The life of a final year student: part 5 – the perils of overnight essays

A couple of weeks ago I found myself crying over my surely-failed degree. I was heading for a First before a meeting with my tutor over a 4500 word essay due in two day’s time went horribly wrong, involving the words ‘completely wrong angle’. Gutted wasn’t the word. I’m not a last-minute student. I thrive on pressure, but this was something else and my usual writing commences a good six weeks before the deadline.

I accepted my fate and the fact that the next 48 hours would be mostly spent hacking away at my keyboard until my fingers bled. This reminded me of a sketch I saw on the internet once where a man wrote so furiously that his fingers became stubs and he had to type with his head, which eventually also wore down so much that all was left was a few fragments of skull and brain-like mush embedded between Q and M. Hello destiny.

The first night was the worst, I knew I had to get through it but at 5am I just found myself getting more and more easily distracted, hence coming across Matt Shoard’s article on the Guardian website describing the process of all-night essay writing. It made me laugh, then it made me cry as I realised I was one of the students he was writing about and that I shouldn’t be reading it because I didn’t have time and I was distracted again. Sigh.

Shoard warns in his introduction that your bed is your enemy. At least this was something I didn’t have to worry about, I’d been suffering from insomnia for months and in a strange way it was nice to have a reason to be awake in the early hours. His advice of catnaps were alien to me. Sleep for 15 minutes, with no prerequisite of six hours of trying to sleep? Ha. Continue.

His next piece of advice was to get rid of Twitter, Facebook and all other web-based distractions. That was easy, and already done due to the state of my panic. Unfortunately he didn’t list the Guardian website here, sensible for him, not so for me. You see, the Guardian has proved useful as a source of research and stimulating while educating reading on many occasions previous to this, so it escaped my thoughts when considering distractions to rid myself of.

So now I’m on to the hard bit: writing the damn thing. Easier said than done when I thought I’d already done this and then had to scrap it. The rest of the advice consisted of the obvious: don’t cheat, and the less thought of but even more obvious: don’t die. Hey, I’m writing an essay here, not playing WoW and I’m pretty sure only one of them is addictive.

My advice is simple: you’re either good at staying awake or you’re not, if you’re not, buy energy drinks and bananas. If you are, you’ve got one up on those that aren’t. Lock your phone in another room, remind yourself that Facebook will still be there in the morning and just get on with it. Don’t think about being bored or tired, just don’t think. Read and then write. Lock on repeat. When you’re doing well, count the hours left until hand-in; it’ll be nice to know how close you are to celebrating the end. When you’re not doing well, do not look at the time. It’ll make you cry, again. Set small challenges: 500 words in the next 30 minutes or get to 3000 before your housemates get up/get in (delete as appropriate), these really work.

Don’t leave it until last minute. This sounds ridiculous given the nature of advice here, but writing isn’t everything. You also need to edit it, submit it online, check your bibliography and print it. All of these things can cause unexpected hiccups and need hours dedicated to them. For a 12pm deadline I’d suggest finishing your writing by 6am, then get printing. You can aim to get to the admissions office for 9am, which in reality will become 11.45am after everything that could go wrong has done.

Once you’re done the only relief you’ll have is not looking at a computer screen any longer, but your brain will have been locked on panic mode for such an intensive amount of time you’ll feel like any indication of your muscles relaxing and tension leaving your brain will be a crime worthy of a prison sentence. From my experience it’ll take 2-3 days for this feeling to wear off before you feel truly free, but when that moment does come, you’ll know about it. Now sleep, drink, play, reply to your abandoned chats on Facebook and do whatever the hell you want. Or you could start that other essay to avoid doing all of this again.

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