A storm in your brain

When I was an undergrad, I would read every essay assignment with a slow, settling horror. At first I’d feel totally overwhelmed and rant to everyone who would listen about how much work I had to do. Then I’d forget about the essay entirely–for a few days, or even weeks. All of a sudden, it would be the night before the assignment was due and I would start the essay in complete panic mode.

It only took me 4 years to learn from my mistakes.

It only took me 4 years to learn from my mistakes.

Suffice it to say, this was not a very efficient process, and it left very little time for pre-planning. As a graduate student, I had finally learned from my (numerous) mistakes and I would start planning in advance. Once I had a plan (or even just a rough idea of what I wanted to say), I felt much more confident in approaching the assignment. Here are some strategies I use:

1. Highlight important information–I read the assignment and highlight key phrases and words; this especially helps when the prompt is 1-2 pages long. I’m counting this as brainstorming because it gets me thinking about the assignment, and leaves me a little less overwhelmed–I finally understand the task at hand and am ready to get started.

2. Re-write the prompt–If #1 doesn’t work, I try re-writing the assignment in my own words. I process things by writing them down, and again, this also gets me thinking about the key components of the assignment. As I’m writing, I’ll try to think ahead of how I’ll address the main question.

3. Freewriting–I love this; it’s like a “free fall” into writing. I read the prompt and write about anything that comes to mind, relevant or irrelevant.

4. Clustering–I’ll write an important word or phrase in the middle of the paper and draw a circle around it. Then I’ll think of another word/phrase that connects to it, write it down, and connect it to the first word. I continue branching off, trying to organize all my thoughts into subcategories until I have a page covered in ideas. From there, I review it and decide which ideas are the most important/relevant to my topic.

5. Talking–Sometimes writers come into the Center with nothing but an assignment and we have brainstorming sessions. Usually we have a conversation about the prompt, and hopefully by the end of the session the writers have an idea of what they want to focus on. I never used to talk about my writing until I started working here as a consultant, and now it’s one of my favorite brainstorming techniques. I feel like I have a better grasp of my subject if I’m able to convey my ideas to others. Also, sometimes it’s more effective for me to work out my thoughts aloud.

These are just a few techniques that help me get started. I’m a big procrastinator, but I really believe that it’s worth it to sit down and plan before writing–even if it’s the night before your 20-page assignment is due and you’ve had about 4 espresso shots (ESPECIALLY if you’re in this situation).

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1 Comment »

  • Vanessa says:

    These are such great ideas! I really like #2– next time I’m stuck, I’m going to try it!


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