Look, I know you would never procrastinate on writing a paper. That’s just not you. You know that presenting and supporting a solid argument requires many time-consuming steps, and that your papers will always, always come out better when you plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to research, outline, write, and revise. BUT, in certain situations, the last minute may be the only minute you’ve got.
I get it—you were swamped with assignments this week. You had to pick up some extra shifts because you’ve already spent your entire meal plan on Starbucks. Maybe the assignment just slipped your mind. Either way, it’s midnight and you’re just now coming to terms with the fact that your paper has to be on your professor’s desk at 8 am. But it’s not necessarily the end of your GPA as we know it. So stop feverishly calculating the damage to your grade and get drafting. While it’s definitely not the ideal, it IS possible to complete a paper in just one night. Here’s how:
Caffeine. Caffeine. Caffeine. Get the caffeine. Get all the caffeine. Consume whatever it is that you know will keep you awake—coffee, Red Bull, Five-Hour Energy, your own tears—and consume it in the quantity that you know will keep you awake. Do I advise taking in large amounts of these beverages on a regular basis? NO. Is tomorrow going to suck? PROBABLY. But if you’re like most college students—read: constantly exhausted—then the single biggest threat to your 8-hour paper is the possibility that you fall asleep. Even if you don’t think it’s going to happen, it probably will. So don’t come crying to me when you wake up on the floor at 7:49 am surrounded by notes with only a page of your draft finished. You have been warned. Deal with the abdominal pains and fatigue tomorrow. That’s Future You’s problem. Meditate on that struggle. After all, you did this to yourself!
If you’re sensitive to caffeine, I recommend chewing gum, singing as you write, slapping yourself repeatedly in the face, or eating energizing fruits like apples. And don’t you dare dim those lights.
Hour 1: Word Vomit & Research
Once you’re good and caffeinated, sit down with a blank piece of paper or a word document and write down everything you know or think you know about your topic. Then write down what you think your thesis statement might be. Don’t spend too much time on this—fifteen minutes should be enough to get down your ideas. And don’t waste time trying to make it pretty. You can do that later.
After that, start collecting sources. Jot down valuable quotes and pieces of information as you go along, and always make sure to attribute these pieces of informations to their sources in your notes so you don’t forget where you got it from and accidentally plagiarize. Build a citation for a source as soon as you’re sure you’re going to use that source. If you wait until the end to cite all of your sources, you’ll be forced to rush and your citations run a higher risk of coming out sloppy.
Hour 2: Connecting & Forming Points
Have a look at your word vomit alongside your collected research. What does the research support? What does the research contradict? What logical inferences can you make based upon the connections between these materials? Write these down. Use what you learn here to make adjustments to your working thesis statement (which you’ll continue doing until the very end, by the way).
After that, use the connections you’ve made to begin forming the points that will support your thesis. Each of these will become a paragraph. You might even start writing a little bit about each of them—but we’ll get to that in Hour 3.
Hour 3: Break & Drafting
Spend about 15 or 20 minutes away from your paper. Go for a walk, take a shower, make yourself a snack—whatever you want to do, as long as you don’t completely put the paper out of your mind. You’ve formed your basic ideas; now allow them to gestate. Consider how you might connect your points, and what strategies you can use to argue them.
When those 15 or 20 minutes are up, start writing for real. Keep your sources, your word vomit, and your points nearby, and use them to push your draft along. Again, it doesn’t have to be pretty right now—the idea is to get out as much material as you can, and polish it later.
Hour 4: Follow-up Research, Incorporating, & More Writing
Now that you’ve started writing, you may have noticed a few holes in your argument. Which paragraphs are looking a little skimpier than others? What points are you having a difficult time supporting or explaining? Additional sources may help to clear some things up—and now’s the time to look for them! You might use the information you find to expound on a point you’ve already made (in which case you should be sure to keep it attached to the appropriate paragraph), or you might use it to create a new point altogether (in which case you’ll probably want to create a new paragraph).
As you work to incorporate your new sources, continue to churn out as much material as possible. (Tip: after a direct quote, spend a couple of sentences unpacking the information in your own words. This helps you to meet the length requirement and makes your paper more awesome.)
Hour 5: Even More Writing
This is where you finish the “first draft,” so to speak. Keep going until all of your body paragraphs are completed and you’ve just about reached the minimum length. This is when you’ll add in your introduction and conclusion paragraphs. Depending on your style, some of the information needed in these paragraphs may appear elsewhere in the paper, in which case you can simply move it. Consult your original word vomit, too—there may be useful stuff there.
The main things that you need, though, are your working thesis statement (you may want to tweak it a bit now, depending on where you’ve ended up) and your main points, which already appear in your body paragraphs—lean on these!
Don’t forget to add in necessary headings, cover pages, etc., depending on what citation style you’re using.
Hour 6: Revision & Editing
Read the entire paper. Closely. Typically, revision and editing are separate activities, but you don’t have time for that right now—so fix grammatical, mechanical, and spelling errors as you go along. This is also where the “polishing” step comes in—if something sounds weird, reword it. Consider the main topic of each of your paragraphs and keep an eye out for any information that’s out of place. Look back over that citation list, too.
After correcting errors and shifting things around, read through the paper one last time just to be sure you didn’t fumble with your keyboard and mess something up (you’re pretty sleep deprived, after all).
And that’s it! Print it out, turn it in, and pick up some more caffeine if you have to. When you’re done with all of your responsibilities for the day, call it an early night. You’ve earned it. You can worry about your grade later.
I’m pretty sure I’ve used this method. On more than one occasion.