skip to content

Sometimes the hardest task of all is to get started in the first place. If you have problems in getting started with an essay, you may be someone who tends to put off work until the last minute. Difficulties in getting started are commonly experienced by students working on an essay. The result is often a hastily produced essay that is unlikely to represent your very best, if there is simply not enough time to do enough reading or thinking to inform and develop your ideas, or to express them well. It is much harder to work at the last minute, as you have to do everything at once: thinking, reading, and expressing your ideas simultaneously, rather than separating each of these out.

This is not to say that all work produced at the last minute is bad. Students sometimes find themselves producing excellent work just before the deadline. Some people feel that pressure helps them to think better; others find that they work more efficiently as they are forced to focus and prioritise, cutting out things which may actually have been unnecessary. These qualities are positive, and it may be that understanding better how you work might help you take control over the task and produce even better work with less stress.

Sometimes the most important thing is to make a start, whatever it is, and however small. You could try:

  • Don't worry about starting 'properly' - you don't have to start by, for example, making a plan. Pick any area from this resource which you find most approachable, whether it is skimming the introduction of a book on the topic or looking over lecture notes, or free writing to work out some rough ideas.
  • Pick a small task (make sure you define it in a SMART way). 'Writing an essay' seems like a huge, off-putting task. Reading a journal abstract, or selecting a single quotation to work up into a paragraph, is not.
  • Set yourself a manageable amount of time to sit down and make a start. Don't overestimate yourself - if you can only focus for 20 minutes, that's fine, and if it's 'only' 20 minutes, it may feel more manageable. It is possible to be very productive in 20 minutes - you might spark off the beginnings of an idea or locate useful information to read later.
  • Identify displacement activities - things you do instead of the thing you're supposed to be doing. Some displacement activities, such as email or Facebook, are easier to spot. Other things - tidying your desk, making a to-do list, are more difficult to identify as displacement activities as it is easy to reason that they are 'relevant'. They might be helpful or necessary, but they might equally be a way of avoiding starting 'real' work.
  • Don't put it off until you've done a little bit. If you're tempted to put off starting work until after something which will supposedly help you focus better afterwards - such as a cup of tea or a phone call - try to do 10 minutes beforehand. You then have something to pick up later so you can get on with it faster, and you may find that you can continue without the cup of tea.
  • Collate your resources. This is a small, perhaps mechanical activity that is nonetheless vital. If you check the library catalogue for the books you need as soon as you have a reading list you can plan your weekly essay writing accordingly depending on what is available and where. Any problems you have tracking items down might be resolved quickly with help from your supervisor or library staff. Take care that you don't overwhelm yourself with resources in an attempt to delay later, more intense activities such as planning or writing. Too much information might make its organisation into a plan even harder.
  • If you feel that getting started becomes a real problem for you, you could look at the section on Procrastination in the section Pitfalls and Challenges.