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How to Write an Essay Quickly and Easily

Updated on August 28, 2014
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Many students dread doing essays, but not because they hate school. The truth is, writing an essay can take up a huge chunk of your time, especially if there's a major research component.

Not surprisingly, some students try to cut down on their work by copying and pasting their essays from the Internet. This might seem like a time-saver, but it can actually get you in a lot of trouble.

Thanks to sophisticated programs like Turnitin, it's easier than ever for teachers and professors to check academic essays for plagiarism. And if you're aiming for a good GPA, the last thing you want is a big, fat zero on your paper.

So how do you really save time writing an essay?

Well, the answer might just surprise you. There's really no magic formula for completing an essay quickly, but if you're smart about how you organize your time, you can cut hours and even days off the writing process.

Some of the tips I've suggested below may sound a little counter-intuitive (doing your footnotes as you write-- really?). But after years of writing academic essays, I can tell you that these steps will save you time.

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Use an outline

Your first time-saving step is to create an outline. Before you write even a word of your essay, you need an outline to serve as a blueprint. Having one will keep you from wasting time going back through your notes.

With an outline, all of your essay "building blocks"-- including your thesis, arguments and conclusion-- will always be in the same place. You'll feel more confident when you're writing if all the major details are hammered out already.

An outline can take many different forms, but I'd suggest using a standard Word document with three separate headings. These headings represent the three sections of your paper-- thesis, arguments, and conclusion.

For each section, take ten minutes and write down as much detail as you can (3 sections x 10 minutes= 30 minutes total). By the end of the exercise, you should have a rough thesis statement and conclusion, plus your main arguments organized on the same sheet of paper. Of course, it's important to do your research first so you know what information to fill in.

If this standard format doesn't appeal to you, feel free to get creative. Most teachers don't require students to submit their outlines for marks, which can work to your advantage.

You should absolutely customize your outline to make it reflect the way you think. If you're a visual person, make it into a flow chart. If you want something more tangible, use index cards to organize your ideas. Just be sure you don't spend too much time crafting the fine details.

For maximum efficiency, limit yourself to no more than 30-40 minutes for an outline.

Time is of the essence-- set a firm schedule and stick to it!
Time is of the essence-- set a firm schedule and stick to it! | Source

Stick to a schedule

Students tend to think of essay writing as one monolithic (and exhausting) chore. But there are actually many different stages to writing an essay.

There's the initial planning phase, where you come up with a topic and maybe a basic idea for a thesis. Then there's the research phase, which is maybe the most important (and tedious) step. This leads into the organizing phase, the time when you put your research notes in order and create an outline. And finally, there's the writing and editing phase.

One of the most common mistakes students make is trying to combine all of these different stages into one. Not only is this nearly impossible to do, it can actually cost you more time.

If you're working on the computer, having a bunch of different windows open at once (a browser for research, a Word document for writing, another document for composing an outline-- the list goes on) can be overly complicated and distracting.

It's much more efficient to allocate time for each separate task, and then commit to not moving forward until that task is completed. For example, you can decide to spend 3 hours doing research, then another 30 minutes composing an outline, then another 2 hours writing the paper.

Use a timer, a homemade schedule, or a productivity app to keep track of your time. Whatever you do, don't take on too many tasks at once. You'll work much more quickly if you isolate the different stages of the essay-writing process.

Whether you have a whole bookshelf of sources or only a few, make sure you keep track of them!
Whether you have a whole bookshelf of sources or only a few, make sure you keep track of them! | Source

Keep track of your sources

Whether you're using APA, MLA, or Chicago Style, it's important to stay on top of your sources when writing an essay. It's tempting to leave this until the very end of the writing process, but this can actually cost you a lot of time.

For ultimate efficiency, I'd recommend filling out your footnotes and endnotes-- even in point form-- while you write. Each time you use a direct quotation or paraphrase another author, write it down!

Too often, students figure they'll just "remember" where they took the information from and fill in the details later. But this can lead to hours spent tracking down sources during the editing stage, when your energy will already be depleted.

And if you don't fill out references while you go, you'll be more tempted to not do them at all, which can cost you mega marks.

The good news is that you don't need to fill out references in full when you're writing a draft. I'd suggest developing a system as you work. For example, you might only include only the author's name and page number at first, then go back and fill out the full publisher details once the draft is finished.

Whatever you do, be consistent with your formatting. If you keep good notes, it'll be a breeze filling in your references and bibliography at the end of your paper.

Let your ideas flow and don't worry too much about editing until later.
Let your ideas flow and don't worry too much about editing until later. | Source

Write first, edit later

It's a strategy practiced by professional writers the world over-- don't edit while you write! It may be tempting to correct those awkward phrases as you go, but excessively fine-tuning your work can cost you a lot of time.

Work towards finishing an entire draft of your essay first, before you begin to edit. Try to get everything down you've been meaning to say, including all of those little points you're worried don't "fit" anywhere. Then, start from the beginning of your essay and read it again slowly.

You should think of each read-over as a separate "pass" with a specific goal. For the first pass, look for any obvious spelling or grammar errors (remember-- spell check doesn't catch them all!)

For the second pass, pay attention to the flow of your writing. This is when you can check/fix any awkward or unclear sentences in your work.

The third pass is what I like to call a "content pass." Spend this pass making sure your arguments actually hold water and your evidence clearly supports each argument.

Finally, give it a fast fourth pass to polish up the "look" of your paper. Make sure the headings, margins, and spacing are all appropriate and consistent. Just because you're working quickly doesn't mean your essay has to look unprofessional.

It may seem counter-intuitive to conduct multiple "passes" of your paper, but it's actually a very efficient way of working. You'll never catch every grammatical error, unclear sentence, and incomplete footnote in a single read-over.

By isolating the tasks you need to do in each pass, you'll work quickly and make more constructive changes to your paper.

Turn that frown upside down! A positive attitude will help you get the work done more quickly.
Turn that frown upside down! A positive attitude will help you get the work done more quickly. | Source

Stay positive

When you're writing an essay, the most important thing is to keep a positive attitude.

Whether you're planning on an all-nighter or are writing weeks before the due date, don't beat yourself up if you're struggling to get the work done.

Make sure you take frequent breaks away from the computer and keep your spirits up while you're writing. Eat a good meal or have a friend over to help you work. With a little patience and a lot of perseverance, you can get any essay done on time, even if you've left it until the last minute.

When do you usually begin working on an essay?

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