You said you wouldn’t do it. You swore you’d get all of your work done on time and never wait until the last minute to start something important. It’s far too easy to put that paper off until whoops it’s due tomorrow and you have one paragraph done out of ten pages. All is not lost, however. You can and will survive this unfortunate event by keeping a few things in mind.
What kind of paper are you writing?
There are different levels of panic and the difference between them is determined by the type and length of your paper. A ten-page reflection paper on your favorite movie is going to be easier than ten pages on the racial history leading up to Melville’s Benito Cereno.
Recognizing the type of paper you’re writing will help you keep the end goal in mind—to inform your professor of your opinion, to convince him of something or to present a literary analysis that doesn’t read like you just pulled it from nowhere in desperation.
Do you know where you’re going with your paper?
Never underestimate the power of the outline. A bubble map may seem like a silly thing to do, but in reality even a few bullet points can work to keep you on track and ensure that you stick to your thesis while you write.
The most important thing to do when writing in a time crunch is to get as much written as possible first. On the rare (I swear it’s rare) occasion that I procrastinate to this extent, I find a good time to buckle down and write straight through to the end of my paper while glancing at my outline for guidance. What emerges is usually a mess, but at least it’s a step towards a completed paper.
Have you found the perfect writing spot?
The key to getting your paper done and hopefully also grabbing a few hours’ shuteye is to avoid distracting yourself. Do this by finding a spot that will encourage you to get your work done.
You might want to try a new study space like the top floor of the library, or somewhere without Wi-Fi, where the only thing you can do is write. I know I’ll get bored while working so I always buy a huge bag of candy from the school convenience store to snack on when I get fidgety. A ton of sugar in a time of crisis can only help, right?
Are you prepared to go hard?
You’re going to be in a very weird mood while writing your paper the night before it’s due; the combination of panic and the onset of exhaustion may send you spiraling into despair, which will lead to frequent study breaks. You do not have time for this. You’ve already procrastinated enough and now it’s time to get off Tumblr and write that essay.
Your mission is to stay awake and stay on task, so do whatever it takes. Have a 60-second dance party to wake up your body. Work next to a friend who will glare at you in stony silence until you close Facebook. Maybe even go so far as to install an application like SelfControl which will block certain websites for a set period of time. Or use my method and reach for a gummy worm whenever you find your finger twitching towards YouTube. All that matters is that you keep going.
That being said, can you recognize when it’s time to quit?
At some point during the night, you’ll be so tired that writing more will actually lower your grade. It’s time to stop, do one last read-through, end with a strong conclusion (because that’s your last chance to leave your professor with a good impression) and go to sleep.
You have done the best you can do in the time you had left, and it’s time to snuggle up to sweet dreams of never procrastinating again.
If those trips down to the demos in Westminster have left you behind schedule for your end-of-term assignment, you may well be forced to write in the small hours this week. Here's how to pull it off safely and successfully.
12am: Get as far away from your bed as possible
Before you begin, avoid warmth and soft furnishings. Propped up on pillows in the glow of a laptop may feel like savvy ergonomics, but your keyboard will start to look pillow-like by midnight, and 418 pages of the word "gf64444444444444444444" will detract from the force of your argument. You could try the kitchen. Or Krakow. But your industrially lit 24-hour campus library should do the trick.
12:25am: Take a catnap
Thomas Edison used to catnap through the night with a steel ball in his hand. As he relaxed and the ball dropped, he would wake up, usually with fresh ideas. "Caffeine and a short nap make a very effective combination," says Jim Horne, director of the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre. "Have the coffee first. This takes about 20 minutes to work, so take a 15-minute nap. Use an alarm to wake up and avoid deep sleep kicking in. Do this twice throughout the night."
12.56am: Reduce your internet options
Temporarily block Twitter, Spotify, Group Hug, YouTube, 4od and anything else that distracts you. Constantly updating your word count on Facebook may feel like fun, but to everyone else you'll look like you're constantly updating your word count on Facebook.
1-3am: Now write your essay. No, really
You've widened your margins, subtly enlarged your font and filled your bibliography with references of such profound obscurity that no one will notice you're missing 3,000 words. It's time to brainstorm, outline, carve words, followed by more words, into that milk-white oblivion that taunts you. Speed-read articles. Key-word Google Books. Remember texts you love and draw comparisons. Reword. Expound. Invent. Neologise. Get excited. Find a problem you can relish and keep writing. While others flit from point to point, your impassioned and meticulous analysis of a single contention is music to a marker's eyes.
3-5am: Get lost in your analysis, your characters, your world Write like you're trying to convince the most stubborn grammarian about truth, or heartless alien invaders about love. Don't overload with examples – be creative with the ones you have. Detail will save your life, but don't waste time perfecting sentences – get the bulk down first and clean up later. "The progress of any writer," said Ted Hughes, "is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system." Outwit your own inner police system. Expect progress. Ted says so.
5:01am: Don't cheat
It's about now that websites such as easyessay.co.uk will start to look tempting. And you may sleep easier knowing that a dubiously accredited Italian yoga instructor is writing about Joyce instead of you. But the guilt will keep you up between now and results day. And you'll toss and turn the night before graduation, job interviews, promotions, dinner parties, children's birthdays, family funerals . . . you get the idea.
5.17am: Don't die
Sounds obvious, but dying at your computer is definitely trending. And however uncool it may seem to "pass on" during a five-day stint at World of Warcraft, it will be much more embarrassing to die explaining perspectivism to no one in particular. So be careful. Stay hydrated. Blink occasionally. And keep writing.
5.45am: Eat something simple
"There are no foods that are particularly good at promoting alertness," says Horne. "But avoid heavy and fatty meals in the small hours. Avoid very sugary drinks that don't contain caffeine, too. Sugar is not very effective in combating sleepiness." Fun fact: an apple provides you with more energy than a cup of coffee. Now stick the kettle on.
5.46am: Delight in being a piece of living research
If you happen to be "fatigue resistant" you should now be enjoying the enhanced concentration, creative upwelling and euphoric oneness that sleep deprivation can bring. If not, try talking yourself into it. "Conversation keeps you awake," says Horne. "So talk to a friend or even to yourself – no one will hear you."
6am: Console yourself with lists of writers who stuck it out
Robert Frost was acquainted with the night. Dumas, Kafka, Dickens, Coleridge, Sartre, Poe and Breton night-walked and trance-wrote their way to literary distinction. John and Paul wrote A Hard Day's Night in the small hours. Herman the Recluse, atoning for broken monastic vows, is said to have written the Codex Gigas on 320 sheets of calfskin during a single night in 1229. True, he'd sold his soul to the Devil, but you're missing out on a live Twitter feed, so it's swings and roundabouts.
7am: Remember – art is never finished, only abandoned
Once you accept there's no more you can do, print it off and get to the submissions office quick. Horne: "You're not fit to drive if you've had less than five hours sleep, so don't risk it. Grab some exercise." Pop it in with the breeziness that comes from being top of your marker's pile. Back home, unblock Facebook and start buffering The Inbetweeners. And then sleep. Get as near to your bed as you can. Euphoric oneness doesn't come close.
Matt Shoard teaches creative writing at the University of Kent.