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Writing Assignments: Maintaining Your Train of Thought and Avoiding Obstacles on the Track

Josh, 4th Year, Kinesiology

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I have always preferred to focus on one project at a time. I tend to pick an assignment to focus on and immerse myself in it. Once I start working on something I want to keep working until it is finished and I can check it off my to-do list.

If your brain works anything like mine, a million ideas will pop into your head as you start to write or plan your essay and you just have to get them out. But sometimes that isn’t possible. Our schedules just don’t work that way. Between other classes, clubs, committees, and social life, you’re bound to have another commitment that gets in the way and forces you to focus on something else.

These interruptions can be a challenge when writing a long research paper or essay. However, like all of life’s challenges, there are strategies to help overcome interruptions in the writing process. Here are a few strategies that I use to help maintain my train of thought when I am writing long assignments over time.  

  1. Start early: This may seem like an obvious one, and I’m sure you have heard it before, but starting early is especially important for longer writing assignments that you may have to put on hold for a while mid-semester. Taking a quick look at the assignment instructions will help you estimate how long it will take and how early you need to start.If you anticipate interruptions, you will be able to plan ahead and you won’t end up scrambling the night before the deadline. If starting an assignment is often overwhelming for you, SASS has a great collection of resources on managing large assignments, procrastination and time management.
  2. Make an outline: Making an outline is an important first step towards writing any paper. It will help you organize and plan your essay, which will make the actual writing stage much easier. The outline will also provide natural sub-divisions of your paper that will help you set goals for completing different components over time. If you return to working on your paper after a brief time away from it, the outline will help you become re-acquainted with the work so you can get right back into it. Check out the SASS resource on developing an outline.
  3. Set goals: Long writing assignment can seem overwhelming, and people often struggle with where to begin and how to pace their progression towards completing the assignment. Settings goals for completing certain components of the assignment will help you budget your time, and will make the assignment seem much more manageable. Examples of such a goal might be “complete the outline by week 4” or “finish writing 5 pages by reading week.” The outline that you create may be a useful starting point for developing your goals.
  4. Write yourself notes: Many times I have been working on an assignment and suddenly I realise it’s time for class, a meeting, or an intense squash match. I’m in the midst of writing, with a whole paragraph or outline planned out, and I know that I’ll never remember my train of thought the next time I sit down to continue working. When this happens, I take the last 5 minutes before I leave to jot down everything I had been thinking or planning to write. Simple jot notes like “write about novel’s setting” or “use evidence from Smith et al. study”. Anything that will help you remember what you were thinking. By writing notes for yourself, you will be able to pick up right where you left off when you last worked on the paper.
  5. Keep track of sources: When you are writing in segments or over a longer period of time, it can be difficult to keep track of where you found your information. However, appropriate referencing is extremely important to avoid academic dishonesty and plagiarism. To keep track of my sources while writing, I will often paste the link of a source or the name of an author next to relevant information as a temporary placeholder to be replaced later by the formal citation. Reference management software like EndNote is also helpful, especially when using a numeric citation style, because it will automatically adjust the numbering if you add another source earlier in the paper.

Everyone has their own methods, and what works for me may not work for you. However, if you often find yourself trying to write a whole paper in one sitting, these tips might help save you some late nights, and you’ll be on the track to stress-free writing. Next stop: success!