Strategies for Planning Writing Assignments
If you fear or loathe writing assignments, this article will help you by providing strategies for effectively tackling a typical college writing assignment.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
For many students, writing is the most difficult part of attaining academic success. Some have little difficulty with tests and other assignments but suffer major angst and fear over writing.
Student writing traumas lead to several typical situations: There's the student who knows for weeks that a paper is due but finds the idea of writing it so agonizing that procrastination sets in. And the student who lacks motivation to write after being assigned a boring topic by an instructor. And the student who has conducted so much research that he or she doesn't know where to begin and how to organize the paper. Lastly, there's the student who finally overcomes procrastination and writes the assigned paper but has put it off so long that it is literally hot off the printer when handed to the teacher -- and certainly not edited or proofed. Any of these sound a bit too familiar to you?
This article will help you avoid these situations by leading you through some strategies for effectively tackling a typical writing assignment.
You can fend off a significant amount of the panic that often accompanies a writing assignment by developing a strategy for your paper and then preparing an outline (see our article, The Power of Outlining When Writing College Papers).
Developing a strategy is the simplest way of organizing a writing assignment.
As you develop a strategy for your paper, you engage in the mental process of picturing the finished product in your head. Conjuring a mental image of your paper will reassure you; your paper exists -- all you have to do is transfer that mental image to words on paper. You don't have to write anything down in the strategy-development process, but you certainly can do so if it helps you.
Developing a writing strategy for a paper works best in a conducive environment, in which you have a clear mind and a quiet, comfortable situation to nurture the planning process. Don't panic if nothing jumps into your head immediately; if you relax, ideas should start to gel in your mind.
Some of the strategic questions you may want to think about as your paper takes shape in your mind include:
How long should it be? This question may already be answered by your instructor's assignment, but you'll want to think about whether it will be difficult to write as much as assigned or to confine yourself to the assigned length. If you anticipate problems with length, ask your instructor's policy on too-short and too-long papers.
What special components will it need? Will you cite outside sources in your paper, hence requiring some form of bibliography? Will you want to prepare any charts, tables, graphs, or illustrations? How long will they take?
What will the paper's title be? If you can conceptualize a title, you'll have an excellent starting point for writing the paper. (Bear in mind that some instructors prefer you not title your papers; if that's the case, title it in your head even though it won't have a title on paper.) Another way to jump-start the strategy process is to imagine your paper is a newspaper story. What should its headline be?
How will you begin the paper? How will you state your thesis?
In what order will you express your supporting points? What organizational scheme will best bolster your thesis?
What does your audience -- generally your instructor -- expect? What is he or she looking for? Are the professor's instructions for the assignment clear?
Include your professor in your strategy process. Most instructors will be only too happy to make research suggestions, check your bibliography, go over your outline, and even look over your rough draft. "When in doubt, talk with the professor," advises recent grad Stephanie G. "If I'm really struggling with something, I'll talk with the professor to see if I'm on the right track. Usually the professors will ask you questions to get you thinking and head you in the right direction."
Discussing your paper with the instructor shows him or her that you care about doing a good job. Even if your paper ends up being less than he or she hoped for, chances are the instructor will give you at least some benefit of the doubt when it comes to grading simply because he or she knows you tried hard to write a successful paper. Don't, however, wait until just a few days before the due date to approach your professor about the paper for the first time. The prof will be much less inclined to lend a hand if you approach him or her at the 11th hour having done little or nothing!
One aspect of developing a writing strategy is breaking the writing assignment into smaller chunks and devising a timetable.
Let's say your semester begins September 1, and you receive a syllabus detailing an assignment for a major research paper, due December 1. Here's how you might set up your timetable:
|Sept. 1||Receive assignment|
|Sept 1 to Sept. 15||Develop and finalize topic|
|Sept. 15 to Oct. 15||Conduct research|
|Oct. 15 to Oct. 30||Do preliminary bibliography|
|Oct. 30 to Nov. 5||Do outline|
|Nov. 5 to Nov. 15||First draft|
|Nov. 15 to Dec. 1||Edit, revise, proofread and polish final draft; finalize bibliography|
Final Thoughts on Developing Plans for Writing Papers
Strategizing your writing assignments can save you considerable stress as due dates arise. It really doesn't take a lot of effort to develop your plan, but planning will save you significant effort later.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.