How long should writing a paper take, on average?
April 19, 2007 9:20 PM   Subscribe

What's a reasonable amount of time for me to schedule for a written university assignment, including library research, online journal search, draft and actual writing, to get a better than pass mark?

I'm a full-time university mature-age student, but I'm studying from a distance, so my access to lecturers and other students is minimal. The last two semesters I achieved a perfect GPA, but I've since doubled my study load and I'm finding my current methods aren't working so well for me. So what I want to know is including research time, how long would writing a 1500 word essay take you? Is there a particular way that you structure your time, like, if you don't have all the resources you want after looking for X time, too bad?

Study guides I've read seem to indicate that the percentage the assignment is worth of your final mark gives you an estimated time to commence (ie 40% start 4 weeks before it's due, 10% write it in the week it's due), but they don't indicate how much time per week to spend on it.

I think I'm ready to not aim for that perfect GPA anymore, so you can factor that into what's a reasonable amount of time, if you like.

At this point of my current assignment, I"m only at 750 words, and I've already invested 14 hours.
posted by b33j to Education (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
A six page paper? Probably about 20 hours for a top quality job, or six hours for a passing job, all depending upon the subject.
posted by caddis at 9:36 PM on April 19, 2007

i think it's more a matter of understanding your subject than time spent crafting the paper, assuming you have basic composition skills.

i'm a fast writer, so i may not be the best person to give advice, but what are you spending all that time on? research? i wouldn't bother sitting down to write until you know what you want to say. do your research, make an outline of your argument, then write it. the research and thinking about the argument ought to be what takes up most of your time.
posted by thinkingwoman at 9:51 PM on April 19, 2007

For me it's difficult to quantify in hours a writing assignment. This is because once I've done the proper amount of research, I'll often just start thinking things through throughout the day while I'm otherwise occupied, writing down particularly good thoughts in a moleskin I carry.

So my advice is to schedule things so that you can start far enough in advance (like 2-3 weeks before you have to write, giving yourself a week to write and rewrite) that by the time you're actually writing, you've had time to give it a great deal of thought. The writing is easier then too, and I think you actually save time while ending up with a deeper, more polished piece.

So it might be 20-25 hours, but for me the important thing is to invest the first 5 hours of discovery and exploration a good deal of time before you write.
posted by visual mechanic at 9:54 PM on April 19, 2007

Response by poster: Great responses already, thanks.

jourman2, I'm embarrassed - I only looked under the study tag, homework is what my kids do. Great link.

thinkingwoman, this current assignment, I spent say two hours at the library collecting materials, 2 hours reading through those materials and making notes, and 10 hours writing and searching for online journal articles to make points that my library materials didn't.

visual mechanic, the earlier I start a topic, the longer I spend on it. It's inefficient, I think.
posted by b33j at 10:04 PM on April 19, 2007

If it's a subject that I am learning as I am writing it, (something I try hard to avoid but can't always do) most of my time is spent reading the sources in order to figure out what to write about. If I assume that I am using 3 books and 2 articles, this kind of essay would probably take me around 20 hours at most.

If it's a subject I am already familiar with, most of my time is spent writing the paper, since I'll only need the sources to support my ideas. If I assume that I am using 2 books and 3 articles, this kind of paper probably takes me about ten hours.

Average gpa for this kind of effort is between 3.75 and 4.0. (as you may have already figured out, I always get someone else to proofread my papers)

Familiarity with the topic you are writing about is the key to reducing the amount of time you have to spend writing a paper.

"...if you don't have all the resources you want after looking for X time..."

X= about 10 minutes. If it takes me longer than that to find resources on a topic, it's time to switch topics. Choosing a topic that has a lot of good sources available for it is another important part of reducing the amount of time it takes to write a paper.

By far the best topics will have 3 levels of sources. The first level being magazine articles that walk you through the topic (like Time or The Economist). The second level being books that are targeted towards non-professional interest in the subject. The third level being professional publications on the topic.
posted by 517 at 10:11 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

A lot depends on the subject area. In liberal arts subjects, where "scholarship" often equates to digging up quotable materials, one key benefit of "research" is often a directly abbreviated writing load. I've frequently gotten an "A" on papers where 40 to 50% of the total word count came as quotations from sources.

In technical subjects, where the goal of a paper is to summarize and present original laboratory research, the writing effort is greater, as you need to spend time organizing and analyzing data, creating figures, doing some layout, and still put in the effort to create a sensible narrative that describes your experimental process, your results, and the conclusions you draw from those results, in terms of your experimental hypothesis.

So the subject matter and acceptable writing methodology has to be taken into account in discussing averages for research and writing time. For a 6 to 7 page single author paper, in an undergraduate liberal arts discipline, to APA style template standards, I'd suggest that 10 hours is sufficient time, in toto, with roughly 6 hours given to research and outlining, 3 hours given to draft, and an hour given to editing and final output production (printing/PDF creation/e-mailing). For an original undergraduate research paper, in the physical sciences, of 6 to 7 page length, with 3 principal figures, to APA style standards, perhaps twice that, or 20 hours.
posted by paulsc at 10:21 PM on April 19, 2007

For me, it really depends on the subject. For a Geography essay entailing the use of about a dozen journal articles, I suppose I would invest about 5-6 hours researching/reading and then another 5-6 writing editing (I would spend more time actually "working" on the assignment, but that's my rough guess when I take away procrastination hours). For a History paper where I've got to use a fair few books and such, I suppose I'd spend 4-5 more hours researching/reading. This nets me about a 70-80% average, I'm not sure how that translates to a GPA.
posted by cholly at 10:38 PM on April 19, 2007

My assignment writing style has changed over the years so that I am also much like the others that have posted here.

I spend most of my time in the beginning doing research and thinking things over. Once you've got the assignment in your head, you can start reading and researching. I guess in this way the research takes me a while, but it's actually all intermingled with my general study anyway, so it's hard to quantify (after all, if I'm reading module 3, hopefully module 3 is somewhat related to the assessment!).

On the writing itself, I can get that done pretty quickly once I have the knowledge in my head. I recently wrote an assignment that took only one afternoon to finish, with a few tweaks the next morning. It's pretty quick if you know what you want to say!
posted by ranglin at 11:42 PM on April 19, 2007

Your own way of studying will work best for you.

I've never once counted the amount of hours I spend on essays, but I'll try to guess for you.

Two or so weeks before it's due, I'll wander into the library once or twice and do wide searches for anything that will possibly relate to my topic. I'll find those books, look in the index, have a quick flick through the book to see if it's useful, then add it to my stack without reading it. I'll take home 5 or 6 books. This takes 30 minutes to an hour.

Over the next two weeks until it's due, I'll browse through the books when I have free time, going straight to the pages referenced in the index. I'll skim read the pages for any reference to what I'm writing on, and if there's something substantial there I'll write it down (and write down the name of the book as well!). For ten or so books, this would usually take me an hour or so, perhaps longer if they all have extensive information.

I'll type up all those quotes and their references, another half hour or so.

Everything I've read, and what I hope to write, will idly sit in my head while this is happening, and without dedicating any serious time to it, by the time the paper's due I'll have a good idea of what I'm going to write about.

The night it's due, I'll waste time and procrastinate, eat dinner, then start at 8ish. I'll sit at the computer, distract myself, sit back down, check email, eat an apple, etc, finally write an introduction, and usually by 2am or so I've finished writing it out.

So I guess I put a couple of hours into research, idle nothing time into vaguely planning it in my head, then five or so hours at a computer writing it out.
posted by twirlypen at 12:52 AM on April 20, 2007

All of the above is good advice, but perhaps overstates both the work done and organization by most students. As another "data" point, many (if not most) of my students routinely turn in papers of a similar length written between dinner time and class the following morning, probably really between dinner time and about 2 or 3 am -- most of them aren't pulling all-nighters on such short papers, they just stay up late, and part of that time is spent hanging out with friends or playing video games and all those other procrastination things they do. That's just the writing part -- they have already done the reading, done at least a minimal amount of thinking, and just need to sit down and write the paper. This works because such short papers don't need to be outlined (you can keep a structure of that size in your head, easily) and don't have all that many sources, usually (six pages is just too short to deal effectively with a wide array of sources -- if your topic needs a huge number of sources, it is probably too big a topic to deal effectively with in six pages), and after a couple of semesters most students are basically competent as writers and can produce an acceptable six page essay with no revisions.

What invariably happens at the end of the semester when a longer paper is due is that several of them have a crisis when they realize too late that this system, which works so well for short papers, doesn't work well for longer papers. Longer essays need more careful attention to structure, more careful consideration of sources, and so on -- beyond a certain page length, you can't just keep it all in your head, and you need to use outlines or diagrams or notecards or another organizational tool, and you need to go through a process of writing and revising and writing again. And then the plan of "I'll start it after dinner and just stay up kind of late" doesn't work, and then they show up in tears the next morning, and everyone feels bad.
posted by Forktine at 3:51 AM on April 20, 2007

The best advice I can give you:

1. Outline outline outline. If you know what you're going to write, it will come to you much more easily. No matter how long the paper is, an outline will structure it far better than just writing it, and structure is a very important part of any paper. For a 1500-word paper, and outline will come very quickly. Don't skip this step!

2. Do enough research before you start writing, but just enough. That is, research so you can reasonably write your outline into a more elaborated format, but then just write the paper. Starting is the hardest part, and what you write will always diverge, somewhat, from the outline. So if you've started writing and need a source, no problem. They don't all need to be there before you start.

3. If you're writing and you're on a roll, don't be afraid to mark where you need to put a citation that you don't have, move on with writing, and come back with the citation later.

4. It's always easier to edit something that's already written than to write something that doesn't yet exist. So if you're bogged down with thinking about a paper, stop thinking. Just write. Write quickly. And then edit, reread, edit, reread, revise, reread, edit, etc.

As an aside, you'll become much quicker at gathering and parsing sources as you become more specialized in a given subject. It would take me forever to write a soil geology paper, but give me a prehistoric archaeological subject, and I'll have it to you in hours (exaggerating, but you get the point). At some point, you'll come to know the books, and especially journals, in your field. Also, depending on the field you're studying, journals and library databases (JSTOR, ISI Web of Knowledge, ScienceDirect, PubMed, Eureka!, etc.) should be your FIRST stop, as they very easily and efficiently allow you to find sources linked to ones you've already found. This is less true for some fields than for others. Finally, use Google Scholar. It's not perfect, but it is a great place to start and find good initial sources that can then be tracked deeper into the subject via those databases and by book articles. I don't know about your university library, but mine allows us to access Google Scholar through their proxy that adds links to the university's catalog to the Scholar interface.
posted by The Michael The at 4:36 AM on April 20, 2007

psmealy says: "I've frequently gotten an "A" on papers where 40 to 50% of the total word count came as quotations from sources."

When I mark papers (I'm a TA), if you hand in a paper like this that is really, really well done, you might get a B, but if you hand in a paper like this in which the writing, analysis and synthesis are average, your going to be getting in the C- to B- range. So you might want to check before you employ that strategy.

In planning an essay, I find it useful to remember what an essay is for. At your stage, and essay is for demonstrating to the prof that you a) are developing some critical thinking and writing skills, and b) you have understood the themes of the course.

I tell my students that there are 3 components to an A+ essay: description, analysis, and synthesis. In order to get analysis and synthesis, you need to put the bulk of your of time into the research portion. You also need to have picked a thesis that doesn't recapitulate the thesis of one of your sources.

I find that one problem students encounter in these kinds of papers is not knowing the literature very well. The get lost in a sea of unrelated-seeming sources, and the time starts spiralling out of control (and the panic starts to set in). If this is what's happening for you, try looking back on your course materials and readings. What from the course is most related to your topic? Now, how do each of the pieces you've read so far relate or make you reflect on that part of the course?

By taking a theme from the course as your focus, you'll have a core that you can relate your readings to. It will also guarantee a certain amount of synthesis and analysis in your paper, as well as demonstrate a) and b), and give you a measuring stick against which to judge the usefulness of any reading. Doing this also means you'll have a few key words you can look up in a book's index to make sure that there is, indeed, some reasonable amount of information on your topic (with articles, read the abstract and if it doesn't appeal, then move on).

How much time you spend researching will really depend on how well you know your subject matter. 14 hours isn't that bad if you've spend the time making progress on understanding what you are going to say. But if you still feel like you aren't sure what you are going to say, it's time to sit down, take stock, revise your topic and thesis. What are the connections in what you've read? What kinds of questions about the general subject matter have you answered? Don't be married to a thesis that isn't working out. If you've done lots of research, it probably connects somehow. Figure out the connection, and the writing will be easy(er). Don't be afraid to toss your 750 words if they are making the next 750 difficult (I regularly write up to twice as much as I hand in. Just put the 750 in a different file, and cut and paste if some of those ideas become pertinent again).

You are a good writer, and at this level, that is more than half the battle. So don't worry too much about the writing, and focus on developing and organizing your ideas.
posted by carmen at 6:42 AM on April 20, 2007

I used to be pretty good at writing research papers relatively quickly using a method that sounds a lot like twirlypen and The Michael The.

Oh, and if you're already 750 words long as you feel that the structure of your paper is solid, look for ways to better support your current argument.
posted by desuetude at 9:14 AM on April 20, 2007

I agree with twirlypen's ideas, that's usually how I get things done. I've found the key to writing a good paper in a short amount of time is narrowing down your sources. If you can find 2-3 great, completely relevant books and 1-2 articles that you can directly relate to your paper, it will be a lot easier to write.

I don't usually have a problem with doing the research, which I'll start about 2 weeks before a paper's due, but sitting down to write is tough.
posted by piper4 at 9:32 AM on April 20, 2007

My approch, which admittedly does not work for everybody but got me a 1st and an MSc was this:

General writing/wordy papers (1500 to 3500 words)
Having attended the relevant lectures I would normally pick up the essay/report topic list, pick a topic and pretty much decide then and there what my line of argument would be and what I was going to write (in general terms).

After the lecture you should have an idea of where the topic is going, your reading list should give you an indication of where to start looking for resources and then you're off to a good start.

A good literature review on your topic published in a good journal will point you to all the sources you will ever need to write a short to medium length paper. You would not really be expected to find obscure sources and arguments for a short paper!

I would spend an afternoon in the library looking for and copying/downloading material - reading the abstract, introduction and conclusion of the article/chapter and skimming at most through the rest, highlighting potential quotes.

Then I would put the material to one side and forget about it until the night before the paper was due. After dinner I would sit down, briefly go over my material, organise it in line with my argument and write up in one go, print off a copy and put it to one side and go to bed in the early hours/morning.

After a few hours of sleep I would get up, proof read and rewrite (minimal) and hand in.

Works for up to 3500 words as all nighter. The nap is fairly crucial - you will be astounded about the kind of sentences/paragraphs you come out with at 3.30am!

You can still stagger the research and writing up for up to 5000 words but you cannot write up in one night. A couple of days should be adequate for writing up though.

I used to do short papers up to 1500 in a day 8 hrs from start to finish - research, reading and writing up.

Note of caution

Anything that requires you to compute/experiment/use statistical tools or IT applications you do not use regularly will take a lot longer. Doing the actual work will take a long time as will summarising and presenting the results in a user friendly manner.

Once I had my results (in my case of statistical analysis) these reports can also be written up in a night - but you need to have your results in a format that you can just copy and paste (tables populated and formatted, graphs all done, equations typed) as this takes a disproportionate amount of time to put down on paper.

Projects/long papers
For papers > 5000 words the approach needs to change. For a start you write one chapter at a time - not nescessarily in the order they would appear in the project paper.

Obviously a lot more time is required for research, you have to read in much more depth as you are required to present your arguments in much more depth etc.

You may find that your results are unexpected and have to allow for time to confirm your findings/ find explanations/do additional reading.

And of course writing up takes a lot longer as you write in chapters individually and then have to put these chapters together and make it sound like one piece...

Where people normally go wrong is in spending too much time reading - you should never be in a position where you have spent an hour reading an article/chapter just to find that it is not relevant for your paper!

Read the abstract, intro and conclusion - Stop. Is the paper going to be useful? If it is not useful don't read it. Unless you are in it for knowledge and wish to persue a career in academia your aim is to get the best results possible with least effort.

If it is going to be useful skim the rest highlighting likely potential quotes. If you stumble across parts you don't understand read them in more detail, if you find that you disagree with the author's approach/findings whatever read in great detail because the tutor will likely be familiar with the source and you need to be sure of your facts if you are going to criticise people.

Word processing
Learn to do this properly and to use functions like table of contents, headings etc. - it will make your life a lot easier!
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:36 PM on April 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

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