Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How to Write a Great Paper the Night Before It's Due

That was the tagline that inspired hundreds of high school students to gather at 6am for breakfast one day to hear a Student Venture speaker. It also helped that he was a triple major from Harvard.

His basic message was one of a three-step process of preparation for one to undertake leading up to the night before a writing assignment must be submitted that he called “Load, Relax, and Capture.”

1. Load.
Remaining mindful of the time between when an assignment was given and when it was due, the first step is to begin introducing yourself to the topic. Along the way of everyday life, read articles, material, etc. Become familiar with people, things, and ideas related to the topic.

And that's about it for that step. Maybe note a source reference to make the bibliography easier to write later.

The next two steps work in tandem together:

2. Relax.
Forget about the paper, the assignment, school, etc. Go about your daily life.

That's it. Don't try to force the work on the paper.

3. Capture.
He described how as you are going about your normal daily life, our minds are wired to percolate on ideas under the surface, and every once in a while, a great idea will come to us that would be relevant to our paper. Because thoughts have a very short half-life—maybe 15 seconds—it is essential to always have at the ready a way to capture those ideas.

He told a story about how one time some people wanted to study a particular individual—he might have been an executive—who was especially creative. They worked out an arrangement to follow him around for a while to study him and his habits. They weren't noticing anything particularly unusual about how he did things or what he did. The time came for him to fly across the country—perhaps a meeting. The guy tilted his head back to doze off. The researchers thought their study was going on pause. It turns out that's actually when things got interesting. Every once in a while, he would come to, pull out a pad, quickly write something down, put it back, and then go back to dozing off. They asked him later what was going on, and he told them he was writing ideas down. Some of his best ideas came to him that way.

Capturing ideas can happen many times over while one is assigned to work on a paper. The idea is to gather all those ideas one has captured into one place so that when the night before the paper comes due, you have a lot of material at your disposal for including in the paper. (If it's a larger project, it's better if that writing starts two or three days before its due.) My tool of choice for capturing became a pen in my right pocket and a pad of Post-It notes in my left.

Writing the Paper
I followed this process and found it to be quite effective. After the ideas were captured, writing the paper consisted of another process all its own. I would clear a space and lay out out all the ideas. Then I would look for patterns and group things together. Post-It notes work really well for physically moving ideas around this way. Finally, I would figure out an order in which to string together a story. Figuring out the order was true both of the groupings as a whole, and for the content within the groupings. If you're a non-linear thinker, this process is quite helpful.

With a plan this thorough now ready to go, the paper practically writes itself. It simply becomes a matter of following through on all the academic mechanics of writing a paper, and it's done. Achieving required word count levels is usually not a problem. If anything, it becomes a matter of holding the amount of content down.

Capturing in Life
Carrying around pen and paper became a habit for me. One day in college I discovered this might be a bit unusual. During our opening days one year, I was in the cafeteria gathering dinner and came across a friend of mine. We started talking and then an attractive girl walked up, and he started talking to her, too. At one point he wanted to get her number or something, and he said, “Hey, McGhee, you got a pen and paper?” She jumped in saying, “He's not going to have—” and then as I was pulling out a pen and Post-It notes, she interrupted herself saying, “Oh my word, he does!” It made for a good laugh, too. You never know how it might be useful.

I have found this process to be useful in many areas, not just writing or school assignments or social interactions. It can be useful professionally, too. The first tool I used that replaced Post-It notes was a Handspring Visor, Jeff Hawkins' successor to his first round with the Palm Pilot. My desk became a lot cleaner without Post-It notes all over the place. Mobile iOS or Android devices have taken over this mobile device role today. They still have their limits, though. A mobile screen comes nowhere near the size of a desk for spreading out ideas.

Recently I have discovered an online tool that is almost as flexible as a large writing area: Trello. If you've ever used a good outlining tool before, think of Trello as an easy and powerful version of that kind of functionality. It makes it easy to keep track of the big picture on a project or collection of ideas while also storing away a lot of detail for follow up later.

Trello is actually designed to accommodate the Kanban method, though I don't really use it much for that. It also has some good collaboration capabilities. If you like lists and lists of lists, Trello is a very useful tool. I once read about a company using Trello for managing its writing production, and they had 47 and 36 writing ideas in Trello at the time for their two blogs. Perhaps it speaks to both my potential and lack of accomplishment that I have a lot more ideas stored away in Trello.

It has its limits, too. I have small, medium, and large things going on, and it has taken some time to figure out ways to use Trello for each. In addition to cards and lists, Trello also allows unlimited boards. Sometimes I use a board for all my to-do items. I have one main board for writing ideas. I've taken to creating multiple boards for developing one particular business idea. It could be useful for political activity, planning, and writing, too.

Whatever your tool of choice, capture those ideas that come to you. The half-life is short.

The flip side of this is not every idea looks as good after having some time to ripen. Time can bring wisdom, and not every idea is equally wise, true, useful, or shimmering as it seemed when it first appeared in your head. You may find it helpful to add some context to your capturing, too. There have been times when I've gone back to look at ideas and wondered what I was thinking or even what the idea was about.  It's a learning process. I recommend it nonetheless.

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