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Facing Fear and Puncturing Procrastination- Don't Know Know How to Start?

You've worked hard to get to graduate school, and now that you're here you've discovered that you have to work even harder. Congratulations - that's a big step on the road to graduate wisdom.

"But there's so much writing!" you exclaim. "Sometimes I feel like hiding under the bed. I just can't deal with all the writing."

You already know that putting off a writing project just makes things worse. But how to plunge right in? This workshop will give you some places to start and some suggestions for formulating a plan of action for your long-term project(s).

Procrastination is putting off something you know perfectly well has to be done, usually because you don't want to do it.

Fear - usually of failure - is often the reason you don't want to do it. The irony arises from the fact that if you don't do it at all, you will certainly fail! So why not set your mind to do it, and put yourself out of your misery?

First, let's talk about just plain starting to write. This assumes that you've already done some essential reading and research, and thus have enough information to begin. Following are some tried-and-true techniques for getting words on paper. If you don't know which technique to choose, try them all! Gradually you will learn what works for you.

  1. Freewriting - write, literally without stopping, for a set period of time - usually 10 minutes. You're not aiming to produce a final product here; you're just getting yourself into the mood. Freewriting will break the ice, encourage you to write without thinking about writing, and provide a useful outlet. Often it can help you think of topics to write about, especially if you're beginning with the general subject area that's requiring a paper from you.
  2.  The Direct Writing Process - wonderfully useful when you're short on time. Take the time you do have and divide it in half. Devote the first half to fast writing, just putting down on paper what you need to say, keeping your goal in mind at all times. Devote the second half to revising, keeping in mind your audience (what do they need to know? how will they respond?) and your purpose. If this latter suggestion confuses you, then just revise. This method is particularly useful if a deadline looms.
  3. Dangerous Method - a.k.a. trying to get it all right the first time. Even here, however, you logically have to go through a 2-step process: first, you figure out exactly what you have to say, and then you write! For this method, an outline is highly recommended. It will force you to organize your thinking until your thesis emerges clearly, and make you document the thought process that led you to that thesis in the first place.
  4. Open-ended Process - This is the opposite of the direct writing process, so if you didn't take to that one, perhaps this is for you. This process can take time, however, so if you're in a hurry, forget it. The open-ended process assumes you do not know where you are going, but you're willing to take time to get there. First, freewrite about anything at all, perhaps beginning with a thought or intuition that seems important. Give it half an hour or so, then stop. See if you can discern a focus of some kind. Repeat again and again, however long it takes until you get a clear vision of your final argument. Then you'll be in a position to develop it more fully. This whole process presupposes your willingness to explore - not just your topic, but also your own position in relationship to it.
  5. Loop Writing - This is especially useful when the topic has been assigned and you don't like it! In this process, you start by doing some near-freewriting about things related to your topic. You even allow yourself to forget, for a while, what your topic is. Then you use the results to return to the topic at hand, organizing and revising what you've produced.
  6. General Brainstorming - Sometimes when you must write about an abstract idea, it is helpful to consider it in a radically different context. For example, ask yourself what color or shape your abstract idea might be. Define it from an exceedingly negative - or positive - point of view. Ask yourself what life would be like in the absence of your concept. These are just some ways to approach an idea from an unexpected direction.
Next - now that you have some writing techniques at your disposal - you need to formulate a game plan. These are just some general suggestions to give you a starting place. You may come up with ideas that work especially well for you.
  1. If you're not in the habit of planning your activities for the week, start now. Buy a calendar, desk or pocket style - and plan each week as closely as possible. Allocate study time specifically, and stick to it! This will help you gain control of your available time.
  2. While you're buying your calendar, buy a notebook that you can use as a journal. Keep it nearby, and write in it daily. You'll benefit from the practice and will feel more comfortable writing spontaneously. Writing down your thoughts will also help you come to terms with them and express them more clearly. (You'll also enjoy rereading it years from now!)
  3. Break your writing project down into manageable stages, and set deadlines for each stage. For example, tell yourself, "By March 15 1 will have my preliminary research completed, with a tentative thesis written by March 16." Take your plan just as seriously as you do your instructor's plan, and respect yourself as your boss.
  4. Reward yourself in some small but personally meaningful way when you reach a given stage successfully and on time. Allow yourself to celebrate briefly, and then move on.
  5. Put your work first, unless it's a genuine emergency. Graduate school is not the place to let yourself fall behind, or to make excuses for late papers.
  6. Save all your written work for awhile, especially your first drafts. Your writing ability will steadily improve with time and practice, but sometimes you won't recognize your own improvement! Comparing later drafts to your first efforts will dramatically demonstrate your progress.