Four-Handed 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 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.

Congratulations! You have waited until the very last minute to begin the college application process. But never fear – Admissions Hero is here to make sure that your procrastination doesn’t impact your essay.

We’ve included a guide for the 30-day essay, the 15-day essay, the 3-day essay, and the 1-day essay. If you have multiple essays to write in a short time, you can follow the appropriate guide for multiple prompts simultaneously, or offset it by a few days.


The 30-day Essay: I procrastinated, but the situation is not dire…right?

Day 1-4: Ideas, ideas, ideas. You have the freedom to spend a few days figuring out which direction your essay is going to take. However, this cannot be a passive process. Because you only have 30 days, you should be actively searching for four to five topics – ask your parents, friends, and teachers about what they find interesting about you in order to speed this process up. Try to choose anecdotes about your life that you learned from or have a personal connection to, and these stories will inform your topic. Even the shortest, most insignificant moment can make a great essay if it mattered to you. If you are writing a ‘why this school’ essay, make a list of reasons why you are applying.

Day 5: Now that you have a few potential topics, figure out how each one would interact with the prompt. Spend 15 minutes outlining each one, using your prompt(s) to guide the outline. In essays that ask you to tell a story, a good topic should write itself and finding a strong essay idea will nearly always be more productive than writing to the prompt. For ‘why this school’ essays, focus on the structure and connection between reasons. Giving this step the necessary hours now will pay off later. Narrow your list of potential topics to your top one to three choices.

Day 6-13: Write the essays! It’s time to actually put pen to paper. If you’re having a hard time, try different environments – coffee shops, your room, or a library, for example – and alternate between topics, and remember that more words is better than fewer words (at least at this stage – you can always cut words later). By day 14, you should have written one rough essay for every “top choice” topic you decided on during day 5. This means that you should now have anywhere between one to three potential essays for a single prompt.

Day 14: If you do have more than one essay written, it is now time to choose a single essay. Out of the two or three essays you have written in the past couple days, there is probably one that speaks to you more than the rest. If you’re having a hard time, think about which of the topics you’d like to spend another two weeks with and try to figure out which one says the most about you. Essays with twice the number of words you are allowed or more should be ruled out; the anecdote is probably too long or the topic requires too much detail to be effective.

Day 15-16: Break days! Use these days to really get some distance from your piece so that you can continue to edit with a fresh mind. These are great days to give your essay to other people to edit –school faculty members who know you well, a coach/music teacher, your parents, and one or two friends. If you are over the word limit, ask specifically for these editors to help you cut down the essay.

Day 17-18: Reading your essay with a fresh mind should help you catch big, structural edits. Your first round of edits should involve content edits; you’re looking for what the essay really says about you as a person, and whether that was what you were trying to get across. How is the sentence flow? Does the essay move itself?

Day 19: Break day! Get some distance from your writing.

Day 20: At this point, you might have received some edits back from the people you handed your essay to. Go through each of the edits and decide which suggestions you plan to take, and which seem to alter your personal voice or which don’t match the essay stylistically. Try to stay objective as you review these edits – some of them will be detrimental. If you can’t see why the change was made, it’s probably best to ignore it. If multiple people give you the same feedback, however, you may want to give it some thought.

Day 21: Implement the edits that you liked. Then read through the essay again and make sure that there are no structural edits or content edits that still need to happen.

Day 22: Break day!

Day 23-24: These days are the middle stage of your editing process. You’re looking for words that don’t fit the style of the essay, or which could be improved, as well as sentence flow problems. Are all your sentences the same length? Is one paragraph not as well written as the rest of the essay? This should also be the time that you cut words. If you are still more than 70 words over, try to cut full sentences. Otherwise, start by cutting unnecessary phrases and words.

Day 25: Break day!

Day 26: Start doing smaller grammatical edits. A great way to catch edits is to record yourself reading your essay aloud and then listening to the recording. As you go through this process, highlight, mark, and comment on your essay. Afterwards, go through and use your notes to fix word flow, word choice, and grammatical mistakes.

Day 27: Break day! It’s close to the deadline, we know. Take a break anyway – you need and deserve it.

Day 28-29: Last minute edits! Spend some quality time with your essay just reading it every few hours. Try to catch any small mistakes or random sentence flow problems. (If you suddenly realize that you hate your essay, reference the 3-Day Essay below. Be sure that you aren’t being hyper-critical, though – you may just hate the essay because you’ve spent so much time on it.)

Day 30: Catch a break. Your essay is done! Reward yourself with a cookie, and remember the lesson you learned about procrastination.


The 15-day Essay: I’m a busy person, okay? High school is demanding!

Day 1: Spend a few hours working on a list of ideas that could become potential essays. Choose one and make an outline.

Day 2: Write your essay!

Day 3: Give your essay to anyone who you think would give constructive comments – this includes your teachers, parents, and maybe friends. Spend some time doing content and structure edits. Figure out what you wanted the essay to convey about your personality, and determine whether your essay actually gets this across.

Day 4: Break day! Take the day off so that you can get some distance from your essay.

Day 5: Do some structural editing. Pay attention to sentence flow, the length of paragraphs, overall organization. If your essay is too long, try to cut down on unnecessary information. Pay close attention to the way that you have structured paragraphs and make sure each one makes sense.

Day 6: Take a break!

Day 7: Take the comments that you received from other people and synthesize them. Decide which suggestions you want to use and which ones you find make your essay worse. Be very careful when accepting edits – college essays are hard to write, and not everyone is an expert. If you can’t figure out why a particular suggestion was made, you may want to ignore it. Edit your essay using this new knowledge.

Day 8: Take a break!

Day 9: Cut your essay down to the word limit – if you’re having trouble, reference the editors that you spoke to previously.

Day 10: Take a break!

Day 11-12: Grammatical and other small edits.  Look for minor things that need to be corrected, such as punctuation and word choice. This process requires a few dedicated hours. Aim to really spend some time polishing your language. Recording your essay and listening to the playback can be a productive way to accomplish this.

Day 13: Take a break from your essay!

Day 14: Spend the whole day with your essay. Every few hours, do a reread and see if you can catch any small last minute edits. Don’t try to change anything major – you don’t have time!

Day 15: Submit the essay and take a good nap. You finished…barely…but you still finished.


The 3-day Essay: I was watching Netflix. Don’t tell me you’ve never done that.

Day 1: Don’t panic. This is doable, but you may want to call in sick from school for these three days. Spend the morning coming up with ideas for your essay. Choose one, and use the afternoon to write it. Email this draft to teachers, and show it to your parents. Then, take a few hours off, and later at night, read it through to edit for content. Does the essay say what you intended?

Day 2: Check your email throughout the day – when you get some edits back, start incorporating those into the essay. Be picky about which ones you choose to include because you don’t want to take your own voice out of the essay. Spend the day doing structural edits. Every hour, take a thirty minute break from editing. By the end of the day, you should have an essay that fits within the word limit and also has a strong flow. The organization should be good, and you should be able to see how the essay builds upon itself.

Day 3: DO NOT OPEN EDITS. If any of your editors have replied to your email, don’t open them at all. At this point, the extra edits will just freak you out, and you don’t have time to do major fixes. The name of the game today is small edits – look for grammar, word swaps, and minor sentence structure changes. When you’re finally done, take a breath and crash…but before settling in with the show that kept you from starting the essay earlier, pray for yourself. We got the essay done…but that was definitely a rush job if we ever saw one.


The 1-day Essay: I forgot I had to apply to college.

Day 1: Write, edit, cry, eat ice-cream. It’s going to be a rough day, and even we can’t help you now.


So, we’ve learned our lesson: procrastination isn’t that bad. In all seriousness though, start your college essays as early as possible. Longer breaks between editing sessions will allow you to get the distance necessary to be objective and honest.


Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

0 Thoughts to “Four-Handed Essay

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *