A typical conversation that I have with students near the beginning of a semester goes like this:
Me: How are things going? What would you like to do today?
Student: Ugh I have so many assignments you know, and I have to study a lot and write so many papers. It took me a long time to write this essay… like 6, 7 days. That’s too much. Please teach me how to write faster.
Me: Writing essays takes me a long time, too.
Student: No. It can’t take you this long… you are a professional and English is your first language. I want to write essays in maybe 4 hours total.
For many students, this request is a very logical one. How do they juggle the multitude of assignments in a 14 or 15 week semester? Writing faster is more efficient and beneficial to them than not writing at all. After all these years, I still don’t have a clear answer because I can’t even write a 10 page paper in 4 hours. Once we get through the initial conversation, here are some strategies I do provide:
STEP 1 Normalize the experience
This is a sensitive task where I try to reassure them that this is something that many of us experience so that they don’t feel isolated. I also empathize with them that their experience is valid.
It is interesting that students call me out as being a professional and that because English is my first language, I shouldn’t have issues with writing quickly. I confess to them that it takes me days to write a good essay, but I’ll show them why and how to use the time wisely.
STEP 2 Break it down
This is where many of the students begin to feverishly scribble numbers on their papers. This is also the point at which students begin to believe what their teachers keep telling them: outlining is useful! Markel (2013) outlines three stages in writing: prewriting, writing, and revising. He even goes so far as to provide a percentage of time for each stage, which I have observed is the part that many students soak up because it’s so measurable:
STEP 3 Manage expectations
I also find it really important to emphasize to students that in-depth papers will and *should* take more time to complete. For example, if a paper is worth 30% of their total mark, they should expect to spend a few days on it rather than a few hours. Also, if the instructions ask them to analyze something, it will usually take them more time to think through the information than the task word describe. It is also wise to have students dissect the instructions for how many topics need to be addressed in the paper. If students have to address 4 different topics, it might take more planning and therefore time than if the whole paper only addressed 1.
To help them through this process, we highlight key indicators such as the following:
- Grade percentage
- Task words
- Topics to cover
This percentage breakdown also relates to how I spend the session addressing this request:
- Normalizing the experience – 40%
- Breaking it down – 20%
- Managing expectations – 40%
Students don’t walk away feeling like they can write faster, but they do get a sense of how to use their writing time more efficiently.
What strategies do you give to your students?
Markel, M. (2013). Practical strategies for technical communication. New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s.