1. There’s no right way to get started.
Some people like to outline or do other pre-writing exercises; others like to dive right in. Contrary to what you may have learned, neither is better than the other. Do what suits you best. And don’t worry if your first draft is bad because first drafts usually are. All you should worry about right now is getting something down on paper.
2. Limit distraction aka the internet.
Turn off your Wi-Fi or go to a location where there’s no wireless. If you really can’t control yourself (and you have a Mac), spend $10 on the program Freedom, which disables the internet for a pre-set amount of time. An alternative would be the Slowly app, which will slow your internet down so much you won’t really want to go online.
3. Take breaks, though.
Have a snack. Stretch. Even check Facebook for a few minutes if you promise yourself another hour of solid focus.
4. Stuck? Change environments.
New surroundings may help inspire new thought. So if you’ve been holed up in your room all day, go down to the library or to a café.
5. When you have a draft, print it out.
Changing media will distance you from what you’ve been writing (and give your eyes a break from the screen). Take out a pen and read your printed draft slowly, putting yourself in your instructor or professor’s shoes. Mark it up. What questions or comments would you have?
6. Or — even better — read it aloud.
This won’t work if you’re in public, but if you’re home and your roommate won’t think you’re too crazy, try reading your paper out loud to yourself. Your eyes are much more forgiving of error than your ears, so this way you’ll definitely identify that clunky sentence or that missing word.
7. Don’t ignore your inner editor.
You’re the only person who knows what you intend to say. So be honest with yourself when something isn’t yet quite right.
8. Enlist the help of a friend.
Have him or her read your paper and give honest feedback. Don’t pick someone who’ll be shy to critique you. While praise can help boost your confidence, you don’t want to become confident about something that isn’t actually as good as it can be.
9. Or — better yet — have your friend read your draft out loud to you.
This will probably be a bit awkward, but it’ll be a great opportunity for you to hear how someone else reads your paper. (After all, that’s what your TA or professor is going to do.) If your friend stumbles — go back and look at that sentence. If you find the urge to explain your point — go back and make sure you’re saying all that can be said.
10. Deleting something isn’t a step backward — it’s a step forward.
Be brave enough to admit when a sentence, a paragraph, or whole section would be better off deleted. Just because you typed something doesn’t mean it should end up in your final draft, nor that it was wasted work. Some of what you write is like scaffolding. Scaffolding doesn’t end up being a part of a finished building, but without it, the building wouldn’t exist.
11. Sleep on it.
Allow your brain to rest and reread your work in the morning with fresh eyes. It’ll hopefully be easier this way to see what needs to be done, and how. This is a big reason to try and avoid starting a paper the night before it’s due.