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7 Time Management Tips for Academic Writers

Tonya Thompson

Published on
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Between a 12-credit course load and work assignments, the life of a student—whether part-time or full-time—can get stressful. But before you down that eleventh cup of coffee and spend yet another sleepless night trying to meet deadlines for academic writing assignments, here are seven time management tips for academic writers to make your semester less stressed.

With the right kind of time management, your academic writing assignments can be less stressful.
With the right kind of time management, your academic writing assignments can be less stressful. Photo by Kaylah Otto on Unsplash.

#1. Establish a timeline and stick to it

There's really no way around it—academic writing requires time and preparation. This is especially true if you are in advanced undergraduate classes or graduate school. Gone are the days when you could procrastinate on a writing assignment, stay up all night the night before the due date to get it written, then still manage a good grade on the result. It's simply impossible to pull of when advanced research is involved.

Time Management for the Serial Procrastinator

When you're given an assignment that will be due in one month, first determine the steps that will be involved with that assignment. For most academic writing assignments, such as essays or research papers, these steps will include:

  • A trip to the library or online research to find sources
  • Time to read through the sources
  • Time to take notes and cite the sources used
  • Time to outline the intended direction of your writing and develop a thesis statement / argument / hypothesis
  • Time to write the rough draft
  • Finding an editor or "second pair of eyes" to look over your work
  • Time to complete the final draft
  • Time to complete the list of references or sources in a standard format

Depending on the scope of your assignment, locating and reading through your sources could take anywhere from an hour to several weeks, so it's best to get started on this part of the academic writing assignment as quickly as possible. Some professors also place parameters on the types of sources you use or the dates they were published, which can add additional time and stress to this part of the process.

If your academic writing project is a thesis or dissertation, obviously, there are many more steps involved than the basic ones listed above. However, regardless of the assignment given, it's important to plan out the steps that will be involved and establish a workable timeline that you can stick with.

#2. Turn off your phone and social media accounts while writing/researching

We've all been there—that moment when you're focused on a topic of study, or in the middle of writing, and your mind begins to move toward a deeper level of analysis. You begin to think clearly, the words flow smoother, and then suddenly…ding! A Facebook notification comes in and you lose it all.

How much time did it take you to get to that place of focus—the place you found before the notification distracted you? Ten minutes? Maybe more? You're now back at square one, with muddled thoughts, and a looming deadline that requires you to once again find focus.

When you're in the process of researching and writing, constant interruptions can cause more delay than you realize, because it's more than those few seconds of interruptions. It's the added minutes required to once again focus your thoughts on the task at hand, and often, those minutes add up to hours if enough distractions are around you. This is especially true of social media, which can end up causing you to waste time on scrolling through yet more mindless memes and cute cat photos.

#3. Outline your writing

Writing without outlining is like driving a train with no tracks. To achieve a cohesive, well-written essay, you need an outline that gives you a general direction to take. It will help save time in the end by ensuring that your writing moves in the right direction.

The time you should spend outlining your essay is dependent on the time you have to write it. For example, if it's an in-class assignment and you have an hour to write it, obviously, you shouldn't spend more than 5 to 10 minutes on the outline. However, if you have a month to pull together an academic essay assignment, you should spend several days creating an outline that will include all of the necessary elements the essay requires (e.g., introduction, thesis statement, body, and conclusion).

If your academic assignment requires an abstract, your outline will be useful in writing it. The outline should contain an introduction to the problem, your thesis statement, and the points or hypotheses you plan to make. All of these will be necessary when composing your abstract.

Perfecting Your Thesis Statement

#4. Create your citations as you go

As you read through your sources and conduct research on the topic, go ahead and make a citation for each source used in the citation format your assignment requires. This is best done on note cards, placing the quote to be used on one side (along with the page number) and the full citation on the other. From this point, all that will be required is alphabetizing the sources used and typing them out in a references list. This is a great time-saving method and will cut a large chunk of time out of what's required to prepare the final draft before submitting your essay.

To save even more time with citations, if while you're reading over your sources and you have access to the laptop you'll be writing your paper on, go ahead and put the citations in a saved file. Some word processing programs will even put the citation in the correct format based on the citation style you choose. You can also use online resources such as Citation Machine to help with this part of the writing process.

#5. Set a daily word count goal while writing

After establishing a timeline for your academic writing assignment, you should know exactly how many days you have to work on the writing portion. Divide that amount equally by your word count requirement and make sure you reach your word count goal each day you write.

For example, if your essay should be four to five pages long, double spaced and not including the citation portion of your paper, that is approximately 1,200 to 1,500 words (300 words per page of double-spaced writing is a good estimate). If you have a week to research and turn in your assignment, set aside a day for research and gathering sources, a day for outlining and reading over sources, three days to write (with a goal of hitting 500 words a day), a day to have someone proofread and edit, then a day for you to wrap up the final draft.

#6. Take breaks away from the screen and books

While taking breaks might seem counterproductive to saving time, it isn't. The strain of staring at small text in your source material and the bright light of a screen creates added tension that is best avoided by taking consistent breaks away from your research and writing work. Not doing so can produce headaches, blurry vision, eye strain and trouble sleeping—all of which could potentially affect your ability to work and think clearly the next day.

If possible, be sure to take these breaks by going outside and breathing in fresh air. If you can't manage to get outside for a few minutes, other healthy options are meditating, closing your eyes and listening to music, a yoga flow, and holding a plank position for several minutes to reduce stress on the lower back.

When writing and researching, be sure to take breaks by going outside and breathing in fresh air.
When writing and researching, be sure to take these breaks by going outside and breathing in fresh air. Photo by Joshua yu on Unsplash.

#7. Plan ahead for someone to check your work

You can spend days writing and preparing your academic paper, but a few misspelled words or grammar errors can end up costing you a passing grade on your work. That's why you don't want to rely on software to check your work for errors.

While your word processing program and online programs such as Grammarly might seem like a good option, particularly when you're pressed for time, evidence shows that they fail to catch even simple grammar and spelling errors.

If you can't pay a professional editor to edit your work, many universities offer peer editing services in computer labs, libraries, or some other convenient spot on campus. Often, these services are free to students, but may require you to schedule an appointment in advance. If this is the option you end up taking, on the day you receive your assignment, be sure to call ahead and find out how to schedule a peer review session of your paper and leave yourself an extra day after that review to make any changes to the rough draft.

However, you manage to do it, always have a second pair of eyes look over your writing before you turn it in as a final draft. Sometimes, it's easy to miss even the most blatant grammar and spelling errors after focusing on one document for a long time. And no amount of research or preparation will make an essay full of typos an easy A.

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