Last Minute Essay Panic Disorder

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How do I overcome paper writing anxiety?


I am in my first semester of a masters degree. As an undergraduate, I constantly struggled with writing papers (especially getting started with the writing process), and the only way I got them done was to procrastinate and panic until the very last minute when putting the assignment off was literally no longer an option and the work just had to get done - a process that involved lots of all-nighters, caffeine, and crying, but always ultimately got me As and Bs. As a graduate student writing longer papers, this is obviously no longer going to work - 20-page research papers aren't going to get done in just a couple nights, no matter how long and miserable those nights may be - I know I need to manage my time better and not be hampered by epic freak-outs every time something is almost due.

Getting started on writing at all (or starting a new section of the paper) is the hardest part - my mind blanks, I look at my piles of notes and have no idea how to organize them or where to start, and I just sit there thinking that I'm stupid and bad at school, and asking myself why I thought I was going to be able to handle graduate work when college was always such a struggle.

As things currently stand, I have just over two weeks to crank out two of said 20-pagers. One of them I haven't started on at all beyond a topic, and one of them I have piles of research and about four pages written (introduction and background sections), but am freezing up on writing more and keep procrastinating on it by...doing more research. Every night I realize how little I got done and start crying. How can I a) get this work done, and b) work on not being such a wreck for my next three semesters? I don't even need to get great grades, just to pass, but the idea of writing anything half-assed and my professors (at least one of whom I expect to have again in the future) thinking I'm an idiot just kills me.

I don't know if I just need practical writing strategies, or ways of getting a grip on my emotions, or both. Do I need therapy? Drugs? Better ways of organizing my notes and my sources so I don't feel like I have endless piles of junk to dig through for every single point I want to make? A better routine (e.g. should I work only at the library and never at home?)? Any and all suggestions very welcome.

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If those trips down to the demos in Westminster have left you behind schedule for your end-of-term assignment, you may well be forced to write in the small hours this week. Here's how to pull it off safely and successfully.

12am: Get as far away from your bed as possible

Before you begin, avoid warmth and soft furnishings. Propped up on pillows in the glow of a laptop may feel like savvy ergonomics, but your keyboard will start to look pillow-like by midnight, and 418 pages of the word "gf64444444444444444444" will detract from the force of your argument. You could try the kitchen. Or Krakow. But your industrially lit 24-hour campus library should do the trick.

12:25am: Take a catnap

Thomas Edison used to catnap through the night with a steel ball in his hand. As he relaxed and the ball dropped, he would wake up, usually with fresh ideas. "Caffeine and a short nap make a very effective combination," says Jim Horne, director of the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre. "Have the coffee first. This takes about 20 minutes to work, so take a 15-minute nap. Use an alarm to wake up and avoid deep sleep kicking in. Do this twice throughout the night."

12.56am: Reduce your internet options

Temporarily block Twitter, Spotify, Group Hug, YouTube, 4od and anything else that distracts you. Constantly updating your word count on Facebook may feel like fun, but to everyone else you'll look like you're constantly updating your word count on Facebook.

1-3am: Now write your essay. No, really

You've widened your margins, subtly enlarged your font and filled your bibliography with references of such profound obscurity that no one will notice you're missing 3,000 words. It's time to brainstorm, outline, carve words, followed by more words, into that milk-white oblivion that taunts you. Speed-read articles. Key-word Google Books. Remember texts you love and draw comparisons. Reword. Expound. Invent. Neologise. Get excited. Find a problem you can relish and keep writing. While others flit from point to point, your impassioned and meticulous analysis of a single contention is music to a marker's eyes.

3-5am: Get lost in your analysis, your characters, your world Write like you're trying to convince the most stubborn grammarian about truth, or heartless alien invaders about love. Don't overload with examples – be creative with the ones you have. Detail will save your life, but don't waste time perfecting sentences – get the bulk down first and clean up later. "The progress of any writer," said Ted Hughes, "is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system." Outwit your own inner police system. Expect progress. Ted says so.

5:01am: Don't cheat

It's about now that websites such as easyessay.co.uk will start to look tempting. And you may sleep easier knowing that a dubiously accredited Italian yoga instructor is writing about Joyce instead of you. But the guilt will keep you up between now and results day. And you'll toss and turn the night before graduation, job interviews, promotions, dinner parties, children's birthdays, family funerals . . . you get the idea.

5.17am: Don't die

Sounds obvious, but dying at your computer is definitely trending. And however uncool it may seem to "pass on" during a five-day stint at World of Warcraft, it will be much more embarrassing to die explaining perspectivism to no one in particular. So be careful. Stay hydrated. Blink occasionally. And keep writing.

5.45am: Eat something simple

"There are no foods that are particularly good at promoting alertness," says Horne. "But avoid heavy and fatty meals in the small hours. Avoid very sugary drinks that don't contain caffeine, too. Sugar is not very effective in combating sleepiness." Fun fact: an apple provides you with more energy than a cup of coffee. Now stick the kettle on.

5.46am: Delight in being a piece of living research

If you happen to be "fatigue resistant" you should now be enjoying the enhanced concentration, creative upwelling and euphoric oneness that sleep deprivation can bring. If not, try talking yourself into it. "Conversation keeps you awake," says Horne. "So talk to a friend or even to yourself – no one will hear you."

6am: Console yourself with lists of writers who stuck it out

Robert Frost was acquainted with the night. Dumas, Kafka, Dickens, Coleridge, Sartre, Poe and Breton night-walked and trance-wrote their way to literary distinction. John and Paul wrote A Hard Day's Night in the small hours. Herman the Recluse, atoning for broken monastic vows, is said to have written the Codex Gigas on 320 sheets of calfskin during a single night in 1229. True, he'd sold his soul to the Devil, but you're missing out on a live Twitter feed, so it's swings and roundabouts.

7am: Remember – art is never finished, only abandoned

Once you accept there's no more you can do, print it off and get to the submissions office quick. Horne: "You're not fit to drive if you've had less than five hours sleep, so don't risk it. Grab some exercise." Pop it in with the breeziness that comes from being top of your marker's pile. Back home, unblock Facebook and start buffering The Inbetweeners. And then sleep. Get as near to your bed as you can. Euphoric oneness doesn't come close.

Matt Shoard teaches creative writing at the University of Kent.

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