Ground No.1 “I can’t function in a messy environment. I can’t possibly write this paper until I have cleaned my apartment.” But there are no conditions that are necessary in order for you to write, except two: 1) You must have a writing implement (e.g., a keyboard or a pen) and 2) you must have someplace for writing to go, such as into a computer or onto a piece of paper. If, when faced with a writing project, you start piling up prerequisites for all the things you must do before you can possibly start writing, consider whether you might in fact be making excuses—in other words, procrastinating.
Ground No.2 “I know it’s time for me to start writing, but I just haven’t done enough research yet. I’ll spend one more night at the library, and then I’ll start writing my paper.” But truth be told, you will never collect all the information you possibly could for your paper. Better to write a tightly-crafted argument with the information you have NOW, AT THIS VERY MOMENT, than to keep doing research and risk throwing your paper together at the last minute.
Ground No.3 “I do my best work under pressure.” There are lots of other ways to create pressure for yourself, besides waiting until the night before the paper is due to start writing it. You can set a time limit for yourself—for example, “I will write this paragraph in half an hour”—or you can pretend that the paper is a timed essay exam. If you do this a week or two before the paper is due, you’ll have a draft in plenty of time to revise and edit it.
Ground No.4 “In order to work on my paper, I must have six uninterrupted hours.” You can and should work on a paper in one hour blocks (or shorter). This will help you break the writing task down into smaller pieces, thereby making it seem more manageable. If you know that you can work on one part of the paper for one hour, then it won’t seem so daunting, and you will be less likely to procrastinate. Some writers find, however, that they do need longer blocks of time in order to really produce anything. Therefore, like all of the strategies outlined here, if this one doesn’t work for you, throw it out and try something else. You might still find, however, that you are more productive when you plan to write “all morning” rather than “all day.”
Ground No.5 “What I write has to be perfect, ” AND/OR “I can’t write anything until I have a perfect thesis statement/intro.” A first draft (or a second, or a third, or even—the final product) does not have to be perfect. When we write an early draft, we need to turn off our internal critic and just get some words down on the page. The great thing about starting early on a writing project is that it leaves us plenty of time for revision, editing, and proofreading; so, we can set ourselves free to just let our writing flow, without worrying about sentence-level concerns such as grammar, punctuation, and style. You’ll find some other thoughts on editing in our handouts on proofreading and revision.
You can improve yourself by following the methods given below:
1. Break it down
The day you get the paper assignment (ideally), or shortly thereafter, break the writing assignment up into the smallest possible chunks. By doing this, the paper never has a chance to take on gargantuan proportions in your mind. You can say to yourself, “Right now, I’m going to write the introduction. That’s all, just the introduction!” And you may be more likely to sit down and do that, than you will to sit down and “write the paper.”
2. Get a new attitude
We shoot ourselves in the foot, to begin with, by telling ourselves how horrible a particular writing assignment is. Changing our attitude toward the task, when possible, may go a long way toward keeping us from procrastinating. Tell yourself that the task isn’t so bad or difficult, that you either know how to do it, or that you can learn how while you’re doing it. You may find, too, that if you start early on a particular assignment, your attitude never has a chance to get very negative in the first place! Simply starting to write can often help us feel more positive about writing.
3. Ask for help.
• Get an anti-procrastination coach. If you are really determined not to procrastinate, then get help from the supportive people in your life. Tell someone about your writing goal and timeline, and ask them to help you determine whether or not your plan is realistic. Once or twice a week, email with a friend, relative, or mentor, in order to report (admit?) on your progress, and declare your promise for the next week (or few days). If, despite your very good intentions, you start procrastinating again, do not think, “All is lost!” Instead, talk to someone about it. They may be able to help you put your slip into perspective and get back on track.
• Get a buddy. See if you can find a friend to work alongside you. They don’t have to be writing a paper; in fact, they can be playing Solitaire, for all you care. What matters is that you arrange to meet them at the library (or wherever you have decided to write) at a particular time and stay there for a specific period of time, thus creating accountability.
• Get help with your writing. If you are procrastinating because you think you are a weak writer, then ask someone (a Writing Center tutor, a current or former professor or teaching assistant, a friend) to help you improve.
• Form a writing group. A writing group is a great way for undergraduate and more advanced writers alike to create accountability, get feedback, and simply get reminded that you are not alone in the struggle to produce and to improve your writing. See our writing group packet at for more information on how to form and sustain a writing group. Dissertation writers may benefit not only from joining a writing group but also from reading our handout on the dissertation. This handout was written by a former Writing Center staff member who eventually completed her dissertation.
4. Get unblocked.
Sometimes, we procrastinate because we feel stuck on a particular essay or section of an essay. If this happens, you have several options:
• Turn off the screen. Type with a dark screen, so you can’t see what you’ve written, decide you don’t like it, and delete it immediately. Sometimes procrastination stems from insecurity about what to say, or whether w
e have anything to say. The important thing, in that case, is to get started and KEEP GOING. Turning off the screen may help lessen your fear and turn off your internal critic. When you turn it back on (or print out what you’ve written), you may find that you do have something to say, after all.
• Write about writing. Take 15 minutes and write a letter to yourself about why you don’t want to write this. This lets you vent your frustrations and anxieties. Then, Take 15 minutes and write about what you could do to get unstuck. You can also try writing about what you’re going to write, making an initial assessment of the assignment. You won’t have the pressure of writing an actually draft, but you will be able to get something down on paper.
• Write the easiest part first. You don’t have to start at the beginning. Whatever section you can do, do it! If you think that’s wimpy and you would rather do the hardest part first so that you can get it out of the way, that’s fine—whatever works for you. If you start writing and you get stuck, write about why you’re stuck.
• Talk it out. Try tape-recording yourself speaking the ideas you want to include in the paper, and then transcribe the tape.
We may discuss some more options in our next posts. In the meanwhile, please don’t put off your plans very frequently.