47 PM on August 6, 2020

Yes! Even your professors are struggling hardcore right now (waves, cries).

Yes to Pomodoro timers
Yes to thinking of this as 4 short papers put together
Yes to bird by bird
Yes to shitty first drafts
Yes to treating academic writing as just bulked up versions of the same old 5 paragraph essay / lab report
Yes to "don't break the chain" psychology and the good old gold star system
Yes to pre-drawing bubbles for an hour of writing and coloring them in (3 per day is amazingly good).
Yes to anxiety management
Yes to keeping another word file open where you braindump intrusive thoughts that come up while you are writing
Yes to timed freewrites
Yes to dictation
Yes to explaining it to a friend for a few minutes before going back in there
Yes to writing sections longhand
Yes to going for walk
Yes to building in time for those other things which are meaningful than probably pointless academic writing
Yes to outlining
Yes to copy and pasting your examples / data /sources first and writing around that
Yes to turning off your internet
Yes to writing in a less stressful "draft font"
Yes to moving from place to place to place inside your space for a fresh perspective, setting up on the floor, standing at your dresser, all of it.

Yes, you are absolutely right, writing is impossible right now. But you can do it!!
posted by athirstforsalt at 2:53 PM on August 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Here's One Weird Trick that worked for me in my school days. On a weekend or otherwise free day, I would get up reeeaaaaally early in the morning, set up with snacks in a comfortable non-bedroom spot, and knock out a draft. I would try to keep going until late morning, and then I got to take a nap and take the rest of the day off. I'm not a morning person so this was a little bit painful, but it was a good way to generate lots of words that could be edited later without feeling like I'd wasted a day.
posted by doift at 6:07 PM on August 6, 2020

I basically spent the last semester of grad school in counseling because of stress and anxiety largely related to my Masters Paper. I feel you.

There are some really good tips above but the biggest things that helped me were

1. Realizing I was scared of “what if” and failure so each time I attempted to write I just felt paralyzed (much like the bird by bird story). Sometimes when I was feeling this way it was just enough to reopen the document and read what was already there. It helped me realize I already knew things.

2. Get a sympathetic friend (hell, if you can do it on a weekend, I’ll do this for you) and have them print out a copy of your outline/whatever you have down already double spaced with room to write. Then, talk through the paper with them. They can make notes or jot down sentences as you go. As you talk through it you’ll realize you know more than you thought you did and it will also make apparent any structural changes or gaps. Having it on papers keeps you from doing too much right in the moment and trying to fix it all at once. It’s also easier to make notes about moving things around.

Good luck and remember that even if you failed this class (or even grad school! you have many people in your life who would still love you and care about you)
posted by raccoon409 at 7:33 PM on August 6, 2020

When outlining wasn’t working, I had good success with the old trick of writing each fact I had from research or point I wanted to make on index cards and arranging them all on the floor. Gets you away from the computer, reminds you how much you know, helps you see gaps and where your transitions are rough.

I also sometimes bribe myself to write with a big bag of chips that I eat mindlessly while I work, it’s not a healthy strategy to use all the time but it keeps me sitting at my desk and gets me unstuck.
posted by momus_window at 8:51 PM on August 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sometimes the introduction and the conclusion are the hardest parts to write, and it's easier to get into them once you've finished the rest of the paper.

What I often do is pull out just one thread of the body of the paper - what's one point I want to make? What's one idea I want to make sure I cover? - and just write, informally, longhand, without looking up references, approximately what I want to write. (I have a very good memory for where I get information from, but if plagiarism is a potential worry, you can footnote very informally - "That thing in Jane Jacobs about eyes on the street" rather than spending a lot of time looking up a specific page number.)

I might develop two or three or four of these longhand informal rough-draft-bits, and then start looking for how I'm going to connect these bits, how I'm going to do transitions, which points I want to pull together in the introduction and conclusion, and then I feel like I have a pretty good foundation for a final draft.
posted by Jeanne at 6:48 AM on August 7, 2020

Thank you so much, everyone! I marked them all as best answers because I think all of these things will be helpful...and just having people answer the question has given me some motivation. I really appreciate it.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 2:50 PM on August 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

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