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Essay Tips: How to Stay Focused and Motivated

As an English major, I almost exclusively write essays. My entire college career has been essays over exams, which is something I enjoy about the subject. However, it can sometimes be difficult to get started when it feels like the deadline is far away. Unlike an exam, the work you’re being graded on takes longer than an hour. It can be easy to lose steam and end with a few pages that don’t live up to the quality of the first. Or the opposite: how do you start when you aren’t quite sure where you’re going to end? I’m not perfect, but a few strategies have gotten me through seven semesters of essays:

Come up with an idea

First, come up with a general idea of what you want to write about. This doesn’t need to be a perfect thesis statement or even an outline with all your points ready to go. That will all come later—the perfect essay outline isn’t going to happen at this step, when you’re just sitting and thinking. 

Start researching

With a basic idea in mind, begin researching sources you think will be helpful. Be sure to keep notes that include page numbers if you’re citing in MLA format! This is when your idea should start becoming an argument. If you aren’t finding sources that support your idea or spark your own analysis, find a new idea ASAP! There’s nothing wrong with starting over, and it’s much easier to do that at this step than when you begin writing. An essay on a topic you don’t like at all or don’t believe in  will not result in your best work.

Just start writing

Actually writing the piece is what is most difficult for me, even though it’s my favorite part of the process. The only advice I can give here is to just take the plunge. If it seems overwhelming, just start writing. Usually things start to make sense and coalesce together after you get into the flow.

Set attainable goals

Since essays may take you the entire day or even multiple days, it’s best to set goals for yourself. Look at how far away the deadline is and make a reasonable estimate of how much time you’ll need to write and revise your essay. I know some people who think of their essays as a class or a series of tests, and set time limits. However, I know that I personally will get distracted or stuck while I’m writing, and often I spend a lot of time doing very little. When you’re planning your time, remember that some hours may be more challenging or bring their own unique struggles. 

That’s why I go with setting daily, attainable goals. Tell yourself to write two pages right after you’ve finished research. Aim to finish five the next day. And most importantly, just because you reach a goal doesn’t mean you should just stop for the day. Breaks are important, and I break frequently; however, when I get into a rhythm, it’s wise to keep going. It’s really easy to lose track of a point you were working on or to lose momentum when you take a break—and often, that means you spend an hour regaining your footing later.  If you feel ideas coming and you like where you’re heading, keep going—you’re doing great!

The key to essays is to start early and work in quick bursts. But above all, choose topics that you love, not what you think a professor will like the most. A good essay is compelling—something you don’t care about usually isn’t. 

Christina is a senior at UPenn studying English. When she isn't reading books, quoting Gatsby, or singing show tunes, wishing she could hit those highs like Patti LuPone, she is definitely annoying people by correcting their grammar.
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