Like many other tutors, what has been most useful for me is building myself up to writing. I use a lot of “tricks” to get around my anxiety about writing, and it often takes me several tries to get started. And with the pandemic, there are even more reasons to be distracted. Here are some tricks that have worked for me!
1. Set your environment up for success!
This can mean a lot of things. For me, it means creating an environment that is sufficiently distraction-free. Particularly, it means removing temptations. When I was in grad school, I used a variety of apps that blocked websites and tracked my time (RescueTime, Self-Control, Focus). All of them worked with a version of the Pomodoro technique, where you write for 30-minute stretches, then take a short break, then write again. While they have their drawbacks (I tend to get very invested in keeping up streaks), I found that these apps helped me organize my time. Now it was no longer a day where I could push off writing for an hour here, an hour there. Instead, my thinking went, I could always work for 30 minutes.
These apps also had the benefit of blocking my access to distracting websites, like Twitter or Facebook. While I was writing, I would also put my phone away in my bag, and turn off my messenger app on my computer.
2. Set yourself up for success!
The one thing that got me through my big writing projects, whether it was my dissertation, an article, a paper for class, or a lecture, was breaking down the project. I keep a number of “to do” lists: one for my academic work, one for my teaching, and one for my theatre work. When I started using them, I put a main goal at the very top “Finish Chapter 2”, and it would just stay there, unchecked, and glaring at me. It wouldn’t get checked off, and I would feel worse and worse about it (and subsequently, myself). Instead of keeping the really large goal at the top of the list, I would break the task down into steps, that I would work on every single day. They could be large (like write 750 words on the history of props) or small (check a citation), but they would help me get to my goal.
3. Set your argument up for success!
If you are writing an English paper, make sure you have laid the proper groundwork before you start. Say you are writing a paper about props in Zoot Suit! While you could return to the play every time you needed a quote and painstakingly flip through each chapter searching for the perfect piece of evidence, that would take a lot of time! Instead, before you even sit down to write, make sure you’ve marshaled all your arguments. For me, that means when I read something I know I’m going to write about, I annotate the text. I underline and star key phrases, but I also flag quotes (either through a bookmark, or dog-earing the page), so I can find it later. Then, before I write, I take notes on the text. I copy quotes into a separate document, write what I notice about them (“huh, it’s interesting this phrase uses repetition,” or, “what impact does this metaphor have here?”). This “pre-writing”allows me to start thinking about how to best phrase my ideas, without the pressure of committing to them.
4. Set your writing up for success!
No matter who you are, or how experienced a writer you are, starting to write is incredibly daunting. I know that my process used to involve at least a day of stopping and starting, and feeling down on my abilities. However, it doesn’t have to be that way! As other tutors have mentioned, it is a great idea to start off your writing project with some low-stakes writing. That means that my first draft is a focused free write, where I don’t think about what I’m writing, or how I’m writing it, I just try to get all my thoughts out, so I have a base from which to work. This draft is what I call my “garbage draft,” and it is usually written in casual language, with placeholders where I can’t immediately think of connections.
Another trick I use? Don’t write in Word or Google Docs. The formal nature of those programs is often quite intimidating. Instead, I start writing in my ‘Notes’ app, or an email draft. That way, I get out all of my ideas without the dreaded blinking cursor. Then, after I get a base for my paper, I revise, revise, revise. I take my ideas and expand on them, making them and my wording more complex.
5. Set your process up for success!
The most important advice I have? Give yourself enough time! If possible, make sure you have at least a day between when you finish a draft of your paper, and when it is due. When you finish a draft, or a section, or a Pomodoro, get up and go for a walk. Don’t look at Twitter, don’t watch a show on Netflix (even if it is only 24 minutes). Stop looking at a screen. Give your brain a break, so when you come back to edit—or to keep writing—it is fresh.
Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.
We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished academic essays. Many of our students come to us looking for help with basic composition or reading comprehension, but our expert tutors have coached our clients through everything from business English to doctoral dissertations. Whether you need to learn how to tell a participle from a pronoun, or need help making sense of Shakespeare, we can design a syllabus to suit your specific goal.
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