How to beat that all-night essay

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 5 February 2015.

It is a mark of the melodramatic streak running through all Oxford Students that when we say ‘Essay Crisis’, what we really mean is ‘Essay’. I personally go through at least three essay crises a week, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to stop acting like an enormous drama queen about the whole thing.

And really, why shouldn’t we allow ourselves to be a little OTT about deadlines? By deliberately referring to crises when we know we really mean fairly routine academic work, we acknowledge the absurdity of such things; of course it’s ridiculous for us to treat the task of knocking out 2,000 words in an evening like some sort of Herculean challenge, but by humorously exaggerating it we can keep things in perspective, and gain a greater sense of achievement when at last the work is done. We’re students- if we weren’t grossly overstating the amount of work we had, we wouldn’t be taking it seriously.

All of that said, however, it can be difficult to keep the charming idiosyncrasies of student speech patterns in mind when it’s three in the morning and you’re trailing by five hundred words and you simply cannot think of anything more to say on the subject of ‘The Economic Impact of Refinements in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1750-85’. The haze of panic, self-loathing and the Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies becomes thicker and more impenetrable, and desperation takes hold- a vacuum in the pit of your stomach, and the crushing, horrible knowledge that you need to offer up your tribute to the academic gods in five hours time- you don’t need me to tell you that’s distressing. With that in mind, I offer my own tips on how to get through it with your sanity intact (ish).

Firstly, the obvious advice- Don’t Panic. I know it can be hard, but you’re really not going to get anything done by running around like an incredibly academically-advanced chicken. Just sit down, take a few deep breaths, keep calm and get to work- if you don’t feel able to continue working on the essay. then get out some notepaper and brainstorm- play around with your ideas and see which ones stand up in the cold electric light of late evening. When you feel you’ve worked through whatever’s holding you up, then get back to work on the essay.

Dealing with an essay crisis inevitably means that one must battle with personal fatigue- that feeling of filth accumulating behind your eyeballs as you stare at a screen or at your textbooks until the small hours. Fortunately, clever scientists have devised a solution to this problem: sweet, sweet caffeine. I have met a number of people in my student life who say they don’t drink coffee, and I am always flabbergasted when they tell me this. I simply cannot fathom how one can survive student life without it. Coffee is like a magic potion- as Terry Pratchett says, “Coffee is a way of stealing time that should by rights belong to your older self.” So I say that if you’re facing down a long night’s work, pour yourself a generous measure of the hot brown essay juice (as I like to call it); the cheaper and nastier the better, I find. And as for those who say they don’t like the taste, I refer you to the wisdom of Brian Andreas; “I don’t really like coffee… but I don’t really like it when my head hits my desk when I fall asleep either.”

It’s also important to remember that you are not the only one struggling to meet the deadline. I find it helpful to keep in touch with my fellow students as I write- the odd text message or Facebook chat to whinge about a shoddy textbook or make jokes at a historical figure’s expense is a huge outlet for pressure, as well as mutually encouraging. Keeping in touch with your mates as you all struggle to bash out a few thousand words before sunrise can be a huge weight off, as well as helping to keep things in perspective. You are not alone.

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