A perfectionist’s guide to your next essay with manageable tips and tricks

Photo of someone writing an essay
Caroline Lobel/Staff

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I’ve always been somebody who dreaded essays. This wasn’t necessarily because I didn’t know how to approach them, but because I worried that whatever I wrote wouldn’t be good enough. For those of you who have also agonized over perfectionism, you’ve probably gathered that it has a best friend called procrastination. They like to come in a pair. Whenever I’m scared of an essay, I’ll put it off until the very last minute. However, over the years, I’ve managed to develop a trusty approach to writing important essays. 

Step 1: Brainstorm

Brainstorming is a super low-stakes task with no pressure involved. It’s just a brainstorm — nobody has to read any of it, and you don’t even have to use any of the ideas in your essay. I like to do this on paper since it makes it easier for me to draw links between all of my thoughts and ideas, and I can easily identify patterns in my argument. Once you’ve written out all of your ideas, you can fold the paper up or hide the notes you typed — just forget they existed. Whether or not you want to refer back to it at any point throughout the writing process is completely up to you. 

Step 2: Make a plan 

Now, I’m not talking about a little outline of your key points. I’m talking about a super detailed plan with all of your ideas. In my case, making these exhaustive plans tricks my brain into practically writing half of the essay without worrying about my vocabulary, grammar or structure. This step requires time and effort; it should take you up to an hour. 

Step 3: Take a *short* break 

Although you deserve some time away from the essay, you want to make sure that you don’t give yourself too much time. By stepping away from it for too long, you risk convincing yourself that you’re not capable of writing the essay. Although you want to refresh, don’t lose the momentum that you’ve worked hard to build. You essentially know exactly what you’re going to write about, you just have to go out and do it! 

Step 4: *Only* write the introduction

I remember seeing a video about the so-called “five-minute rule.” It’s a simple way of tricking your brain into moving past the initial inertia that precedes starting an important task. When we feel threatened or anxious, this triggers our fight-or-flight response, which often halts our bodies from doing anything that could be seen as putting us in harm. The “five-minute rule” says that if you promise yourself you’ll only work on a task for five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing. This is really similar to when I tell myself I will only write the introduction. Once I’m done with at least the introduction, I’ve gotten over the initial friction of starting my essay, and I feel more confident about attempting to write the whole thing.

Step 5: Write for 30 minutes 

Give yourself goals and short amounts of time to complete them. Don’t give yourself the time to agonize over every single line. If a sentence doesn’t sound “perfect,” and you can’t think of a different one, just move on. You can always go back and edit your writing once you’re done.

Step 7: Share your ideas with others

In high school, I used to always read excerpts from my essays to my dad to see what he thought. In retrospect, I see that what I was trying to do was silence the loud thoughts in my head by having someone I trusted tell me that my writing sounded good. I was convinced that he’d hate it, but he rarely did. 

Step 8: Distance yourself

If I’m going to read over my draft to make final amends, I always make sure it’s been a couple of hours since I’ve written it. I’ll tell you now: If you read it immediately after writing it, chances are you’ll end up hating it. It’s crazy how much more rational and objective you become when you and your essay have a little bit of distance. You can change your perspective, and steer your thoughts towards a more positive outlook.

For some of you, this may seem absurd. You may be thinking to yourself, “Was an intricate step-by-step analysis necessary for an essay?” You probably don’t realize that for some of us, school assignments aren’t the most time-consuming task. Instead, it’s the psychological planning and management that comes with forcing ourselves to do something difficult. Don’t let it hold you back, though. Remind yourself of all your accomplishments, and write as if no one is watching.

Contact Salma Sarkis at [email protected].