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Why Student Writers Procrastinate

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

We all procrastinate in some areas of life, but procrastination in school assignments – particularly writing – can have adverse consequences.   In my experience, I have seen students’ writing improve drastically from one draft to the next, yet many students leave only enough time for a hurried first draft before the due date. When students wait too long to begin their writing assignments, they are limiting their own potential for success by eliminating essential proofreading and revising time.

Procrastination toward writing assignments is very common, but the underlying cause may be simpler than you think.  In its purest sense, procrastination is avoidance.  Why would a student avoid something?  Because they don’t want to do it.

I know, I know… it’s obvious.  Yet, if we truly believed the cause was that simple, perhaps we could focus on an equally simple solution.  How do we get students to write something they don’t want to write?  By finding a way to make them want to write it.  

Yes, writing is hard.  But if you have a good enough reason to do a hard thing, it seems a whole lot easier. Helping students overcome procrastination in writing is all about finding some part of the assignment that motivates them, and then helping them lean into that motivation as they complete the assignment.

Here are some simple suggestions for motivating your student (or yourself!) the next time he or she simply doesn’t want to write:

1. Think of the Big Picture

For some students, it is very helpful to remind them that this one writing assignment is just a small part of a much bigger goal.  Does your student want a high-enough GPA to qualify for a particular program or scholarship?  Then he needs to achieve a certain amount of A’s and B’s in his classes.  And those A’s and B’s break down into doing well on individual assignments.  Like this essay.  This provides a purpose, a larger context than just a few hours spent writing an essay.  For goal-oriented students, this can be enough to push them past the hurdle of not wanting to write.

2. Find a Common Ground

Some students dread writing because they just don’t see the value in it.  Particularly when subject matter is preassigned, some writers simply aren’t interested in the topic or don’t understand how an essay is relevant to their future.  For this reason, I usually start my College Prep English class with a discussion of why writing skills matter.  Some students already love writing; but for the ones who don’t… why does writing matter?  Once we begin discussing, it’s amazing how many ways we can apply writing to virtually any career field.  Researchers need to write lab notes and create reports to share their findings; CEOs need to write business letters and proposals that sound professional and which intelligently communicate their ideas; professional soccer players might find themselves in a position of influence, and the ability to write well could mean the opportunity to use that influence to promote a cause they care about through writing a blog, a script for a promotional video, etc; the list goes on and on. Yes, some students will say, “Once I become successful, I can just hire someone to write for me,” but that success has to start somewhere… usually with a resume and cover letter… which require writing. If we can find some way in which writing matters to the students, we are giving them a motivational boost that can propel them past their initial avoidance of writing.

3. Remove Fear

One of the biggest causes of procrastination is fear, because – let’s be honest – very few people enjoy doing things in which they lack confidence.  When a student lacks confidence in his or her writing ability, the resulting fear or anxiety can manifest as procrastination.  Removing that fear can go a long way toward motivating the student to tackle the writing assignment.  So how do we remove fear?  This can be tricky, but in essence, it comes down to two parts: (a) low stakes, and (b) repetition.

(A) Low Stakes

Anxiety in writing comes from fear of loss or failure.  In other words, the student worries that his or her writing won’t be good enough, won’t get a high enough grade, won’t be finished in time, or won’t seem intelligent.  In a low-stakes environment, this anxiety is lessened because the student is given grace and room for improvement.  In my writing classrooms, I create low stakes by requiring multiple drafts of each essay.  Students are required to turn in a thesis and outline, then a first draft, then a final draft, and they receive a grade and detailed feedback from me at each step of the process.  Though this may seem counter-productive (“Wouldn’t assigning extra work make the students more stressed?”), it reduces the overall stakes because only the final draft counts for the full amount of the essay, while the thesis/outline and first draft count as homework assignments, which are worth less toward the overall grade.  What this means is that students get three chances to pass their work to me and receive feedback, with ample opportunity to revise in-between so that the final grade is the best it can be.  Not only does this lower the stakes enough to reduce much of their anxiety, it is also excellent practice for writing improvement — as the only real way to get better at writing is to write — and ensures that students have adequate feedback to understand why they received a particular grade and the information needed to improve on future assignments.

(B) Repetition

The other way to reduce anxiety is through repetition.  In animal behavior, we call this habituation or desensitization, but humans more commonly call it “facing your fears.”   Basically, the more a student writes and receives either neutral or (preferably) positive outcomes from it, the less anxiety the student will feel toward writing in the future.  So how do we achieve this?  One way is to employ the low-stakes approach detailed above, starting with small, low-stress assignments and gradually building toward more challenging ones.   This is a form of repetition in and of itself.  However, another technique is to simply make writing part of a daily habit.  When a student gets used to writing daily, even if it’s just a short journal entry of some kind, many of the aspects of writing that previously caused anxiety – like staring at a blank page, uncertainty about what to write, etc. – start to become a routine part of the process.  When combined with an education in pre-writing exercises, this is even more effective. The method of putting an idea into words starts to become second nature, and writing as a whole becomes far less scary.

4. Value Their Ideas

This may be common sense, but I’m going to state it anyway.  One of the best ways to motivate a student to write – rather than procrastinate indefinitely – is to show them that their ideas are valued.  When a student feels that her words will be truly heard (or read, in this case), that her voice matters, she is more likely to go through the effort of putting her ideas on the page.  The reason this small concept has such a big impact is because it touches all of the points I’ve previously covered.   Students who don’t believe their ideas will be valued have a fear of failure or rejection, a sense of high stakes, and they feel misunderstood or unheard, which makes them feel as though there is a divide between what matters to them and the actual outcome of the assignment, rather than a sense of common ground or a big-picture purpose.

So how do you show a student you value his ideas?  I’m sure there are many ways to do this, but here is one simple thing I’ve found to work many times:  ask to hear his ideas.   If a student’s paper isn’t quite working, I will sometimes write a note on his or her paper to come see me.  When he or she does come (usually nervously), the conversation starts with something like, “You have a good beginning here, but when it reached the second paragraph, I got a little confused.  I can tell there’s something really interesting you wanted to say here.  Can you explain it to me so that maybe I can help you say it more clearly?”  While these conversations don’t always result in a D paper turning into an A+ paper, they do usually result in a mutual respect and understanding with my student.

Often, it turns out the student wasn’t entirely sure what she was trying to say, either… and in that case, I can help her look back through what she has so far and figure out what her main point really was.  Together we discuss what she thinks about the topic, what she feel strongly about, and how to craft the argument she really wanted to make in the first place.  Then I usually give the student a chance to rewrite.  (She’s earned it, after putting in the effort to rethink their paper so thoroughly.) Usually this results in a much stronger paper.  But regardless of the outcome, I consider these conversations incredibly valuable because they are my chance to really hear my students.  This is also why, as often as possible, I provide broad essay assignments within which the students can choose their own specific topics.  This way, I am giving them a chance to choose a topic they care about, and I am giving myself the chance to read dozens of unique arguments while also showing my students that – bigger than just an assigned essay – I care about what matters to them, and I value their ideas.

Procrastination will always be a problem – even for me! – but it doesn’t have to be a huge problem.  Helping students overcome procrastination gives them the opportunity to put their best efforts into their writing and makes it more likely for writing to become a positive experience, rather than a dreaded one.

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