“Save Yourself some Time and Pre-write” by Jack Stilwell

posted May 7, 2018, 10:41 AM by Writing Center
I’m not going to tell you to start the writing process earlier, because you won’t listen. I’ve been your instructor and writing consultant for three years now. I’ve even been you. You are going to drink three red bulls and pace up and down your room until you wear a threadbare path into the carpet and you are going to find a new appreciation for the relativity of time. You are going to swear you will never do this to yourself again. And you will do this to yourself again.

I am not judging you. Writing an essay at the last minute is an absolute staple of the student experience. This is not a recommendation, just a recognition of the inevitable. Maybe you put the essay off for far too long, but maybe circumstances outside your control have pushed you into this corner, and now you have to claw your way out. Either way, you are in a tight spot, and you are asking existential questions, and you have thirty-nine tabs open in your browser and you are not sure if half of them are relevant to your topic, and if it is only half, you are not sure which tabs those are.

You have a blank word document open and you wish the words would just appear. They don’t. You start a sentence: “In today’s modern society…” You feel ashamed and you erase the sentence, backspacing far longer than necessary. You think you have no time left but to just spew words out onto the page into whatever order they land and you hope you won’t have to make eye contact with your professor for at least two weeks. You think you are well past the advice I am about to give you, but you are not.


Take a deep breath.

Open a new document.

And write an outline.

You’ve convinced yourself that you only have time left to write the essay itself, but you’re not acknowledging that writing an outline is a part of this essay. Everything you’ve been doing up this point has been a part of writing this essay, even watching your hair fall out and pile up on your keyboard. Especially watching your hair fall out and pile up on your keyboard.

Your outline does not need to look traditional. It does not need Roman numerals. It does not need indentations. What it needs to do is anticipate the direction of your essay, but it does not need to define that direction. You’ve got a lot of ideas in that skull of yours. You are a smart kid. Write down those ideas in what you think is the most logical order, tinker with that order, write down questions you want to answer, write down questions your reader might have for you.

I’ve been maybe overly specific here by naming an outline. You need to do what’s best for you, but pre-writing—whether that be a bubble map, a love letter to your reader, an epic poem—is best for you. Some of my favorite consultations in the Writing Center are when writers come in with no work and a panicked expression, because every single one of those consultations has ended with the student confident in the direction of their essay. This is not a humble-brag. This has very, very little to do with me. This is the result of forty five minutes of a student articulating what they know and do not know about their topic, what interests them and what interests their reader, what questions they want answered and what questions need to be answered. And this is writing.

So let’s return to you in your caffeine-fueled and sleep-deprived haze, seeing negative images all around your dark room because you’ve left your laptop screen way too bright. You should not have let yourself get to this point, but you did, and you have no choice but to move forward.

Open a new document and give yourself some time—even if it’s just fifteen minutes—to anticipate the direction of this essay. Write down a question. Write down an answer. What you are doing now is creating a frame to build your essay around. This is not a waste of fifteen minutes. If anything, these fifteen minutes could save you hours. You will complete this essay on time. It will receive a grade. You will promise yourself more time in the future, and if you break that promise, you will not despair, because you have been here before, and you now know to pre-write.

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