I did the course. I read the articles. I chose a topic to focus on. I discussed it with the tutor. I read around the subject. I kept notes of useful references. I swapped ideas with my course mates. I planned in detail. And still I spent an estimated 20+ hours just writing the damn thing!!
Focus on your education! Image by cityyear
Writing an assignment is hard work, no doubt about it. It can be very rewarding or it can be punishing and torturous - extended moments spend starting at the flicking cursor on the screen, rewriting a sentence several times until it sounds vaguely academic, your shoulders and neck aching from being sat at the computer too long…. and still 2,000 words to go!
So how can we avoid the above and make it more rewarding? My experience over the last couple of years has taught me the following (again, some of which I have done, some of which I learned the hard way that I should have done):
- Set yourself a deadline before the deadline
Julian Edge, the now retired and very much missed tutor on my first course, offered a sage piece of advice as my course mates and I approached that first assignment date: “Don’t work to the submission deadline - tell yourself it is 2 weeks earlier and work to that deadline.” Two weeks might be a bit much but I believe it is important to aim to be finished with a few days to spare. That gives you time to check things in a much more relaxed manner and means those “I wish I had written that” moments instead become “ooh - I can still write that” moments. Besides, you never know what’s going to happen - some unexpected event (like suddenly being told you have to write report cards for each of your 180 students) may rob you of precious time right before the deadline. Better to be done or nearly done before that happens.
- Read and re-read as you go
One eye-opener from doing a course like this after a decade of teaching is how the things I advise my students to do when writing absolutely do not come naturally to me! One thing I had to train myself to do, despite the fact that I always go on at my students about it, was to read what I had written and think about how it sounded and whether it could be improved or reworded. Doing this as you go (after each section or few paragraphs for example) can really help with clarifying things that perhaps came out in a muddle. I find it my constant self-editing usually helps keep me within the word limit as well.
- Space your writing time out
Writing can actually take a lot longer than you expect. Many times, after more than an hour at the keyboard, I have looked back at what I’ve written and discovered that it amounts to just two or three hundred words. I find it’s better to plan for a ‘little and often’ approach - better to write 500 words per session over the course of a week than attempt 3,500 words in one weekend! Typing for an extended period of time is hard - it can give you headaches, a stiff neck and an ever-growing sense of despair. Writing a few hundred words each day, even if you have to force yourself to do it after a long and tiring day at work with another to come the next day, will ultimately cause you less stress than doing it all in one go.
- Check your references carefully
One thing to be very careful about when editing - you may add a reference to an article that was not in your original list or you may delete one that was originally there. Make sure you check your references list at the end of the assignment several times - you may end up forgetting to list an article you referred very briefly or leaving in an article reference that you ended up deleting from the assignment otherwise! I also find it useful to do the reference list while writing the assignment - it can be a time-consuming task to rush through at the end if you are not careful!
- Back everything up!
Keep your assignment Word file on a flash disk or external hard drive and maybe even online via a service like Dropbox. Do the same with any pdf articles and course notes you will or even might need as well. Back them up daily. Don’t let a virus, a malfunctioning hard drive, a wayward cup of coffee or a curious two-year old make your nightmares come true! If anything, just do it for peace of mind.
- Leave a little time to relax
You need time to write an assignment but it should be quality time. Better to spend an hour working in a relaxed state than 3 or 4 hours when you feel tired, stressed and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So, by all means make you assignment your priority but make a little time each day to do something for yourself as well - read a book, watch a favourite TV show, exercise, bake a cake (for me ) - if you make sure you don’t leave everything to the last minute, it should be easy.
- Print it out and read it one last time
You’ve typed the concluding sentence of the concluding paragraph, checked the word count, ran the spell-checker and completed the reference list - ah, the relief! After weeks or worrying about it and hour upon hour sat at the computer typing, you’re all done, right?
Image by Gerard Stolk
What do you always tell your students? Read the whole thing again and check that it all makes sense! The best way to do this (or so I have found) is to print the whole thing out and read it away from the screen. Somehow, certain errors that the spell/grammar checker may not pick up or certain awkwardly phrased sentences stand out more when I read them from paper. It’s good to have enough time to wait a day or two before finishing and doing this final check as well - leave some space….
Of course, the next time I deal with any of the above, I’ll be doing it on a much larger dissertation scale. I’ll let you know how that goes but in the meantime please share your tips for tackling MA assignments and extended essays. I for one would love to get some different pointers!