Nothing is quite as daunting as a paper in college. While exams bring their own set of stresses, the sheer amount of time required when researching and writing a paper is incredibly overwhelming.

We’ve all heard the same few essay hacks for the writing process since elementary school: Make a good outline after you brainstorm! Write a strong thesis statement and repeat it in your conclusion! However, those words of wisdom are about as tired as your eyes after staring at your laptop screen for three hours, desperate for the words to start flowing. Providing fresh college essay hacks is a challenge within itself as everyone has such different styles and processes for how they write best.

However, there are some basic essay hacks that can help anyone streamline the process, break free of procrastination, and hopefully not dread the task of writing (as much) anymore.

1. Make a list of small tasks for each day. 

The worst way to lose motivation when writing is to sit down with absolutely no game plan and expect the next Great American Novel to pour out in a matter of hours. It’s just not going to happen. However, making the conventional ‘outline’ when writing can sometimes also be unhelpful and irritatingly banal. 

A good compromise is to make a brief list of tasks per writing session instead of initially trying to sketch out every paragraph in an overarching outline. For example, setting the goals for your first day of writing of refining your topic into a condense explanation, finding five relevant sources, and creating, titling, and saving a document (small tasks matter and help us feel more productive!) will get the process on a good track moving forward.

Scheduling four to five tasks per writing session alleviates the overwhelming gloom when tackling a huge project by dividing the giant task into smaller ones that feel more achievable on a daily basis. Writing these out and crossing them off once complete is also beneficial to your writing mindset. This tip will also aid in the prevention of all-nighters before due dates that are fueled by Red Bull and followed by typos and regret.

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Keep your list of writing to-dos nearby and cross a few tasks off each day.

2. Take advantage of your school’s library sources. 

Don’t let your university library merely be a place for socializing over coffee and fretting over impending deadlines. Actually, take advantage of the resources offered to you by your library system in order to find the best resources for your paper.

Most libraries have an assigned librarian to each area of study who you can meet with to develop a strategy for researching pertinent articles and books. Casting a wide net in your search for resources will not provide the relevance and specificity needed for most college topics, and thus the art of searching for resources is crucial to the overall product. Combing databases for articles necessitates its own set of shortcuts that are best learned earlier in the writing process rather than later.

Either meet with your major’s assigned librarian,  look through all of the online databases your school has access to in order to best find citable academic papers and articles, or do both! Know beforehand which databases to look through because merely doing a cursory Google search will not produce results that qualify as academic. Once you realize JSTOR is not, in fact, an online shopping hub, your quest for sources will become much easier.

3. Write out of order. 

Sometimes finding the perfect opening statement can unnecessarily halt progress when getting over the initial hump of starting a paper. Beginning with your strongest point in a well-crafted base paragraph is one of the most solid essay hacks. It can help structure your paper and spur motivation to continue writing. Writing the introduction after a few body paragraphs will provide more fluidity and clarity to your overall paper.

4. Minimize overwhelm managing sources and citations. 

Don’t get overwhelmed with sources and citations. One of the most overwhelming feelings is finally honing your topic, finding a multitude of pertinent sources, reading said sources, and then feeling even more overwhelmed when trying to synthesize and condense what you just read.

My advice: create a completely different document from the start where you can instantaneously group similar citations. Build groupings such as “Introduction”, “Counterpoints”, and so on to easily list the sources that go along with each category with the specific quotation and page number so that way everything is organized as you go.

Similarly, the moment you know that a source will be cited in your paper, go ahead and create the in-text citation/footnote/bibliography entry immediately in order to not have to go back through the whole paper and try to remember where certain citations came from. Keep a tab open for an online bibliography generator in order to not get bogged down with creating them yourself.

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Have fun writing college essays using these pro hacks.

5. Balance the time spent reading with actual writing. 

We’ve all fallen victim to spending way more time reading about a topic and doing the background research rather than putting hands to keyboard and actually typing the paper itself. It can be difficult to know when to put down the book or journal article and start writing. I usually try to set a reading to writing ratio depending on the difficulty of the topic.

If the topic is very complex and something I have limited previous knowledge on, I might set a 3:1 hour ratio of reading to writing to ensure that both are being accomplished. If the topic is something more familiar or more opinion-based, I might set a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio of reading to writing. Setting a phone alarm to keep this regimen is also wise. There is no worse feeling than having all of the information and thoughts in your mind, but running out of time to properly convey them on paper.

6. Turn off word count. 

That pesky, foreboding number that rests at the bottom of your screen can be a huge detractor to your overall progress. Constantly checking to see if you are closer to hitting the mark takes away time from the actual writing itself. Therefore, turn off the word count tool (switching to Focus View in Word is probably the easiest method) until you’ve written all you can muster and then check it as a benchmark periodically. This way, you won’t feel the constraint of trying to expand your thoughts solely to get closer to the minimum number of words.

7. Change the font to help shake writer’s block. 

This tip might border on obscure but sometimes changing the font of the phrase or paragraph you’re trying to complete can help shatter writer’s block. The change in appearance will help see your thoughts in a different way and can break up the monotony of a Times New Roman inundation. Read here for more detailed information about trouncing writer’s block with a change in font aesthetic. 

8. Use the thesaurus when necessary and with caution. 

The overuse of the thesaurus tool has long been lambasted (look no further than this classic clip from Friends), but it can come in handy in moderation. While I’m not saying substituting an obscure synonym that could impede comprehension is wise, glaring overuse of a word also diminishes a paper’s quality. For example, if you have used a particular word five times in one paragraph, it might be fruitful to look at the thesaurus options, do some further investigation to make sure you understand their nuances, and then use a synonym if a good fit. Try to expand your lexicon without becoming overly pretentious or incomprehensible.

9. Vary music choices when writing. 

While some prefer to write in silence, which honestly is sometimes the best option during crunch time when you require absolutely no distractions, most prefer to listen to music during the writing process. Whether it’s to help focus and stimulate your mind or drown out the sniffles and coughs of your fellow library patrons, music definitely has its benefits when writing.

Different styles of music will invariably appeal to different writers, but sometimes a certain genre is best when starting to write or when executing the duller editing-heavy tasks. Check out these testimonials of what styles are best in different writing settings. When in need of a creativity stimulant, why not pull a 180 and completely switch genre to see if the new song can acoustically spur a new idea or give you clarity.

10. Use two spelling and grammar check programs. 

A great final hack at the very end of your writing process is to put your entire paper into a second online spell check software (PaperRater, JSpell, etc.) that’s different from the word processing software you’re currently using. These free online tools will parse through your paper and find any lingering spelling and grammar errors in less than a minute. Having a second check will usually uncover a few small mistakes that when fixed, will elevate your paper. A final polish and a second set of (virtual) eyes are a no brainer when finishing a paper. Having a real set of eyes (swap papers with a trusted classmate!) look over your draft is also immensely advantageous. 

While many students begin to loathe writing during college, remember that no paper is insurmountable when started early enough and scheduled out properly. Though not every topic will appeal to your interests, try to find a   an approach that makes it more fascinating to write about. Of course, if you have major concerns or hesitations about a certain assignment, meet with your professor for some clarification and reassurance. They will almost always be happy to assist and provide individual guidance on the next steps moving forward to complete your paper. Happy writing and stop checking that word count!

Written by BookScouter Contributor Parker Strubhar.

Parker Strubhar - BookScouter Blog Contributor

Parker Strubhar is a recent graduate of the University of Oklahoma and currently resides and works in Washington D.C. He is also a freelance writer. Business inquiries can be directed to parkerstrubhar20@gmail.com.

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