August 1

Tell-tale signs of writing under pressure

It starts in during the school years. Teachers gave you a prompt and a due date. You ignored the assignment for as long as possible. Then, a few days before it was due, you started “thinking about” what you'd write. Then, in the last day or two or three, you crammed all of the research and writing into several all-night sessions. Groggy and knowing that you weren't turning in your best work, you put the paper on the teacher's desk, and you vowed to start the paper earlier next time. Yet, with each assignment, you repeated the vicious cycle.

Maybe you're in denial

If you received As and Bs on your papers from grade school through college or graduate school, perhaps you've convinced yourself that writing under pressure is good for you. Waiting until the deadline presses in on your attention brings out the best in your writing.

You have years of this pattern ingrained in you, and you've created a psychological stimulus-response. You receive a due date, and your brain automatically ignores the assignment until the deadline looms in your cognition and creates an adrenaline rush that fuels your writing.

But you can always spot a piece that was written in a hurry

13-08-01 deadline
Don't lie, you probably look something like this guy when you're writing under pressure. I know I do. It's not pretty, and neither is your writing.

You can usually spot something that has been written while under intense time pressure by some common characteristics:

  1. The introduction and beginning paragraphs wander around in meaningless circles.

    As the writer, you generally don't know exactly what you're saying until you have completed the draft. You become more focused by the time you're writing the conclusion, but if you don't make time to edit and re-write, your beginning paragraphs will still bear the marks of uncertainty and confusion.Once a central point emerges, it is either repeated endlessly or lost in a muddy swamp of confusion that drags on and on.

  2. Each writer reacts differently to uncovering their own central point.

    Some are so excited to have a point on which to focus that they thrust it in the face of the reader over and over again. Other writers, once they realize their central point, go on a mission to talk about every tangent related to their point, with little order or planning, so that the point becomes buried in tangents.

  3. Easily-spotted errors

    Even if you are stellar at grammar and even if you proofread quickly before submitting, when you write under intense time pressure, there will be errors. The brain is just trying to move too quickly to catch every “your” that should be a “you're” and every “there is” that should be a “there are.” Under the influence of adrenaline, your brain is focusing on the big picture, getting the paper done, and simply cannot devote mental energy to rooting out every error.

How long should it take to edit and re-write?

If it takes you 20 hours to write a paper, shouldn't you be willing to spend five hours editing and re-writing? Otherwise, what were those first 20 hours for? To produce a flimsy, mostly-baked, not quite on-point paper?

I recommend you set aside 25% more time than it took to write the piece in the first place.

That's a ballpark average. I don't know you or your writing style or how you work best, but it's a starting point. Give it a try next time. Estimate how long you think it will take to write your paper, and plan to add 25% of that time to edit and re-write before the deadline. Aftereward, you can adjust, planning for more or less editing time for the next piece.

Your writing will vastly improve, I promise. A little time of calm editing and re-writing will absolutely take you to the next level of writing.

Photo credit: iStockPhoto, Renphoto


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