Or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Flashing Cursor.
Last night at 8:30pm I submitted an essay about the work of a third century north-African Bishop named Cyprian. It was due at midnight, and I hadn’t started actually writing until the day before (when I spent about two hours on it). I wasn’t stressed or tired when I clicked that fateful Submit button, and had a great time writing it. I ended up spending the rest of the night watching TV with my wife and playing Nintendo for a little silly fun after a mentally challenging day. Overall, I’d call that a win.
So, how did this happen? I haven’t always enjoyed writing essays. The days leading up to a deadline used to be very stressful. The success of this essay came down to a handful of simple tactics which I’ve developed over the years, and (drumroll…) here they are:
I Was Actually Interested
I chose a topic that I’m very interested in, and which is even very relevant to present situations of my life. My college always gives me several questions to choose from, which is great, and I always choose in this way. Essays are a great way to go deep on a particular topic, and if that topic fills a significant gap in your learning or, even better, addresses something which is going on in your real life, it can be a joyous learning experience. And yes, believe it or not the ecclesiology of a third century African Bishop is highly relevant to the challenges of a new pastor in the middle of a pandemic. Another story for another day.
I focused on reading and learning
I spent most of my prep time reading, taking notes and literally drawing connections. There’s an alternative essay writing approach which encourages you to start writing at the beginning of your learning journey so that you’re always consolidating your thoughts along the way, then embrace rewriting as you go. I personally find that process tedious and slow and prefer to go deep with reading, terse note-taking and drawing. The deep learning is the part that you can’t skip, of course. To write a good essay, you have to know what you’re talking about. By the time I got to writing, I already had a lot in my head and the essay mostly just spilled out. It was a mad writing romp at the final stretch, and personally, that’s the way I like it.
I used Scrivener
I used the writing application Scrivener to plan and write the essay, as I have done for years now. It’s an incredibly powerful tool which allows you to break your writing up into approachable chunks and see your whole project’s structure at all times. The feeling of calm when writing is Scrivener is a game-changer, because by design the writing pane only shows you the object of your current focus, while the sidebars give you an at-a-glance snapshot of the whole. It’s the kind of tool that needs to be used first hand to be understood. It’s bliss, and while it’s not cheap it’s some of the best money I’ve spent on software.
I set aside a writing day and I didn’t thrash myself
I saved up most of the actual writing for the due date (yesterday) and took the whole day off to focus on it. On the day, I didn’t wear myself out. I was working on the essay for a total time of nearly twelve hours, but only about eight hours were active. The rest of the time was made up of both long and short breaks, strategically placed to gather and refresh myself and keep the task enjoyable. I had settled at the beginning of the day that whatever I ended up with at the end of the day would be good enough, so long as I’d learnt a lot along the way.
If you can’t set aside your actual due date as a writing day, I’d still recommend trying to block out a writing day within a few days of the due date, even if your writing day falls on a weekend. The natural pressure of a due date is a great motivator, one better loved than hated. But the long and short of it is this: Pick a day as a focus block, listen to your body, and when you need a break just take one.
I picked my battles
Part of enjoying the process is identifying what kills that enjoyment. For this essay (much to my tutor’s irritation I’m sure), I didn’t force myself to format my citations. I rarely do. For some reason, spending lots of time on citations at the end of an essay is absolutely soul-destroying for me and sullies the whole experience. So I don’t bother about the odd missing bracket or poorly placed publication year. It’s all about the content, and the content is all about what I learn along the way. If I lose a few marks, so be it.
Find your own groove, then enjoy yourself
The above thoughts might read like a formula, but the point is that I’ve worked and reworked my own approach to essay writing over the past several years, and much of my focus has been on making the experience enjoyable rather than maximising grades. I’m never aiming for a high distinction, because in my experience that extra 10% in grades roughly doubles the work of the essay, and little of that extra time is spent learning significant things. My life is full and varied, and far too short to be spent chasing an extra few percentage points for no good reason.
I’ve still squeezed high distinctions before (which is no small feat at my particular college), and interestingly my average grades have only been increasing since I began taking this enjoyment-first approach. But again, my particular method is not a silver bullet. The point is that it’s mine. I’ve embraced the essay, learning to see it as a powerful learning experience, and even learning to genuinely love it. Enjoyment and curiosity are the fuel of learning. Kids are great learners (especially at home) because they forget they’re doing it and get caught up in curious play. That’s always my goal.
I hope this helps a few students, young or old.
Godspeed, fellow nerds!
Liz Blake says
Great review Matt! An encouraging piece that reflects your enjoyment of learning and satisfaction with your method. Im sure a new approach would be helpful for others to with their priorities in the project.