Open menu button Close menu button

Finding Your Writing Mojo

Good writing requires about 5% intelligence. The other 95% is attitude, habits, and scheduling. Tracy began writing a guide of good writing practices for students at CSI with learning disabilities, then realized most other students aren’t aware of these practices either (!), so we’re making it available to everyone.

The following excerpts are taken from “From Procrastination to Productivity: Writing Strategies for Students with (and without) Learning Disabilities and ADHD” written by Tracy E. Robey with the CUNY-College of Staten Island Office of Disability Services and Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines Program. For a free copy of this Handbook contact the WAC office.

Habits For Productive Writing

Researchers tell us that the following habits can help us self-program our brains for getting the most out of our writing time. The purpose of these habits is to establish some writing momentum. Just like runways for jets need to be clear to allow them to take off, getting your writing runway clear can help you have really productive work sessions that you can feel good about. When you feel like you’re on a roll with writing, it gets easier and easier to make the time for doing it and getting started.



Tips for Managing and Scheduling Your Time


The Writing Process

Get Regular Sleep, Try to Relax,  and Get Some Exercise

Getting regular, quality sleep is a great way to make writing easier. Sleep is natural, free, and it feels awesome—if it were expensive or illegal, I suspect that we would cherish it a lot more. Research has shown over and over that being sleep-deprived robs us of creative ideas and makes us more likely to make silly mistakes. I have to remind myself of this when I’m faced with the choice of watching “just one more episode” or “playing just one more Xbox game sequence” when I should be going to bed. Going without sleep for a long time can have the same effect on your brain as being drunk! No wonder all-nighters result in some pretty iffy papers.

In addition to helping you avoid weird typos and half-supported arguments, sleep is a great way to work out writing problems. Research confirms that people who think (but don’t obsess) about a problem they can’t immediately solve before going to sleep often wake up with the answer. That’s because your brain wants answers, so it can naturally work on the problem even when you’re not consciously thinking about it. Sleep is also necessary for storing permanent memories of the things you’ve learned and encountered throughout the day.

Sleep is effective for learning and writing because it can lower stress and thereby make it easier for you to locate all of the good ideas you already have. There are plenty of other ways to lower stress, too. When I was teaching regularly, I’d always tell my students—not in a creepy way, I hope—to take a shower if they had a writing problem they couldn’t work out. They would always giggle when I first told them because it sounded so weird, but then they would often report back that something about it helped them sort out huge problems that had otherwise been making them miserable. Yelling while watching sports, particularly outdoors where you can just go wild, does something pretty similar. Moderate exercise produces the same relaxed-yet-alert feeling that has a magical way of focusing your brain.

If you need more reasons to love sleep, consider that scientists have shown that people who get more sleep are rated as more beautiful. With the help of sleep, you can look awesome while writing awesome papers—what’s not to love?!?!

back to top

Find Your Place To Write

Write in the place that works for you, but don’t be afraid to try something new. People often get really attached to the places where they write, and the places are as different as the people who write there. When I was in college, I used to drag my computer to a Starbucks 30 minutes from my house so that I could write without friends and the internet distracting me (this was before wi-fi was everywhere).

Sometimes it is nice to have a few different places to work. Right now I type at a desk, but I read and edit my papers in a comfortable chair that is away from computers and my phone so that I can focus and not think all the time about what’s going on with my fantasy football team. You can walk, wiggle, and stand—don’t feel like you must stay perfectly still at a desk in order to get writing done.

Going to your writing place can help make getting work done so much easier. I have this really cool office in my house with all sorts of books in it and a super computer with a giant monitor, but I never really use that room for writing. I realized that I needed to pack up my stuff and “go to the office” outside my house each morning in order to get work done. I set a basic schedule for myself and I tell myself that I’m heading “to work,” as if I’m paid for sitting at my desk and writing. I’m so used to “going to work” that I schedule appointments at other times and don’t take calls when I’m at my desk. Trust me, it has taken a long time to get to that point! But it really works!

The other trick that you can use to keep yourself focused on writing is to write in places where other people are being really productive. It isn’t all that inspiring to write next to a bunch of people who are just hanging out. In fact, you might find yourself yelling at them. But if you find a place where people are really focused and busting through work, it can be helpful for keeping you on track. I write in a public computer lounge, so when I see people who are doing serious writing all day walk past to get their coffee at three in the afternoon, I feel pretty embarrassed if I’m just scrolling through Facebook status updates. This is an example of using good peer pressure to help stay on track with writing.

back to top

Don’t Worry Too Much About Prepping Your Workspace

There’s no single right way to get your desk ready for work. It doesn’t really matter if you like your workspace piled with notes and research, or if you prefer a clear desk. What’s key is spending a few moments getting your workspace prepared for how you like to write.

Teachers always used to tell me in school that I should write on a clean desk. The clean desk made me feel kind of crazy and imprisoned, but the ritual of getting my workspace ready for writing was useful. Taking five minutes or so to do something that you associate with writing is a physical signal to your brain that work is about to start. That can make transitioning into writing—an important skill for productivity—so much easier.

The problem with the clean desk obsession is that a lot of people get so hung up on the clean desk that they never quite make it to the writing stage! If that’s the case for you, just push your mess off to one side or put it on the floor. In general, getting ready to write seems to inspire lots of people to clean and organize things. Resist the urge to over-clean your workspace—if it is clean enough to type or write, get rolling. And certainly resist the urge to clean the oven instead of writing, unless you have a family of rodents camped out in there

back to top

Find the Right Noise (or Silence)

Some people I know need a very quiet place to work. Other folks tell me that they really need to listen to music as they write just so that they aren’t distracted by all of the thoughts in their heads. One of my friends listens to instrumental music because he needs some noise, but he finds that music with words makes his brain start to fry if he’s reading or writing, too. As far as work noise, just go with whatever works for you, and don’t feel bad if you really like doing the opposite of what your 10th grade writing teacher said to do. I wrote every paper in college and the beginning of grad school with the help of rap music—with the bass turned way up. If your noise strategy works for you, just go with it.

back to top

Try to Write Consistently

Here’s an example of how working consistently can add up over the course of a week:


Minutes spent writing












4 hours, 15 minutes


By writing consistently, little bits of time can add up to 4.25 writing hours in the course of one week! By fitting smaller segments of writing into your most productive times, you can get more done with less stress.

When you write all night to produce a paper before a deadline, I suspect that you get a skewed vision of how much time writing actually takes. Overnight writing requires trips to get coffee, texts whining about our predicament, and dealing with wandering attention due to lack of sleep. Writing like this isn’t very efficient, and it can produce some truly dreadful papers.

Abandoning last-minute writing takes a lot of bravery. When you write at the last moment, there’s a surge of adrenaline and fear that helps you to focus. But there’s another thing that can make writing at the last moment attractive: if you screw up, it doesn’t feel like it’s your fault. Simply turning in an essay is a victory for last-minute writers. If you don’t get the grade you hoped for and your professors aren’t wowed by your brilliance, you can chalk it up to writing at the last minute, not your own struggles with writing. The students who work steadily and put lots of effort into their writing do something incredibly brave: they produce their best work and don’t create excuses to hide behind.

It is tough to make the transition from last-minute writer to a few-minutes-at-a-time writer. The key, I think, is to accept that you’re going to feel vulnerable and unmotivated at first. If you’re usually a last-minute writer, you can create deadlines for yourself to help re-create the pressure-filled situation in which you once wrote. For example, you can tell yourself that you must write a reasonable page of your paper in the next hour. Over time, you may not need to do this bargaining and goal-setting quite so much.

The awesome news about this strategy is right in the chart above. You’ll notice that there are no Saturdays or Sundays on the chart. I’ve decided that I don’t like to work on weekends, so I’ve structured my work so that I put in quality time five days each week, then completely ignore my work on the weekends. It feels so luxurious, and I’m able to go to brunch and the movies on Saturday afternoon without feeling guilty at all about not doing work. You may prefer to structure your time so that you work on the weekends, but never after six in the evening on weekdays. The way you divide your work and play time is completely up to you, but keeping to a schedule can make you feel like you can really relax when you’re not working, which in turn will make you more productive when it is time to write.

back to top

 Use Rituals to Help You Start Work

I’d suggest doing some rituals that take just a few seconds to do that signal to you that it is time to start work. These seem to work best if they’re physical—moving an object, for example. Instead of looking at my three favorite websites, I plug in my flash drive with all of my notes and papers on it. Once the drive is in, its almost like I can’t help but start work. Getting your sense of touch (plugging in the flash drive), smell (smelling the tea you associate with writing), taste (having a bite of your favorite power snack), or sound (hearing the kitchen timer go off, letting you know it is time to start writing) involved in the process of beginning can help you get over the hump of wanting to get going in theory and actually putting your first words on the page.

back to top

To-do Lists and Calendars

To-do lists and calendars for keeping track of all of your assignments help you not only avoid forgetting about an assignment until the last minute, but they can also make life a lot less stressful. I realized awhile back that if you don’t make a to-do list, then you end up spending all kinds of energy reminding yourself over and over to do the same thing. I’d be trying to write or watch TV or hang out with friends and I’d keep forgetting and reminding myself of something I had to do. It’s annoying. And exhausting.

The problem with to-do lists is that people can sometimes get stuck just on making the list. I have a friend who seems to spend more time on making lists and schedules for doing work than actually doing work itself. The point of a list is to just keep track of everything you have due and your plan for doing it.

These days, I have a really simple system for keeping track of projects and my plan for doing them. I write the name of one project and when it is due on a sticky note. I have a row of them next to my desk. I move the sticky notes for projects I’m working on that day under another sticky note that says “today.” If I didn’t have a to-do system, I’d end up jumping ahead to write the big book review I’m excited about instead of the essay that I’m nervous to start, but need to turn in much sooner.

Each morning, I jot down which smaller parts of each project I want to do that day. Telling myself that I need to write a whole dissertation chapter is really scary. But if I write on my to-do list that I just want to write 3 pages about x, pick up those two books I need, and make notes about an article, then I can manage to get my work done that day. And working consistently adds up to huge results.

back to top

Spend Your Brainpower Strategically

Think about your “brainpower” as a limited resource that can grow over time. I tell myself that I only have so much thinking juice every day, and I have to be careful about where I spend it. Some activities don't require a lot. Some things, like writing, quickly deplete my supply. Being an effective writer in college is not just about managing time, but also the precious resource of brainpower. For example, I usually give my mornings—my best time for brainpower—to my most important and hardest projects. I know that I burn through my brainpower supply pretty well in the morning, so I plan to read and research in the afternoon, which I find less demanding.

Think about where you're spending your brainpower and motivation. One simple trick to make sure that you're giving your writing plenty of brainpower is to do your writing before other, less important things. Notice that when I mentioned writing in the mornings, I said that I write before doing my other reading and research. If I tried to write after reading and researching, I probably would get frustrated really easily and wouldn't be as efficient. Finding the right time for different types of work can make you phenomenally more productive.

You can experiment with writing at different times of the day to find out when you write best. A lot of professional writers say that they like to write first thing in the morning or late into the night. There’s something about mid-afternoon that for most people is just terrible for writing. I can tell that because three or four o’clock is when I hear even really productive professors on the phone making dinner plans and stepping out for a cup of coffee.

If you’re pretty organized and start on writing projects early, you can actually structure your time so that you do the most difficult thinking at the times when you’re most focused and alive, and let some other tasks happen in the times when you’re feeling less perky and brilliant. For example, I can blow through tons of writing for a few hours earlier in the day, but I can’t keep that up forever, so that’s when I switch to reading books and translating sources that I’ll use in the next day’s writing. When I’m sick or groggy or not really wanting to work, then I can do things like update my bibliography or get books and articles that I need. I figure that if I’m always working on something important during worktime, then I’m going to get my projects done on time without having to feel super stressed.  

You can even make a list of the stuff that is hard and easier for you so that you have an easy guide to structuring your work time to get the most out of every minute you work. Again, the point isn’t to torture yourself, but to make work easier and to get it done faster so that you can move on and really enjoy the things you like doing outside of school. If you feel like beating your head against the wall while trying to do work and you feel like you just can’t do it, the problem may be that you’re attempting to do the task at a time when you should be working on the easier stuff.



Here’s my list:



  • Writing a first draft 
  • Figuring out my argument
  • Reading whole chapters or books in French or Italian
  • Reading books in English
  • Updating my bibliography
  • Searching for sources online

Here’s what your list might look like:



  • Reading and taking notes
  • Writing a first draft 
  • Updating citations in an unfamiliar style
  • Typing notes and drafts already handwritten
  • Brainstorming using a graphic organizer
  • Updating citations in a style you already know

What does your actual list look like? Does your list explain why work goes so well for you at some times, but not others? You can create your own list to post in your workspace or keep with your school stuff so that you can use it to plan your time and use every minute effectively

back to top

Reflect on Past Experience When  Writing Essays

One of the most useful things you can do before starting to work on an essay is to think about what worked and didn’t work when you wrote essays in the past. The things you can consider range from your work habits to how you came up with an argument to grammar issues you struggled with.

For example, when I’m starting a new project, I can think back and create a bunch of warning signs for myself based on where I’ve screwed up on essays in the past. I remember how my arguments tend to be kind of one-dimensional and they need more supporting parts. I also know that when I’m thinking really hard about my argument, my writing tends to be horrible. Since I know this, I can just accept that as I’m drafting and not stress out about it too much, but then leave lots of time at the end of writing to edit my words and make it sound like I’m human, and not a half-formed robot who hasn’t mastered writing yet.

I consider the good things that I did, too, and think about how I can do those again. I may be really happy with how quickly and easily I wrote my last essay, and decide that I want to stick to the writing schedule I used then to try to get the same results. I may have tried out a new brainstorming technique that gave me some awesome ideas that I want to try again. I could have found a cool way to search for sources using a database or Google, and decide that I want to do that again for this project.

back to top

How to Think About Your Audience 

It is really helpful when you’re writing a paper to think about writing for people other than your professor. Honestly, your professor probably isn’t that excited to read papers that are written in a way that only she would want to read. To write for a broader audience, I imagine that I’m writing the paper for someone specific other than a professor to read. Often, I try to write a paper that my mom would understand. My mom is a good person for me to think about when writing: she’s super excited about reading my work, but she isn’t a historian, so she won’t understand what I’m talking about unless I make it clear. I’ve been trying to write some big new arguments lately, and I’ve been struggling to make them make sense to anyone other than me. When I write a draft, I use weird jargon and my sentences are too long, so what should be really impressive just reads like the word equivalent of a 65-car expressway pileup. If I think about how to write the same ideas in a way that my mom can understand, I end up going through and finding ways to clear things up. Doing this really pays off because not only can my mom read my work, but other historians can understand what I’m actually talking about instead of making a fuzzy guess based on what they think I’m talking about. When you’re editing a paper, think about which parts of writing you want to work on, and who you could imagine writing for that would require you to make those aspects of the paper really good.

back to top

Do One Writing Task at a Time

Imagine that your brain is like a computer. I think about my brain as a laptop I used for years and years. It would freeze up if I tried to run iTunes, watch a movie, and check my email at the same time. Like that computer, I do just fine if I try to do one part of writing at a time. I first organize my ideas. Then I write a draft. Once I have a draft, I edit and proofread it.

When we try to write and edit at the same time, for example, it can be really exhausting and unproductive. This is like when my laptop would slow down and eventually stop running if I tried to run several programs at once. It was just too much for it to handle, and I ended up getting less done by pushing the computer to edit photos, download music, and check all at the same time because it kept crashing. Trying to do too much all at once can burn through your brainpower like crazy. If you’re doing a bunch of different things at once, try cutting out just one thing and see how that changes your writing. For example, if you’re trying to watch TV, check Facebook every five minutes, and write a paper, try just checking Facebook every ten minutes and writing without the TV on. You may find that you wrap up your writing a lot faster this way and you can actually enjoy watching TV because your assignment is done.   

It seems almost impossible, but you may actually write more efficiently and write better papers by just going through the steps of writing one by one.

back to top

Start with a Quick Thesis to Get Things Rolling (Your Intro Can Come Later)

Don’t feel like you have to start with writing the intro of your paper. Most of your professors start by jotting down a thesis, and then move right on to writing the body of the paper. Introductions are just tough to write, especially before you’ve written the paper. Usually what happens when I make the mistake of trying to start with writing the intro is that I write all kinds of fluffy, useless garbage that I end up tossing out later. I suspect that it is because I’m still figuring out my ideas, and I want to hide my uncertainly and lack of a clear thesis under mounds of generalizations and piles of pointless junk. You should need to write the paper and really think about your evidence and analysis before knowing what you’re arguing—it is totally natural. Expect to revise your initial thesis based on what you discover while writing your paper.

It is important to really understand your assignment before even starting to plan your paper. One way is to describe the assignment in your own words. Once you feel confident that you understand the assignment, quickly describe what your paper will do by finishing a sentence that begins with “This is what my essay will do in response to this:” This brainstorming exercise can serve as a map for your paper that helps you get on—and stay on—the right road.

If you jump into the section of your paper that you feel really good about, you can take advantage of the snowball effect. The snowball effect is when you have one successful thing happen to you—like passing an exam or banging out a really great section of a paper—and you feel so good about yourself that you do another thing along the same lines really well. These successes build on each other to the point that, after a bit, you’re just riding a wave of awesome and you end up doing things without a problem—like writing a tricky introduction—that would otherwise seem painful and hard. Give yourself an opportunity to get on a roll and just start with writing whatever comes most naturally.

Sometimes I look at writing like being locked in a very cold freezer. The moment you stop moving, the colder you get, and the less and less you want to move; it is a cycle. Now when you write, you can tell yourself something similar: I just have to keep writing. You can jump from section to section, type and write by hand, and write garbage first drafts just to get and stay on a roll with writing. For me and maybe you, starting with the intro feels like trying to run a sprint after spending the night half-frozen in the freezer—in many cases, it just isn’t going to happen and you’ll waste a lot of time trying.

back to top


Organizing the Body of Your Paper 

You don’t actually have to write the body of your paper in order, either. Just start with the parts you feel like writing. I think that a lot of writing instruction is based on how people used to write in the “Land Before Time,” that is, before computers. Now that we can copy and paste like crazy without having to re-type things on a typewriter, there’s really no reason you need to write everything in order.

One of the most important things that you should consider when writing a paper with an argument is why your paragraphs are in a certain order and how they support your thesis. Paragraphs are the building blocks of your argument. If you’ve ever taken a logic class or seen lawyers and doctors on TV (I’m thinking Dr. Temperance Brennan on Bones here), then you know how strong arguments are supported by a bunch of statements that you can prove to be true. Each of these true statements builds on top of each other, in order, so that your big, overall argument is strong. You can think about the paragraphs in your paper doing the same thing. This is why starting with writing the body of the paper makes so much sense: you won’t quite know if an argument will be airtight until you see what your paragraphs add up to. You won’t know what your paragraphs really say until you write them. Therefore, it makes sense to start with the body of the paper, then work on your introduction, and finally refine your thesis instead of the other way around.

Sometimes people with ADHD and learning disabilities organize things differently than other folks. I really struggle sometimes with organizing my papers. Like, really struggle. What makes perfect, logical sense to me does not seem logical and orderly to most other people. For the longest time, I just thought that I was a mess or not smart or not getting what other people saw. Now I just realize that I structure ideas and information differently and that I have to work on organizing my ideas so that they make sense to my audience.

I think of this process as “translating” my ideas so that more people can understand them. If someone wandered up to me and started speaking Hungarian, I’d think that it sounded pretty awesome, but I wouldn’t understand much of it at all—and yet the language would make perfect sense to the person who spoke it! Paper organization works in much the same way: we can’t communicate with each other unless we’re on the same wavelength and speaking the same language, so to speak. Organizing paragraphs takes work, just like learning a new language does. But once we learn how to translate our arguments for the widest audience possible, it’s really cool because we can think in two different ways: in the native thinking pattern that comes very naturally and also in the form that we’ve learned in order to communicate our ideas.

Learning new types of organization that lots of people seem to understand doesn’t mean abandoning your natural way of thinking. I think that my way of thinking and organizing is a huge asset because my job as a historian is to create new knowledge about the past. Thinking about everything in different ways than most folks makes it easier to come up with out-of-the-box arguments. I just have to then translate my ideas so that lots of people can appreciate and learn from them.

I come up with ideas the same way I always have and organize my paragraphs the way I think that they should go in drafts, but I review how my paragraphs are organized before editing my paper and check to make sure lots of people will follow my argument.

  • One easy way to do this is to print out a copy of the draft, cut each paragraph apart, put all the pieces on a big table or the floor, and experiment with how you could organize the parts in different ways by moving them around.
  • Another option is to write a new outline based on what you’ve already written. Write down your thesis and the main point of each paragraph, in order. Does it seem like they’re in the right order or could you try moving some around?
  • Another strategy is to ask someone to read your paper just to see if your paragraphs seem like they’re in the right order and support your thesis.
  • You could also read only the first sentence of each paragraph aloud to someone and ask if the paper makes sense.

When I’m finally getting close to putting everything together in a way that will convince other people of what I’m trying to say, my ideas feel different. They were good ideas before, but when they’re all in the right order, it feels a bit like I’m doing math. Each paragraph builds on the one before and by the end, they all add up to my thesis.

Keep in mind that your thesis statement is where you make an argument, but your paragraphs and how they’re organized is how you back that argument up. A lot of folks find it really hard to make an argument, even when the assignment requires them to make one. It feels scary to make a strong claim! I suspect that the difficulty comes from the organization of the paragraphs. When I’ve been stuck and can’t make a strong and clear argument, sometimes it has helped to shake up my organization.

back to top


Many great writers claim that they write just like everyone else, but they produce astounding work because they’re really good at revising. “Revising” means a lot of different things. Here’s some of what counts as revision:

  • Checking your sources
  • Looking at how your paper is organized
  • Comparing your essay to a rubric
  • Comparing your essay to a model essay
  • Checking the arguments of each paragraph
  • Writing the story of how you get between the paragraphs to make sure that your organization is solid
  • Proofreading

As you can see, revision covers a lot of things, many of which involve more than just patching up surface errors.  That said, you still need to proofread your work, even when you make bigger changes to sentences and paragraphs. This is why it is smart to allow plenty of time to revise.

back to top