The Barker Underground
writing advice from the Harvard College Writing Center tutors
The Nuclear Option: How to Write a Paper the Night Before It’s Due
by Sam Berman-Cooper
We’ve all been in this situation. 7pm. Paper due tomorrow at noon. No draft. No outline. No time machine. What do you do, what do you do?
Have no fear! Here are a few Quick Tips you can follow to avert disaster.
1. Ask yourself: Have I done the reading? If your answer is “no” go on to step 2. If you answer is “yes,” ask yourself “what are 4 or 5 interesting facts about the reading? If you cannot produce said facts, you answered incorrectly. You may have “done” the reading, but in practice, you may as well have not. Go on to step 2. If you are confident in your mastery of the necessary reading, ask yourself “do I have a good idea to write about?” If your answer is “no,” go to step 3. If your answer is “yes,” go on to step 4.
2. Accept the fact that you are not going to hand in your paper on time. Accept that this is not the end of the world. Email your TF (or whoever is grading your paper) and tell him/her that your paper will be late and you have no valid excuse. Without notification, he/she will be confused as to where your paper is, and probably more irritated than if you had been upfront about it. Go on to step 3.
3. Go over your readings with a pen or a highlighter. Figuring out an idea to write about should be your first priority as you read. Take your time and think carefully about the authors’ arguments. There is no such thing as a good paper without a good idea. Once you’ve decided what you want to argue, go on to step 4.
4. To quote the immortal Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic. You’ve done the readings and you have an idea. It may be that you can still get a good grade. Even if you can’t, just think how many assignments you are going to do here in four years. One average grade won’t kill you (or your chances of making mad bank).
5. DO NOT plagiarize. Let me repeat that. DO NOT even consider plagiarizing. You will get caught. You will get Ad-Boarded. It will go on your record. You will regret it.
6. Figure out exactly how much time you have between NOW and the time your paper is due. Do not try to work straight through. You will get less and less efficient (and worse and worse at writing) if you refuse to take breaks.
7. Figure out what kind of essay you are writing (lens essay, research paper, etc.) and Check THE WRITING CENTER BLOG for templates. For example, check out Emily’s post for tips on how to write a good lens essay.
8. Quickly create a schedule to accommodate your personal writing process. I like to make very detailed outlines and spend less time drafting and revising. If I have 12 hours to do a close-reading paper (critical analysis of one source or one author), my schedule might look like this:
a. Midnight-1:00am: Use a Writing Center Blog Post to help create a very loose outline – just a vague thesis, ideas for topic sentences, 3- 5 body paragraphs, and possibly a conclusion.
b. 1:00-2:30am: Close-read/re-read relevant parts of the text to find quotes/evidence and flesh out each body paragraph. Add each quote (with its page number/source) to the outline.
c. 2:30-3:00am: Take a break. Get some food, maybe do some jumping jacks. In the short term, 15-20 minutes of exercise is proven to be more effective for waking you up than a 15-20 minute powernap.
d. 3:00-3:45am: Write a thesis statement and introduction. This is the most important part of your essay, so take your time.
e. 3:45-7:00am: SLEEP. I cannot stress this part enough. You will have a much clearer mind and work much better and much faster if you get some sleep cycles in.
Check out this page on typical sleep cycles to help you plan your nap. Deep Sleep and REM sleep are particularly important for processing information and feeling alert and energetic when you wake up. If you set your alarm to go off during DEEP SLEEP (stages 3+4) you will probably feel groggy (and not much better at writing) when you wake up. Try to get a least one full cycle (3 hours) and time your naps to not wake up during periods of Deep Sleep.
f. 7:00-7:30am: Shower/eat. Showering will help you wake up, plus it will give you time to think about what you want to say. Don’t go without food. Your mind is a machine, and it needs fuel!
g. 7:30-10:00am: Write your body paragraphs. Follow your outline as closely as possible. This is GO TIME, when the heart of your essay comes to life. You should feel a little pressure at this point, but that’s a good thing – it will make you work faster. As long as your outline includes all the evidence you need, the real work is done. Now you’re just translating bullet points into sentences.
h. 10:00-10:15am: Another break. Stop thinking for a little while. You will feel better.
i. 10:15-11:00am: Write a conclusion and start re-reading/revising. Keep your eyes out for sentences that seem unclear, points that need a little more evidence, spelling and grammar; any problem that can be solved with a quick fix.
j. 11:00-Noon: Final revision. Double-check all your sources and look for carelessly placed words and grammatical errors. Save, print, staple. You have successfully completed an essay in 12 hours. After class, pass out for as long as possible!
How to Write a Paper in One Night
If you are reading this article, chances are, you are in trouble. Perhaps, you have been procrastinating until the very last minute, or were buried deep under other work, or weren’t able to dedicate your time fully to your writing for some other purpose. The outcome is the same – you are supposed to hand your research paper in tomorrow, and you are still at square one.
You have just one night to begin and complete the essay, so what are you going to do? One thing is for sure – you are not getting any sleep tonight. As for all the rest, we are going to cover it in this article.
How to Write a Research Paper in One Night
If you have an urgent assignment due the tomorrow morning, you will have to work for the whole night. When writing a paper in one night, you will be pressed not just by the lack of time, but by exhaustion and sleepiness as well. All this means that you should pay extra attention not just to the actual writing techniques, but to how you organize the very writing process as well.
- Stock up on healthy snacks for studying. You are going to need some energy to keep you going through the night. Being distracted by hunger isn’t very conducive for the efficient work. At the same time, it isn’t the best idea to take long breaks to have a full-fledged meal, so snacks are the way to go. Nuts are especially recommended – they give plenty of energy without causing a sugar rush that may leave you exhausted after it passes;
- Use the power of caffeine. Whether you like coffee and energy drinks, you need them to keep you awake and aware throughout the night. So get a lot of it. Just make sure to be careful drinking concentrated energy drinks and don’t mix them with prescription drugs;
- Take breaks. It may seem counterintuitive when you need to get a job done as fast as possible, but experience shows us that occasional short breaks more than compensate for the time you ‘lose’ on them. The longer you work, the less efficiently your brain functions. There comes a time when you simply stare at the screen, unable to think about another word to type. Short breaks (preferably combined with bouts of physical exercise) won’t restore your brain to full capacity, but they will still recharge you a little bit and make it easier to go on;
- Keep yourself hydrated. Water is essential for proper functioning of the brain and your energy levels, and caffeinated drinks cannot serve as a replacement. So, get a bottle of water and keep it close at hand;
- Make sure you don’t get distracted. Writing at night has its benefits, as most people are asleep, and there are fewer things in your immediate vicinity to call for your attention. Nevertheless, you should take care to eliminate all the potential distractions, especially those that you know are attractive for you. Turn off your smartphone, disable notifications in social media and email. Even better, use some blocking software like RescueTime to prevent yourself from visiting your favorite websites – you are going to work using the Internet, so these are especially dangerous for your concentration.
5 Preparation Tips to Follow at Night
You have to submit your paper in the morning. This means that you have a very limited amount of time to complete your job. Each minute has to be used to the fullest. This means that some preparation is in order – if you just plunge into writing, at the very best, your paper will be unreadable. At worst, you won’t be able to finish it on time at all.
Brace yourself for the worst. If you’ve done absolutely no reading on the subject matter of your paper, consider accepting the fact that you won’t be able to hand the paper in tomorrow. Contact your instructor and inform them that your paper will be late. In many ways, it is preferable to simply not handing it in because you weren’t able to complete the job on time. Another alternative is to submit a poorly written paper because it is very likely to be the only thing you can churn out in just 1 night. It is not the end of the world, nor it is an easy way out – it is just a way of cutting your losses when you still have time to do it with dignity;
6 Writing Tips to Prepare a Well-Written Paper
Writing an urgent paper isn’t much different from writing when you have all the time in the world – you just have to work fast and don’t have the right to make any mistakes. This means that you should carefully divide your work into stages and avoid dispersing your attention. Do one thing at a time, never getting distracted either by things outside your job or by other stages.
#1. Don’t even consider plagiarizing. We live in times when even middle school English teachers use plagiarism checkers when looking through the works of their students. In most cases, plagiarism is immediately obvious even without specialized software, but even if it isn’t, any checker will immediately spot your attempt at copy/paste. You will get caught and some consequences of plagiarism are possible. At the very best, it will get on your record. At worst, you will be expelled;
#2. Think about a thesis statement. This is a key to any successful paper. Without a clear, concise and definite thesis statement, an assignment risks turning out to be weak, unfocused, and vague. Think about the main argument you make in your paper and try to formulate it in a single sentence. If you have problems doing this, it means that you haven’t fully understood what is required of you. Therefore, you have to spend some time clarifying your point. After you manage to create a thesis statement, write it down on a separate sheet of paper. Keep it in front of you at all times so that you don’t stray away from your primary topic;
#3. Do a short brainstorming session. Write down any ideas that can help you support your argument. This is a good time to start marking down the quotes and references you are going to make. Write down everything that comes into your head – don’t try to separate good ideas from bad ones at this point, you don’t have to use everything you come up with right now;
#4. Prepare an outline, i.e., a detailed plan for your paper. It should include, in short form, everything you intend to write in every part of your essay: how you introduce the topic, your thesis statement, points to be mentioned in each paragraph along with the accompanying supporting evidence, how you want to sum things up in the conclusion, and so on. A well-written outline means that when it comes to writing per se, you will simply have to elaborate on each point to get a full-fledged paper;
#5. Be concise. Whether you have a word count to fill in or not, padding your text won’t help you. If you simply have to drive your point home, you don’t have time for long-winded phrases. If you have to achieve a certain word count, your instructor will immediately spot your attempts at bloating your paper with filler, which can lead to a worse grade than you can receive if you write your college assignment properly. Short and simple sentences aren’t a sign of low intelligence – if you successfully express your thoughts, it is the sign of thinking that cuts to the chase and eliminates unnecessary details;
#6. Proofread. Don’t treat proofreading as something that you will do if you have some time and energy left after you’ve finished with the “real work”. Proofreading is just as a real work as gathering sources and writing, especially if you write in such a hurry. When you have a few hours to complete a paper, you are bound to make mistakes that can seriously decrease your chances of getting a good grade. Ideally, you should let your paper lie a little bit before you start proofreading it. Obviously, this is not the situation when it is possible, so use whatever time is left to do it. Check your formatting for compliance with college guidelines and your assigned formatting style. Check your style – if you find colloquialisms, jargon or slang, eliminate it. Avoid passive voice – in most cases, it makes speech lifeless and hard to read.
We hope these tips will help you deal with your situation right now and emerge from this crisis with flying colors. And perhaps, the memory of this experience will be enough to prevent you from procrastinating the next time you have to write an important assignment!
Author: Patricia Jenkins
Patricia Jenkins is the senior writing advisor at FastEssay blog for international students that seek quick paper assistance. In her blog, Patricia shares useful tips on productivity, writing, research, references. Sometimes Patricia goes off topic by sharing her personal experience peppered with lively humor and healthy irony. View all posts by Patricia Jenkins
A student protester’s guide to last-minute essay writing
I f those trips down to the demos in Westminster have left you behind schedule for your end-of-term assignment, you may well be forced to write in the small hours this week. Here’s how to pull it off safely and successfully.
12am: Get as far away from your bed as possible
Before you begin, avoid warmth and soft furnishings. Propped up on pillows in the glow of a laptop may feel like savvy ergonomics, but your keyboard will start to look pillow-like by midnight, and 418 pages of the word “gf64444444444444444444” will detract from the force of your argument. You could try the kitchen. Or Krakow. But your industrially lit 24-hour campus library should do the trick.
12:25am: Take a catnap
Thomas Edison used to catnap through the night with a steel ball in his hand. As he relaxed and the ball dropped, he would wake up, usually with fresh ideas. “Caffeine and a short nap make a very effective combination,” says Jim Horne, director of the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre. “Have the coffee first. This takes about 20 minutes to work, so take a 15-minute nap. Use an alarm to wake up and avoid deep sleep kicking in. Do this twice throughout the night.”
12.56am: Reduce your internet options
Temporarily block Twitter, Spotify, Group Hug, YouTube, 4od and anything else that distracts you. Constantly updating your word count on Facebook may feel like fun, but to everyone else you’ll look like you’re constantly updating your word count on Facebook.
1-3am: Now write your essay. No, really
You’ve widened your margins, subtly enlarged your font and filled your bibliography with references of such profound obscurity that no one will notice you’re missing 3,000 words. It’s time to brainstorm, outline, carve words, followed by more words, into that milk-white oblivion that taunts you. Speed-read articles. Key-word Google Books. Remember texts you love and draw comparisons. Reword. Expound. Invent. Neologise. Get excited. Find a problem you can relish and keep writing. While others flit from point to point, your impassioned and meticulous analysis of a single contention is music to a marker’s eyes.
3-5am: Get lost in your analysis, your characters, your world Write like you’re trying to convince the most stubborn grammarian about truth, or heartless alien invaders about love. Don’t overload with examples – be creative with the ones you have. Detail will save your life, but don’t waste time perfecting sentences – get the bulk down first and clean up later. “The progress of any writer,” said Ted Hughes, “is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system.” Outwit your own inner police system. Expect progress. Ted says so.
5:01am: Don’t cheat
It’s about now that websites such as easyessay.co.uk will start to look tempting. And you may sleep easier knowing that a dubiously accredited Italian yoga instructor is writing about Joyce instead of you. But the guilt will keep you up between now and results day. And you’ll toss and turn the night before graduation, job interviews, promotions, dinner parties, children’s birthdays, family funerals . . . you get the idea.
5.17am: Don’t die
Sounds obvious, but dying at your computer is definitely trending. And however uncool it may seem to “pass on” during a five-day stint at World of Warcraft, it will be much more embarrassing to die explaining perspectivism to no one in particular. So be careful. Stay hydrated. Blink occasionally. And keep writing.
5.45am: Eat something simple
“There are no foods that are particularly good at promoting alertness,” says Horne. “But avoid heavy and fatty meals in the small hours. Avoid very sugary drinks that don’t contain caffeine, too. Sugar is not very effective in combating sleepiness.” Fun fact: an apple provides you with more energy than a cup of coffee. Now stick the kettle on.
5.46am: Delight in being a piece of living research
If you happen to be “fatigue resistant” you should now be enjoying the enhanced concentration, creative upwelling and euphoric oneness that sleep deprivation can bring. If not, try talking yourself into it. “Conversation keeps you awake,” says Horne. “So talk to a friend or even to yourself – no one will hear you.”
6am: Console yourself with lists of writers who stuck it out
Robert Frost was acquainted with the night. Dumas, Kafka, Dickens, Coleridge, Sartre, Poe and Breton night-walked and trance-wrote their way to literary distinction. John and Paul wrote A Hard Day’s Night in the small hours. Herman the Recluse, atoning for broken monastic vows, is said to have written the Codex Gigas on 320 sheets of calfskin during a single night in 1229. True, he’d sold his soul to the Devil, but you’re missing out on a live Twitter feed, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
7am: Remember – art is never finished, only abandoned
Once you accept there’s no more you can do, print it off and get to the submissions office quick. Horne: “You’re not fit to drive if you’ve had less than five hours sleep, so don’t risk it. Grab some exercise.” Pop it in with the breeziness that comes from being top of your marker’s pile. Back home, unblock Facebook and start buffering The Inbetweeners. And then sleep. Get as near to your bed as you can. Euphoric oneness doesn’t come close.