We’ve all been there… it feels as though you’ve got the whole year ahead of you to write your essay and suddenly it’s the last week of term and the deadlines are coming thick and fast. A US study recently found that almost 95% of students procrastinate to some degree (Piers Steel, 'The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure'  133(1) Psychological Bulletin 65-94), so you’re not alone. This article will walk you through how to make the most of your last minute panicked writing with the minimum suffering.
Step One: Preparation
If you have several thousand words to write, you’re going to need to avoid distractions and unnecessary interruptions. Here are my top tips for preparing your study area:
Stock up on your caffeine source of choice: sugar-free energy drinks, coffee, tea, and caffeine pills are all options, though the pills carry more risks. If you are particularly sensitive to caffeine or have a health condition that means that this isn’t an option for you, consider sugar as an alternative stimulant.
Consider a supply of small snacks which can help keep you going without the interruption of a meal. Sweets are good for the sugar rush, but you also want to avoid crashing hard a few hours after they wear off. For this reason, healthier alternatives might be a better idea. Nuts, dried fruit, and popcorn are all good choices that won’t make you feel worse in the morning. Also, include one pack of your favourite unhealthy treat for when motivation is low.
Have a clear working space where you won’t be interrupted: many university libraries are open 24 hours now, and while you won’t have the comfort of your own home, you’ll be less likely to succumb to the temptation of a comfortable bed.
Working with friends is generally not a great idea when you’re pressured for time, as you’ll be tempted to chat and complain. However, some people do work best with someone else’s motivation to keep them on track.
Decide if you work better in silence or with some soft music in the background. This may also depend on what you’re working on, as many people are more creative with some slight background noise. Websites such as Coffitivity are great for mimicking the subtle background chatter of a café.
Step Two: Planning
Firstly, ensure that you have all relevant text books and reading materials to hand, as you never know what may be useful when you start writing. Yes, even those scrawled notes from the first few lectures of term might be vital to making your point clear.
The obvious mark of a last minute essay is the lack of clear flow and structure. It’s very tempting to just sit down and write, but this will make your lack of research apparent and can make your essay harder to understand. At the bare minimum, I would create a few bullet points, which you can then expand into paragraphs, as this will give your essay a little more coherence. Another benefit to a quick plan is that it makes it easy for you to see how much progress you are making by breaking the essay up into chunks. Sitting down to write 500 words on a single point is a lot less daunting than sitting down to write 3000 words in total.
Step Three: The Grind
This is the hard part- sit down and just write. At this stage, your only goal is the word count, don’t worry about referencing and spelling mistakes – this is an easy procrastination hole that you can fall into, seeming productive but harming your overall progress. It’s better to hand in a poorly referenced essay than one missing 1000 words.
Begin as early in the night as you can and if you make quick progress, a short nap in the early hours of the morning isn’t out of the question. Everyone’s concentration varies slightly, but it’s generally a good idea to take regular short breaks. In order to remain alert, I’d recommend writing a paragraph or 500 words, less if you have a short attention span, then taking a 5-minute break and walking around.
Caffeine should not be used when you begin writing, unless you are already extremely tired, in order to avoid an extreme crash. Instead, you should begin to slowly sip your caffeinated drink of choice only when you are beginning to feel like this essay isn’t worth missing a good night’s sleep. You’ll want to vary your intake depending on how you react to caffeine: more isn’t necessarily better if it’s just going to make you feel ill. For some people, one energy drink might be more than enough, though my standard recommendation would be one energy drink every 4 hours at the very most.
Step Four: Editing
After you’ve achieved the minimum word count set out but your module handbook/tutor/course outline, stop and have a longer break of about 15 minutes. If you still have any of your sweets left, now is the time for a reward as the editing is the hardest part and you’ll want a fresh perspective. This is a break to think about something else, read the news, watch a YouTube video… anything that will stop you thinking about your essay. It’s important to take this break, as when you’ve been working solidly on one piece of work it becomes much harder to spot small errors that would otherwise be glaringly obvious.
When you come back to your work, the first thing to look for is obvious spelling and grammar mistakes. Spell check makes this easy but it’s still advisable to read your work a few times, if nothing else to check that it makes sense.
Next, you’ll want to think a little about the structure as you may have found that your plan wasn’t sufficient. An easy way to do this is to mark each paragraph with a header explaining the content, then cut and paste your work into a more intuitive order. To make your structure clear, use ‘signposting’ in the introduction, a clear sentence at the beginning of each paragraph introducing your argument and then a linking sentence at the end to introduce the following point.
Ensure that all of the content is related to the actual question. It can be tempting to ramble about a tangentially related point to reach the word count, but this will be extremely harmful to your grade. At this stage, if you’ve found a paragraph that really isn’t related, highlight it in red and leave it in. After all of the editing is finished, you can take it out and add in an alternative paragraph if you have time.
Step Five: Referencing
This is the stage I dread: OSCOLA is not your friend. If your course allows for alternative styles of referencing then you might consider something such as APA or Chicago, which can be generated automatically in Microsoft Word and will ultimately save you time. If OSCOLA is your only option then I’d recommend using an online generator such as Law Teacher (it’s not 100% accurate but it’s a huge time saver). If you’re struggling with the general idea then the one page guide to the style by Oxford will quickly teach you the basics.
Absolutely reference anything you can, even points or topics you’ve only vaguely referred to. The absolute last thing you need is to be accused of plagiarism. Depending on how many sources and cases you’ve used, this can use up a large bulk of your time: typically it takes me at least 5 minutes to reference a case that’s easy to find.
When working on your references, it’s important to consider the guidelines that your university has issued. When you’ve spent hours writing, the last thing you’ll feel like doing is scrambling through your module handbook for the instructions but the few marks that you could lose for this are valuable. For example, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming footnotes do not count towards your word count, but if they do then you could be far outside of the acceptable word count.
Step Six: The final check over
At this point you’re nearly done! Have another break, then read the whole thing through, looking for silly mistakes or any last-minute flashes of inspiration. The most beneficial thing that you can do is get a good friend or family member to read it for you, as often you will not be able to recognise your own mistakes. Obviously, if it’s 5am then this isn’t going to be an option for you. If not, read as carefully as you can. This is the stage where you want to double check that all of the formatting is within the guidelines that you’ve been given: generally everything will need to be 12pt Times New Roman and double spaced.
If you have worked quickly, this is the ideal stage for a power nap of 60—90mins. After this, you’ll be refreshed enough to come back to the work with new ideas and increased attention. Never do this if you have a history of ignoring alarms, or you are already close to the deadline time.
Step Seven: Hand in
Congratulations, you’re done! Hand it in as late as possible, giving you as much time as possible to edit and make changes. If you need to hand in a paper copy, it might be advisable to do this an hour or so before the deadline to ensure that you can access a library printer without fighting your way through queues.
At this point, you need to evaluate how tired you are. If you still have some energy remaining, consider staying awake until at least 8pm, then have a lie in the next day so as not to completely wreck your sleep pattern.
However, if you’re dead on your feet, have a long nap. You’ve earned it.