How does one write a paper when there really isn’t time?
I had a chapter due next week that I thought was due next month. Obviously, when I realized that yesterday, I needed to get it in gear. Let me start by saying that I have finished it, but quickly let you know that it was a chapter for a textbook and was limited to approximately 1750 words. (I actually wrote 2500, which I kept as a separate file, and then shortened the chapter for publication.)
All that to say, I know whereof I speak.
1. Write on something you already know well.
This worked for me because the chapter I had contracted to write on was something I teach regularly and have already published work on. It will work for you if it is a topic that you have studied or enjoy or know a lot about, even if you have to stretch what you know for the paper.
It also means I already have entire file folders (both real and virtual) on the topic that I can access for ideas, details, or examples.
2. Write on the computer.
That’s not an easy thing for many people. I know I prefer paper drafts. But when I am in a hurry, I write on the computer.
Writing on the computer allows me to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. What? You didn’t know English was math? It is. Writing on the computer allows me to add information easily, subtract words or sections, multiply the copies of the text (so that if I decide in three hours I needed that paragraph after all, I still have it), and divide paragraphs or sections if they get too unwieldy.
It also allows me to immediately search the web if I’m not sure, for example, how many major digressions there are in Beowulf. (Which, by the way, was a fruitless search because the digressions aren’t categorized into major and minor by anyone I could find easily.) Plus, if I use Google Scholar, then I can find articles which my library has never even heard of and–if they look useful enough–purchase them immediately. (Note: This can get expensive, obviously, but this is for fast work, not cheap work.)
You have to be careful on searches because you can end up chasing a rabbit through Wonderland without getting anywhere useful. I had 179 different websites I looked at online for this chapter. –I didn’t count them at the time, but went back through my history just now to check.– Some of those are still open because the information was very useful for something else but not so much for my chapter. I added two PDFs to my virtual folders while I was searching as well.
Don’t look at too many things (how many that will be depends on how well you know your subject, how long you have to write, and whether you can stay focused). If you are in a hurry, you can’t spend too much time on a scavenger hunt. I abandoned two ideas I really wanted to write on (animals and religion) because I needed to get the work done.
Working on the computer also allows me to make sure that my spelling is correct and that the words mean what I think they mean. (What? You thought English teachers were always sure of those things? Nope. But my spelling was correct, even when the computer didn’t recognize the words, and the words did mean what I thought they meant… this time.)
3. Write an outline and follow it.
In this I was unusually blessed. The chapter came with an outline I had to follow. The outline didn’t say what to write for each section, I had to figure that out, but it did keep me focused on my topics: theme, character, history, context, etc.
Note: I went back to check another work I wrote, just now, and found that it had misspelled a name with spell check (so I have about 30 misspellings of Posthumus from Cymbeline) and I missed a s-v agreement issue when I changed a sentence. OUCH.
4. Don’t try to do everything.
I had a limited number of words I could write and a limited number of hours to write them in. I skipped major topics that I would have liked to have written individual papers on in the interests of getting the work done.
Does that mean I didn’t do the work well?
No, it doesn’t. It means that I concentrated on the aspects of the topic that I could already write a chapter on (with perhaps some access to my notes and a few fact-checking forays into the net). And I chose to not write about what I knew I couldn’t do quickly or that I would be unhappy with if I shortened.
That is one good thing about writing. If I want to write more later, I can. While I won’t be able to publish it in that chapter, I can use it in my classroom or somewhere else. Knowing that helps me to stay focused on getting the paper done.