You have 25 minutes to compose an SAT essay, two hours to write a final exam paper, less than half a day to finish a project proposal for your boss.
Here's a little secret: both in college and beyond, most writing is done under pressure.
Composition theorist Linda Flower reminds us that some degree of pressure can be "a good source of motivation. But when worry or the desire to perform well is too great, it creates an additional task of coping with anxiety" (Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing, 2003).
So learn to cope. It's remarkable how much writing you can produce when you're up against a strict deadline.
To avoid feeling overwhelmed by a writing task, consider adopting these eight (admittedly not-so-simple) strategies.
- Slow down.
Resist the urge to jump into a writing project before you've thought about your topic and your purpose for writing. If you're taking an exam, read the instructions carefully and skim all the questions. If you're writing a report for work, think about who will be reading the report and what they expect to get out of it.
- Define your task.
If you're responding to an essay prompt or a question on an exam, make sure you're actually answering the question. (In other words, don't dramatically alter a topic to suit your interests.) If you're writing a report, identify your primary purpose in as few words as possible, and make sure you don't stray far from that purpose.
- Divide your task.
Break down your writing task into a series of manageable smaller steps (a process called "chunking"), and then focus on each step in turn. The prospect of completing an entire project (whether it's a dissertation or a progress report) may be overwhelming. But you should always be able to come up with a few sentences or paragraphs without panicking.
- Budget and monitor your time.
Calculate how much time is available to complete each step, setting aside a few minutes for editing at the end. Then stick to your timetable. If you hit a trouble spot, skip ahead to the next step. (When you come back to a trouble spot later on, you may find out you can eliminate that step altogether.)
If you tend to freeze up under pressure, try a relaxation technique such as deep breathing, freewriting, or an imagery exercise. But unless you've had your deadline extended by a day or two, resist the temptation to take a nap. (In fact, research shows that using a relaxation technique can be even more refreshing than sleep.)
- Get it down.
As humorist James Thurber once advised, "Don't get it right, just get it written." Concern yourself with getting the words down, even though you know you could do better if you had more time. (Fussing over every word can actually heighten your anxiety, distract you from your purpose, and get in the way of a larger goal: completing the project on time.)
In the final minutes, quickly review your work to make sure that all your key ideas are on the page, not just in your head. Don't hesitate to make last-minute additions or deletions.
Novelist Joyce Cary had a habit of omitting vowels when writing under pressure. In your remaining seconds, restore the vowels (or whatever you tend to leave out when writing quickly). In most cases it's a myth that making last-minute corrections does more harm than good.
Finally, the best way to learn how to write under pressure is . . . to write under pressure--over and over again. So stay calm and keep practicing.