tips & tricks

Write a paper overnight

How things got this far – fear of failure, alcohol, or procrastination – is none of our business. The point is that you’ve got just one night left to write an essay. Ad Valvas explains how to do it, without recourse to cut-and-paste.

Action plan:
Collecting literature | A 6 is a pass grade | Define the problem | Speed reading articles | Finally writing | Ready to submit your paper?

If you’re going to be up all night, you’ll probably need some help to stay awake. Besides the usual coffee and Red Bull, try guarana chewing gum. Leave the Coke in the fridge; it gives a kick at first, but after half an hour the sugar brings you right down. Alcohol doesn’t really help, either. A single glass might help you find some inspiration, but after the third you aren’t going to be producing anything at an academic level.

Collecting literature

Start by going through a pile of scientific literature on your subject. If you haven’t seen the inside of the university library recently, then you’ve got a bit of a problem. But before you throw yourself to the ground weeping, check out [books.google.nl]. Google collaborates with many scientific publishers, so the texts of several books can be read online at Google Books. This could save your skin.

A 6 is a pass grade

Purists and perfectionists: throw your ambitions overboard. The point is to write an essay on time and get a pass grade for it – no more and no less. If you yearn to be brilliant, do it some other time. They aren’t going to deny you your Nobel Prize just because you once got an average grade for a paper.

Define the problem

You may be feeling a strong temptation to run to the computer and immediately start writing, but you’ll save yourself a lot of stress if you first think carefully about the structure of your article. If your usual approach is to sit at your desk and stare at the ceiling until inspiration strikes, too bad – there’s no time for that now.

Define your problem, on paper. To do this, consider the main question and formulate the relevant sub-questions. This immediately gives you the structure of your essay. Your introduction will consider the main question, and each chapter will be devoted to a sub-question. For an essay of average length, three sub-questions are enough. Divide your sub-questions into smaller part-issues; your answers to these form your paragraphs.

For example: The subject of the essay is 'San Francisco culture in the 1960s and 1970s, by reference to the book Tales from the city by Armistead Maupin'.

Main question: In what way was the culture in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s unique, and why?


• What characterized San Francisco culture in the 1960s?
- Its gay and singles culture (paragraph 1.1)
- The prevailing morality (paragraph 1.2)

• How does Armistead Maupin describe the culture in San Francisco?
- How does he describe its gay and singles culture (paragraph 2.1)
- What does he describe of its prevailing morality (paragraph 2.2)

• How did San Francisco’s special culture arise?
- The history of the city (paragraph 3.1)
-  The protest generation (paragraph 3.2)

Speed-reading articles

No, it’s still not time to start writing. For each of your sub-questions, take a piece of A4 and write down the sub-question and part-issues, leaving space between them. Grab your books and articles. Now, there are two ways to read a book. One, reading it from cover to cover, is doubtless the best for your academic education, but you don’t have time for that now. Use the fast method.

For each book read the contents page, the introduction and the conclusion. The introduction and conclusion alone will provide a great deal of useful information. The contents page will identify the chapters or sections that are directly related to your sub-questions. Read only the relevant parts.

If you find an answer to a part-issue (e.g. gay culture in San Francisco) write it down under that section on your paper, with the book title and page number.

Put a bookmark or Post-it note in place so that you can quickly find that page later. Put a Post-it note right by the relevant paragraph, so that you don’t have to re-read the whole page to find it. Repeat this process for your whole pile of literature.

At the end of this process you’ll have a list of references answering every part-issue and sub-question. Now all you have to do is write the essay! Piece of cake.

Finally writing

At last it’s time to do the actual writing. Take the pages listing your references and the books themselves. First write your introduction, defining the main question. Then start on the first chapter. Make sure each paragraph deals with a part-issue. Re-read the literature and summarize the points in your own words. If you find it difficult to let go of the original text, imagine explaining the subject to your mother. Each section will now have a number of summaries of the contents of the books and articles you have referenced. Rewrite this section to make it a coherent narrative.

The temptation to simply copy and paste sections of text from the internet might be overwhelming, but don’t do it. VU Amsterdam has an excellent plagiarism scanner, and if you’re caught you’ll get a year’s suspension.

The best choice is always to use your own words. If you must use a quotation, put it in quotation marks and add a footnote. Every time you use a different book or article, add its title to your bibliography; if you wait till the end to create your notes and bibliography, the job will take forever.

Continue working in this way until your entire problem definition has been covered, and then write a conclusion.

Ready to submit your paper?

Is it really done? Read it through to catch any odd sentences, linguistic errors, or forgotten notes. Make the frontispiece, the contents page, and the bibliography. Print everything out. Grab a cup of coffee to make sure you’re wide awake and run to the university. You wrote an essay overnight! Well done!

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