To be a great writer, you have to be able to concentrate. Not only that but you have to be able to maintain focus for sustained periods. It’s not the only thing you’ll need but it’s a good start.
Get in the flow
Psychologists describe a powerful form of concentration called 'flow'. It happens when someone concentrates fully engaged on what they are doing. (See the Wikipedia definition.) When you are writing in like this, you can hold all the pieces of a story in your head and write fluently.
We all recognise this state. “Time flies when you’re having fun” is one version. Meditation is, perhaps, another version. If you play sports or video games and you find yourself ‘at one’ with what you’re doing, that’s another. All these mental states require concentration.
Multitasking doesn't work
Conversely, failure to concentrate can be very unproductive. In fact, multitasking makes us stupid. People who think they are good at multitasking aren’t, according to researchers at Stanford University (see also: original paper). That’s you and me, dear reader.
I’m writing this post to share some of the habits and techniques that have (sometimes) helped me to improve my own concentration. And yes, I know that some of them are contradictory. That’s the ‘sometimes’.
Anyway, I hope you find them useful. If you have any tips you would like to share, please leave a comment.
- Accept your distractions. You will get distracted. Your mind will wander. You won’t want to get started. Accept it. The trick is to stand back and notice your brain doing these things. When it happens, stand back from yourself. Notice the distraction. Name the monster. Gently remind yourself that you’re trying to concentrate and it will be easier to return your focus to your work.
- Use a concentration timer. I like using meditation timers when I write. A little bell every five minutes helps remind to put my focus back onto my writing if my mind has wandered. There is a free, online timer on my company website. You can use it time and pace a writing session.
- Go somewhere else. Do you write a bit more neatly when you get a new pen? Change can be beneficial, even if the effect is temporary. Sometimes a change of location (go to the park, Starbucks, the Kitchen – anywhere but here) or a change of method (use a quill, a pencil, a typewriter, a different word processor, Linux) can help.
- Stay where you are. I’m always getting up and going somewhere to get something or do something. To counter this tendency, I keep scrap paper (recycled A4 printer paper cut in half) by my desk and scribble reminders. Then back to the writing.
- Write at a different time. I write best if I get up early. (See How I trained myself to get up earlier in the morning.) Just changing your routine can be helpful.
- Write to a schedule. When I have a busy week with many deadlines, I block out time for my work in Microsoft Outlook. This helps me allocate time and measure progress on longer-term projects and ensure that I have enough time to do all the work I planned. Other people find it helpful to start writing at the same time every day.
- Morning pages. I have to admit that I haven’t tried Julia Cameron’s technique for unblocking your creativity but other people, including my wife, swear by it. It involves writing in a stream of consciousness first thing every day.
- Switch off distractions. Turn off your radio, TV, shut the door, close your email program, put your phone on mute, shut down your blog reader software, use a distraction-free word processor. Anything you can do to stop distractions before they happen, the better.
- Tame your muse. Your muse works for you, not the other way round. Think of it as a recalcitrant employee. Give it deadlines, tell it to show up for work at a fixed time every day, give it feedback and praise, define what you expect from it.
- Seek inspiration. Lots of people praise walking or running as a source of inspiration. The best advice I ever had was from my history tutor at Oxford – keep a notebook with you at all times because you never know when you will have a good idea.
- Quantify. Use word count to set goals – 500 words and then a break, for example. Track writing output over time in a spreadsheet. Use Joe’s Goals to keep track of habits in the long term. Some people, like me, are highly motivated by a sense of progress.
- Silence. External noise can break your concentration. Try noise cancelling headphones (I use Bose), music (see Music for working), silent PC (See: Tools for writing: Silent PCs) or ear plugs (See In praise of earplugs).
- Meditate to develop concentration and calmness. I find it helpful to meditate a little before I start work. It’s not easy for me but when I do it, I find it really helps. I sit in a quiet room, legs crossed and count my breaths. This guide may be a helpful place to start.
- Treats. I like tea (See Tools for writing: A nice cup of tea). Other people prefer cigarettes, Jaffa cakes or whatever. I would just be wary of too many sugary treats because they can cause a sugar crash later. You end up borrowing energy from yourself.
- Punishment. Try Write or Die. If you don’t keep writing, it starts deleting what you have already written!
- Shame. Instead of running a 26 mile marathon, aim to write 26,000 words and get your friends to sponsor you for charity. If you fail to do it, you won’t raise any money and you’ll feel bad. Nothing like social pressure to keep you at the keyboard.
- Buddy writing. Working with a friend, even over an open Skype line, can encourage concentration, providing you both have the same work habits. Somehow the peer pressure keeps you both working hard. It’s also an antidote to the potential loneliness of the long-distance writer.
- Chunking. Write for 45 minutes, take a 15 minute break. Repeat.
- Don’t worry. Editing is not writing. Don’t let your mental self-editor get in the way of your super-productive copywriter. Accept that your first draft might not be perfect. Leave notes to yourself in your text – fact-check, tidy up, rewrite, condense. The important thing is to keep writing.
- Use TK. This is a special case of ‘Don’t worry.’ If there’s something you don’t know, don’t stop to look it up. Just put TK in the text. It means ‘to come [later]’. For example, ‘When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in TK DATE, he didn’t expect to meet little green men.’ Fill in the blanks later. TK is easy to search for because it doesn’t occur often in everyday writing. (There are a few exceptions, such as the band Outkast.)
- Rock and river. Water is soft and rocks are hard but a river can defeat a rock with patience and constant effort over time. I think it’s the same with writing. A little every day beats a lot once a year. If you keep this in mind, concentrating for a short period every day becomes easier.
- Leave a hook to get you started. When you finish writing each day, try to leave a few notes in your text to help you get started the next day. This will make it easier to overcome inertia and re-engage with the work.
Honestly, throughout most of high school and college, I was a mediocre essay writer.
Every once in a while, I would write a really good essay, but mostly I skated by with B’s and A-minuses.
I know personally how boring writing an essay can be, and also, how hard it can be to write a good one.
Writing an essay? Don’t pull your hair out. Here are 10 tips to write a great essay. Photo by Stuart Pilbrow (Creative Commons)
However, toward the end of my time as a student, I made a breakthrough. I figured out how to not only write a great essay, I learned how to have fun while doing it.
That’s right. Fun.
Why Writing an Essay Is So Hard?
Here are a few reasons:
- You’d rather be scrolling through Facebook.
- You’re trying to write something your teacher or professor will like.
- You’re trying to get an A instead of writing something that’s actually good.
- You want to do the least amount of work possible.
The biggest reason writing an essay is so hard is because we mostly focus on those external rewards like getting a passing grade or our teacher’s approval. The problem is that when you focus on external approval it not only makes writing much less fun, it also makes it significantly harder.
Because when you focus on external approval, you shut down your subconscious, and the subconscious is the source of your creativity. What this means practically is that when you’re trying to write that perfect, A-plus-worthy sentence, you’re turning off most of your best resources.
Just stop. Stop trying to write a good essay (or even a “good-enough” essay). Instead, write an interesting essay, write an essay you think is fascinating. And when you’re finished, go back and edit it until it’s “good” according to your teacher’s standards.
Yes, you need to follow the guidelines in your assignment. If your teacher tells you to write a five-paragraph essay, then write a five-paragraph essay! However, within those guidelines, find room to express something that is uniquely you.
I can’t guarantee you’ll get a higher grade (although, you almost certainly will), but I can absolutely promise you’ll have a lot more fun writing.
10 Tips to Writing a Great Essay
Ready to get writing? Here are my ten best tips for having fun while writing an essay that earns you the top grade!
1. Your essay is just a story.
Every story is about conflict and change, and the truth is that essays are about conflict and change, too! The difference is that in an essay, the conflict is between different ideas, the change is in the way we should perceive those ideas.
That means that the best essays are about surprise, “You probably think it’s one way, but in reality, you should think of it this other way.” See tip #3 for more on this.
2. Before you start writing, ask yourself, “How can I have the most fun writing this?”
It’s normal to feel unmotivated when writing an essay. I’m a writer, and honestly, I feel unmotivated to write all the time. But I have a super-ninja, judo-mind trick I like to use to help motivate myself.
Here’s the secret trick: One of the interesting things about your subconscious is that it will answer any question you ask yourself. So whenever you feel unmotivated to write your essay, ask yourself the following question:
How much fun can I have writing this?”
Your subconscious will immediately start thinking of strategies to make the writing process more fun. Here’s another sneaky question to ask yourself when you really don’t want to write:
How can I finish this as quickly as possible?
Give it a try!
3. As you research, ask yourself, “What surprises me about this subject?”
The temptation, when you’re writing an essay, is to write what you think your teacher or professor wants to read. Don’t do this. Instead, ask yourself, “What do I find interesting about this subject? What surprises me?”
If you can’t think of anything that surprises you, anything you find interesting, then you’re not searching well enough, because history, science, and literature are all brimmingover with surprises. When you look at how great ideas actually happen, the story is always, “We used to think the world was this way. We found out we were completely wrong, and that the world is actually quite different from what we thought.”
As you research your essay topic, search for this story of surprise, and don’t start writing until you can find it.
(By the way, what sources should you use for research? Check out tip #10 below.)
4. Overwhelmed? Just write five original sentences.
The standard three-point essay is really made up of just five original sentences, surrounded by supporting paragraphs that back up those five sentences. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just write five sentences. Here’s what they might look like:
- Thesis: While most students consider writing an essay a boring task, with the right mindset, it can actually be an enjoyable experience.
- Body #1: Most students think writing an essay is tedious because they focus on external rewards.
- Body #2: Students should instead focus on internal fulfillment when writing an essay.
- Body #3: Not only will focusing on internal fulfillment allow students to have more fun, they will write better essays.
- Conclusion: Writing an essay doesn’t have to be simply a way to earn a good grade. Instead, it can be a means of finding fulfillment.
After you write your five sentences, it’s easy to fill in the paragraphs they will find themselves in.
Now, you give it a shot!
5. Be “source heavy.”
In college, I discovered a trick that helped me go from a B-average student to an A-student, but before I explain how it works, let me warn you. This technique is powerful, but it might not work for all teachers or professors. Use with caution.
As I was writing a paper for a literature class, I realized that the articles and books I was reading said what I was trying to say much better than I ever could. So what did I do? I just quoted them liberally throughout my paper. When I wasn’t quoting, I re-phrased what they said in my own words, giving proper credit, of course. I found that not only did this formula create a well-written essay, it took about half the time to write.
When I used this technique, my professors sometimes mentioned that my papers were very “source” heavy. However, at the same time, they always gave me A’s. Like the five sentence trick, this technique makes the writing process simpler. Instead of putting the main focus on writing well, it instead forces you to research well, which some students find easier.
6. Write the body first, the introduction second, and the conclusion last.
Introductions are often the hardest part to write because you’re trying to summarize your entire essay before you’ve even written it yet. Instead, try writing your introduction last, giving yourself the body of the paper to figure out the main point of your essay.
7. Most essays answer the question, “What?” Good essays answer the “Why?” The best essays answer the “How?”
If you get stuck trying to make your argument, or you’re struggling to reach the required word count, try focusing on the question, “How?” For example:
- How did J.D. Salinger convey the theme of inauthenticity in The Catcher In the Rye?
- How did Napoleon restore stability in France after the French Revolution?
- How does the research prove girls really do rule and boys really do drool?
If you focus on how, you’ll always have enough to write about.
8. Don’t be afraid to jump around.
Essay writing can be a dance. You don’t have to stay in one place and write from beginning to end. Give yourself the freedom to write as if you’re circling around your topic rather than making a single, straightforward argument. Then, when you edit, you can make sure everything lines up correctly.
9. Here are some words and phrases you don’t want to use.
- You (You’ll notice I use a lot of you’s, which is great for a blog post. However, in an essay, it’s better to omit the second-person.)
- To Be verbs
Don’t have time to edit? Here’s a lightning-quick editing technique.
A note about “I”: Some teachers say you shouldn’t use “I” statements in your writing, but the truth is that professional, academic papers often use phrases like “I believe” and “in my opinion,” especially in their introductions.
10. It’s okay to use Wikipedia, if…
Wikipedia isn’t just one of the top 5 websites in the world, it can be a great tool for research. However, most teachers and professors don’t consider Wikipedia a valid source for use in essays. However, here are two ways you can use Wikipedia in your essay writing:
- Background research. If you don’t know enough about your topic, Wikipedia can be a great resource to quickly learn everything you need to know to get started.
- Find sources. Check the reference section of Wikipedia’s articles on your topic. While you may not be able to cite Wikipedia itself, you can often find those original sources and site them.
The thing I regret most about high school and college is that I treated it like something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do.
The truth is, education is an opportunity many people in the world don’t have access to. It’s a gift, not just something that makes your life more difficult. I don’t want you to make the mistake of just “getting by” through school, waiting desperately for summer breaks and, eventually, graduation.
How would your life be better if you actively enjoyed writing an essay? What would school look like if you wanted to suck it dry of all the gifts it has to give you?
All I’m saying is, don’t miss out!
How about you? Do you have any tips for writing an essay?
Use tip #4 and write five original sentences that could be turned into an essay.
When you’re finished, share your five sentences in the comments section.
And remember, have fun!
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