How to Write a Great Paper Without Stress

The key to stress-free writing is breaking the problem down into manageable steps. The process has four main components:

  • Arranging help
  • Sifting through existing arguments (or generating a list of ideas)
  • Forming your own argument
  • Communicating your argument clearly

Most students do not do the first step, and combine the last three steps into a single, stressful, drawn-out process. But that’s not the best way to do it. Seeing the process of writing a paper as separate steps will make it more manageable and enjoyable.

Writing is not the most important part of paper writing.

Writing is not the most important part of paper writing. The sooner you dispel that notion, the easier it will be to reap the benefits of this approach.

This means you need to be organized and plan ahead. “But wait!” you cry. “I’m too much of a procrastinator to start three days early! I can only do work with a deadline looming.”

I must respond to this common reaction with some tough love: Suck it up.

I’m not asking you to be rigidly disciplined. Instead, I’m asking that you add just a little more structure to your process. The good news is that the urge to procrastinate diminishes when your mind actually trusts that your schedule makes sense.

Getting help

You can – and should – get good help on each of the steps listed below. I hear you saying, “But I am supposed to write this paper by myself!”

Outside of school, no one writes papers by themselves – they get help to improve their writing. Novel writers and magazine writers have editors; executives writing emails and memos get their co-workers to help them; and friends read their stories to each other to get feedback. So why do should you do anything differently while in school?

The steps

Here are the steps that I recommend – don’t be put off by how many steps there are, some of them are quite short (but necessary).

  1. Be in a good state of mind:
    1. Be kind to yourself – writing is hard.
    2. Sleep well
    3. Eat well
    4. Plan ahead so you can work in short, focused chunks
    5. Work when you are alert and can get help (not late at night)
  2. Get help!
    1. Follow Ask For Help when asking for help (“Will you help me?”)
    2. Arrange the help in advance
    3. Use different helpers for different parts of the process if necessary – know what your helpers are good at
    4. Get help in small chunks
      1. so you don’t wear out your helpers
      2. so you can absorb the help better
    5. Helpers can be parents, friends, teachers…
  3. Know the assignment
    1. If there are multiple options, pick the most interesting one!
    2. Ideally, memorize the assignment – this will help you know what to write about
  4. Determine how much time you should devote to the assignment.
    1. Not all assignments are created equal – some require less work than others.
  5. Make a schedule for the work
    1. Work in smaller chunks – 30, 45, or 60 minutes at a time
    2. spread out over multiple days
    3. make the schedule so you finish a day early
      1. so you won’t be stressed
      2. so have some extra time in case something goes wrong
  6. Generate ideas to write about
    1. Write down ideas without criticizing them
    2. Get help – have your helper Investigate you about the assignment to generate ideas
    3. When done, put them in order, most interesting first
  7. Pick one idea to write about – probably the most interesting, or alternatively the one you have the most to say about.
    1. Make sure you write about something you are interested in
    2. Ask your helper these questions about the idea you picked:
      1. Is my idea appropriate for the assignment?
      2. Does it cover too much?
      3. Is it too simple?
  8. Pick a structure
    1. Search the internet for ideas (example search: “reflective essay structure”), or
    2. Get ideas from a helper, or
    3. Get your helper to improve your ideas
  9. Get supporting material – if needed
    1. Exactly how depends on the kind of essay or paper. You can get help on this too.
  10. Write an outline
    1. With just enough detail
    2. List all the main parts – a good place to start is the following:
      1. Beginning (Introduction)
      2. Middle
      3. End (Conclusion)
    3. Write just enough so you remember the structure
    4. Get help to improve the outline
  11. Pick the first thing to write from the outline
    1. The easiest thing – if you have trouble starting
    2. The hardest thing – if you like getting hard things out of the way
  12. Write the first part
    1. Tell a helper what you want to write – out loud. It’s easier to talk than to write.
    2. Then write down what you said.
  13. Take a break!
  14. Write the rest of the parts
    1. Use the tell-someone-what-you-want-to-write method on each part
    2. Not necessarily all at once – remember to work in short focused chunks
  15. Rough draft done! Celebrate!

Notice that out of 15 steps, only three were actually writing.

To refine a draft:

  1. Get help!
    1. Get someone else to read the draft and
    2. Either sit with you and tell you their improvements while
      1. you make the changes directly in your essay (easiest) or
      2. you take notes; or
    3. Have them mark it up with a pencil.
  2. Topics to get help on:
    1. spelling
    2. grammar
    3. structure
    4. style or feel
    5. the essay as a whole
  3. Make the improvements that your helper suggests and that you like. You don’t have to take all their suggestions.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 again, until you are not making large improvements anymore
  5. Optionally find another helper and do steps 1-3 with the new person
  6. Final polish
    1. Re-read the essay yourself out loud. Really, do it out loud – reading it out loud will catch awkward structure and other problems that reading silently does not.
    2. Make any minor changes that make it better from your own perspective
  7. Final draft done! Turn it in and celebrate!


Much of this document was borrowed from Cal Newport’s excellent books, “How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out)” and “How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. Pages 64-67 of the “Superstar” book outlines how to write essays over three days, breaking them up into smaller focused chunks – this is well worth reading. Part 3 of the “Straight-A” book (pp-149-211) lays out detailed steps on how to write great college-level essays and papers.

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