Can'T Write Essay

If those trips down to the demos in Westminster have left you behind schedule for your end-of-term assignment, you may well be forced to write in the small hours this week. Here's how to pull it off safely and successfully.

12am: Get as far away from your bed as possible

Before you begin, avoid warmth and soft furnishings. Propped up on pillows in the glow of a laptop may feel like savvy ergonomics, but your keyboard will start to look pillow-like by midnight, and 418 pages of the word "gf64444444444444444444" will detract from the force of your argument. You could try the kitchen. Or Krakow. But your industrially lit 24-hour campus library should do the trick.

12:25am: Take a catnap

Thomas Edison used to catnap through the night with a steel ball in his hand. As he relaxed and the ball dropped, he would wake up, usually with fresh ideas. "Caffeine and a short nap make a very effective combination," says Jim Horne, director of the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre. "Have the coffee first. This takes about 20 minutes to work, so take a 15-minute nap. Use an alarm to wake up and avoid deep sleep kicking in. Do this twice throughout the night."

12.56am: Reduce your internet options

Temporarily block Twitter, Spotify, Group Hug, YouTube, 4od and anything else that distracts you. Constantly updating your word count on Facebook may feel like fun, but to everyone else you'll look like you're constantly updating your word count on Facebook.

1-3am: Now write your essay. No, really

You've widened your margins, subtly enlarged your font and filled your bibliography with references of such profound obscurity that no one will notice you're missing 3,000 words. It's time to brainstorm, outline, carve words, followed by more words, into that milk-white oblivion that taunts you. Speed-read articles. Key-word Google Books. Remember texts you love and draw comparisons. Reword. Expound. Invent. Neologise. Get excited. Find a problem you can relish and keep writing. While others flit from point to point, your impassioned and meticulous analysis of a single contention is music to a marker's eyes.

3-5am: Get lost in your analysis, your characters, your world Write like you're trying to convince the most stubborn grammarian about truth, or heartless alien invaders about love. Don't overload with examples – be creative with the ones you have. Detail will save your life, but don't waste time perfecting sentences – get the bulk down first and clean up later. "The progress of any writer," said Ted Hughes, "is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system." Outwit your own inner police system. Expect progress. Ted says so.

5:01am: Don't cheat

It's about now that websites such as easyessay.co.uk will start to look tempting. And you may sleep easier knowing that a dubiously accredited Italian yoga instructor is writing about Joyce instead of you. But the guilt will keep you up between now and results day. And you'll toss and turn the night before graduation, job interviews, promotions, dinner parties, children's birthdays, family funerals . . . you get the idea.

5.17am: Don't die

Sounds obvious, but dying at your computer is definitely trending. And however uncool it may seem to "pass on" during a five-day stint at World of Warcraft, it will be much more embarrassing to die explaining perspectivism to no one in particular. So be careful. Stay hydrated. Blink occasionally. And keep writing.

5.45am: Eat something simple

"There are no foods that are particularly good at promoting alertness," says Horne. "But avoid heavy and fatty meals in the small hours. Avoid very sugary drinks that don't contain caffeine, too. Sugar is not very effective in combating sleepiness." Fun fact: an apple provides you with more energy than a cup of coffee. Now stick the kettle on.

5.46am: Delight in being a piece of living research

If you happen to be "fatigue resistant" you should now be enjoying the enhanced concentration, creative upwelling and euphoric oneness that sleep deprivation can bring. If not, try talking yourself into it. "Conversation keeps you awake," says Horne. "So talk to a friend or even to yourself – no one will hear you."

6am: Console yourself with lists of writers who stuck it out

Robert Frost was acquainted with the night. Dumas, Kafka, Dickens, Coleridge, Sartre, Poe and Breton night-walked and trance-wrote their way to literary distinction. John and Paul wrote A Hard Day's Night in the small hours. Herman the Recluse, atoning for broken monastic vows, is said to have written the Codex Gigas on 320 sheets of calfskin during a single night in 1229. True, he'd sold his soul to the Devil, but you're missing out on a live Twitter feed, so it's swings and roundabouts.

7am: Remember – art is never finished, only abandoned

Once you accept there's no more you can do, print it off and get to the submissions office quick. Horne: "You're not fit to drive if you've had less than five hours sleep, so don't risk it. Grab some exercise." Pop it in with the breeziness that comes from being top of your marker's pile. Back home, unblock Facebook and start buffering The Inbetweeners. And then sleep. Get as near to your bed as you can. Euphoric oneness doesn't come close.

Matt Shoard teaches creative writing at the University of Kent.

Natalie Wexler chairs the board of trustees for the Writing Revolution.

It’s no secret that many Americans are lousy writers. Just ask any college professor or employer, including those at prestigious institutions. With the advent of e-mail, writing ability has become more important than ever, and writing deficiencies have become increasingly apparent.

Surely one reason so many Americans lack writing skills is that, for decades, most U.S. schools haven’t taught them. In 2011, a nationwide test found that only 24 percent of students in eighth and 12th grades were proficient in writing, and just 3 percent were advanced.

If students get writing assignments at all, they’re usually of the “write about how you feel” variety. There’s value to that kind of exercise, but it doesn’t provide kids with the tools they need to write analytically.

The Common Core education standards, adopted by more than 40 states and the District, attempt to address this deficit. They require that students learn to write fluently about the meaning of what they’re learning — not just in English class, but also in history, science and maybe even math class.

That makes sense: When students put what they’ve read into their own words, they’re more likely to absorb and retain it. And learning to write clearly requires learning to think clearly.

But the authors of the Common Core focused just on the skills that students should have at each grade level, not on how to impart them. And few teachers have been trained to teach these writing skills, apparently because educators believe that students will just pick them up through reading. Obviously, most don’t.

The standards also assume students in middle and high school already know the rules of capitalization, punctuation and sentence construction. But that’s often not the case, especially in high-poverty environments.

Faced with high school seniors who can’t compose a simple sentence, teachers may throw up their hands when confronted with an English language arts standard saying their students should “use appropriate and varied transitions and syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships among complex ideas and concepts.”

You have to learn to add before you can do calculus. Similarly, before students can write a coherent five-paragraph essay, they need to learn to write a decent sentence — no matter what grade they’re in.

That doesn’t mean teachers should drill students on grammar rules, an approach that research has shown doesn’t actually work. Instead, they can ask students to decide whether a group of words is a sentence or a fragment — not an easy distinction for many to grasp.

Once students understand the concept of a sentence, they can learn to use conjunctions such as “but” and “because.” Then they can create complex sentences — including those beginning with subordinating conjunctions such as “although” or “despite” — to introduce variety into their writing. Generally, students need to learn how people write as opposed to how they speak.

When students have a basic grasp of sentences, then — and only then — should they move on to planning and drafting paragraphs. Once they can write paragraphs, they can tackle essays.

The Common Core’s failure to acknowledge that many older students lack basic writing skills can have counterproductive results. For example, the Education Trust recently studied more than 1,200 middle school writing assignments to see whether they aligned with the Common Core and faulted them in part because they didn’t require students to write at length.

“In grades six to eight, we must see extended writing — multiple cohesive paragraphs that clearly reflect strong organization and style,” the report’s authors lamented.

But if middle and high school students are writing poorly constructed sentences, they’ll almost certainly end up writing poorly constructed essays. And while the Common Core demands that students engage in critical thinking, sentence-length assignments can fulfill that mandate as well as longer ones.

For example, a teacher can give students the beginning of a sentence based on a text and ask them to finish it using the conjunction “but,” requiring them to examine the text closely enough to find two contrasting ideas. That gives the teacher a manageable opportunity not only to correct writing mistakes, but also to uncover what students haven’t understood. A teacher confronted with an essay full of mechanical and conceptual errors may not know where to begin in correcting the essay.

It’s understandable that educators and policymakers feel a sense of urgency about getting students to write at length in the upper grades. But if we keep expecting students who can’t construct decent sentences to magically produce coherent essays, we’ll remain a nation of lousy writers forever.

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