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You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat – A Time Management Guide to Essay Writing

By Becky Bando, 3rd year Con-Ed/English student

Da-dum. Are you overwhelmed with essay assignments?

Da-dum. Have you ever questioned whether an essay is doable in the length of time you are given?

Da-dum da-dum da-dum. Do you ever hear the theme song from the movie Jaws play in your head as the essay due date comes closer? If so, then this is the guide for you!


As a 3rd-year student taking four English courses, this is a song I hear every time I receive a new essay assignment. It can be difficult juggling just one essay, let alone four. That being said, on New Year’s Eve, I (and likely many of you) made a resolution to be more organized by better managing my time—starting with my essays. Here are my top 6 Jaws-themed tips to better manage your time when writing essays.

Tip #1: Start early!

In literature, the term hamartia is used to describe a protagonist’s error or tragic flaw. In the case of the protagonist in Jaws, one of Brody’s greatest flaws is his prolonged procrastination. Brody is one of the first officers to hear about the shark attacks that are killing people at the beach, but he doesn’t do anything about them until three people are killed. An essay works the same way in that the later you start it, the worse the end product is likely to be. I’m not saying you need to write your entire essay within the first few days of receiving it, but reading the rubric and essay question early will give your brain time to start formulating ideas.

Tip #2: Break it Down

I will admit, although Brody could have prevented two of the shark deaths if he had not procrastinated, it wasn’t all his fault. You could tell that he was very much in denial over the idea that a giant man-eating great white shark could be feeding at his local beach. In fact, Brody finds this idea is so overwhelming that he stalls on taking action. An essay can have the same paralyzing effect, since an essay can seem so lengthy and complex that it can be hard to determine how to approach it, which can then result in procrastination. Breaking down a large essay into smaller tasks can assist in making the assignment appear less difficult, and is a more efficient use of your time. A great tool for getting the ball rolling is the assignment calculator on Queen’s Student Academic Success Services site. Once you input the essay type and due date, the site divides the essay into 10-15 smaller tasks and provides helpful handouts on how to accomplish each task.

Tip #3: Don’t Let Your Engine Burn Out!

In Jaws, Quint is a professional at capturing deadly sharks and is hired to catch the one on Brody’s beach. Once his crew is able to trap the shark, they decide to drag the shark back to the shore by boat. Quint, wanting to get back to shore as fast as possible, pushes his boat’s motor to travel at the maximum speed, resulting in the motor burning out and leaving the crew stranded. Similarly, trying to plough through an essay can lead to losing energy and focus, resulting in detrimental errors that you may not recognize right away. One of the most common errors is misreading the assignment instructions or rubric, forcing you to redo your entire essay at the last minute. To avoid these mistakes, rather than waiting until the last day of each week to complete the smaller tasks into which you have divided your essay, you should treat your essay the same way you treat your readings. Normally, when English courses assign 8 hours of readings, students will spread those readings across the week by doing an hour or two each day. This is a great strategy for being fully engaged when you are doing your readings, because it helps students retain more of the information they read. This strategy can also be applied to essay writing. Try to allocate one hour each day to working on your essay, and write down in your agenda or planner the bare minimum you hope to have completed each day. This strategy is often referred to as “distributed learning,” and will help keep your engine running to avoid burn out.

Tip #4: Choose to Write About Something You Actually Like

Since you will be working on this essay every day, it’s better to choose to write about a topic that you find interesting, instead of one that you think your professor will like. This strategy may seem simple, but typically students write higher-quality papers when they’re writing about something they are passionate about. Just look at Quint – catching the biggest shark in the world was definitely a huge motivator for him. While this strategy can at times be difficult when essay instructions are very specific, professors are often flexible about students tweaking their essay topics. In fact, slightly altering your essay topic may make it more interesting for the professor read, because it can give them a break from reading 30 other essays on the same subject. Just make sure you talk to your professor before you write your paper on your idea.

Tip #5: It’s All Right to Ask for Help

After Quint’s boat motor burns out, Brody decides to call for help, but before he can give the coordinates for their location, Quint purposely destroys the phone. In first year I used to think that I should ask for as little help from my professors as possible so that they wouldn’t view me as a weaker writer. While this may not have hurt my grades, I know I would have earned a higher mark if I had spoken to my professors. I highly recommend talking to your professors/TAs, especially at the beginning of an essay when you are forming your ideas, to ensure you’re on the right track. I have never met a professor who wasn’t willing to help me write a better paper. Another great resource is the Writing Centre; there, you can book one-on-one appointments with peer writing assistants or professional writing consultants who are happy to provide you with advice on your paper at any stage of the writing process. It’s always good to have another person read your essay, to catch those errors that you may not spot at first glance and to build your confidence as a writer by offering positive feedback.

Tip #6: Be Realistic

Do you remember Matt Hooper from Jaws? He was the oceanographer who took action when he heard about the shark attacks. Hooper represents the type of student who follows all of these tips when it comes to writing an essay, but runs into tragic events that he has no control over. Sometimes, a decent essay takes more time to write than the time you are given due to other courses and responsibilities. In moments like this, the best course of action is to talk to your professor and politely request an extension. While this can be nerve-wracking, you must remember that your professors were once students themselves. As long as you ask your professor at least one week in advance of the essay deadline, most of the time, they will give you an extension. The worst thing that can happen is that your professor says “no”. When I asked for an extension, I worried about my professor marking me harder, but after receiving comments back on my essay, I realized that my professors really do have my best interests at heart.  Plus, if you are following tip #1 and start your essay early, your professor may even be impressed if you ask for an extension as it shows that you are being proactive and taking initiative.

And that’s it! I am confident that if you follow these six tips, you’ll find that the Jaws theme song will not sound as loud or scary in your head when you receive future essay assignments. Who knows? You may even find yourself enjoying essay writing.


Photo courtesy of Pixabay under CC0 Creative Commons license.