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How to Focus on Writing an Essay (Ultimate Guide)

One of the main problems students face when writing an essay is a lack of concentration. There is nothing worse than a lack of concentration during a school exam – it can be equally difficult to write an essay when you are already behind and feeling the pressure. Before you start academic writing, whether for school or for college, it is important to find a way to focus on the task at hand. The following tips will help any student focus in order to write a good essay.

Why We Lose Focus

Believe it or not, our minds are programmed by evolution to lose focus because it is a mechanism essential for survival. After processing something we have paid attention to, our brain notices things that are either dangerous or desirable.

In our hunter-gatherer days, when we saw a wild animal, our brain focused on that dangerous animal. When something tasty grew in the forest, our brain focused on that tasty plant.

In the modern world, our brains still try to do their job when we try to write a school paper. But instead of focusing on wild animals, they focus on social media sites, Facebook, and anything else that is considered desirable.

As a result, we pay a high price: It takes anywhere from 5 minutes to 15 minutes or more before we can focus again. Distractions are poison for long periods of concentrated work.

Nor are all distractions external. The opposite is true. About 40 percent of all distractions are internal thought processes. We can get lost in a sea of thoughts that take up all of our attention, which can cause us to stop paying attention to what we should be doing.

This makes it all the more important to find ways to focus on writing the essay, as this helps to keep our thoughts in the right place. And to make sure we write the essays the right way!

7 Ways to Focus While Writing Essays

Essays are an essential writing skill for all students – whether at the level of a college essay or in school. There are a number of things that help us stay focused.

The most important thing is not to wait until the moment before writing to decide what you actually want to say. When writing an essay, you should have a good idea of what you want to say, how you want to say it, and how you want to support your thesis.

If you follow a specific outline when writing your essay, you are much less likely to suffer from writer’s block. You will also be better able to present your arguments clearly and engage in good writing practices, that will serve you well whether you need to tackle an essay or even a research paper.

1. Understand the Esssay Process

It will help you to have a clear idea of the whole process of essay (and non-fiction) writing.

The process is:

  • Research: sift through existing arguments and background information relevant to the essay prompt.
  • Ideas: Formulate your own arguments and ideas about the essay topic. The main idea will go in your thesis statement, and usually will appear in the Introduction of your essay.
  • Outline: create an outline of your main arguments to guide your writing, including citations and references.
  • Writing: Write your essay with as much clarity as possible. From the essay introduction all the way down to your final conclusion.
  • Revising: Review and edit your essay, getting each body paragraph to flow well and progress your overall argument.

Anyone who has ever written an essay can probably recite these steps in their sleep. But it’s not enough to memorize the process.

2. Avoid Research Recursion Syndrome

Cal Newton, in his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, describes a phenomenon that can lead to endlessly searching for research sources, either out of fear of not having enough – or out of a desire to constantly improve one’s work.

When you do not complete the research process, you embark on a search for sources that consume too much time and energy, which is detrimental to the rest of the essay writing process.

The best way to avoid getting into endless research loops is to be clear about how much research is actually required for the various points you make in your essay.

For critical points, you may need two or more citations; for less important ones, only one source.

Take a broad research approach first: find a readable general source on the topic first, perhaps use an AI summary tool to get an overview (see the “Tools” section later in this article), and search the bibliography for interesting specific sources to consult.

You can use the Internet to your advantage, but you should avoid citing it unless absolutely necessary. For academic papers, you are usually better served by citing academic books and papers that are referenced and perhaps even peer-reviewed. Google Scholar is a tool you can use to help find these sources.

3. Be Clear About the Topic of the Essay

Nothing undermines your efforts to focus on the topic more than writing a bunch of stuff only to find that you do not quite address the essay question!

The first thing you should do is take the time to digest FULLY the essay question or topic. What exactly does it mean? What angle is best suited to answer the question? Do you already have initial ideas about how to bring the topic to life? Think about all of this – and jot it down in bullet points – before you start researching, outlining, and writing.

For a complex sentence, it can be helpful to break down the sections in parentheses – and then represent them visually, e.g., as a drawing, mind map, Venn diagram, doodle… The point is that you have used an active technique to take the sentence apart and see how one part relates to the other. A kind of theme analysis.

It’s also important to keep your focus on the topic while researching and writing.

It’s amazing how quickly you can lose sight of the topic if you do not make sure it’s always at the forefront of your mind while writing.

The best way to keep the prompt in front of you is to keep it in front of you! I personally use a notebook, but you can also use a PostIt on your screen, a whiteboard, or other ways to have a simple statement and maybe 3-5 bullet points that you really want to address.

4. Be Clear About the Type of Essay You Want to Write

There are a number of different terms associated with an academic essay, and it’s a good idea to know them in order to write the best response.

  • Expository Essay: requires the student to investigate an idea, evaluate evidence, expound on the idea and set forth an argument.
  • Descriptive Essay: requires the student to describe something, in order to develop the student’s written accounts of particular experiences.
  • Narrative Essay: requires the student to tell a story – whether anecdotal, personal, or experiential. Often requires creative writing.
  • Timed Essay: require a writing sample within a limited time period.
  • Persuasive Essay: requires the student to attempt to get the reader to agree with his or her point of view.
  • Argumentative Essay: requires the student to establish a position on the essay topic.

5. Use Essay Structure to Help You Focus

Some back and forth examinations of arguments are useful in academic papers to show that you know the different sides of an argument. However, you usually choose one side or the other and support it with evidence and arguments.

If you structure your essay clearly and have a clear line of argument, you will work better overall and be able to concentrate more easily. This is where a clear and detailed outline and perhaps the use of mind mapping (as I do) can help.

As an example, take a look at the mind map and outline I created before writing this article.

article outline in thebrain app

The rough ideas were brainstormed before I did more detailed research and recorded the subtopics. The subtopics, by the way, are not strictly in the order I wrote them – but my first draft follows the order of the main topics as I laid them out in the mind map.

The trick to developing a good, clear structure is to first capture the main line in an essay outline, and then start fleshing out that outline.

6. Include Source Material Directly in Your Outline

Make sure you can easily move blocks around to get a clearer overall line through your essay.

A clear outline will also help you get your essay to the right length: Know how many words you need for each section, so you can make sure you do not write one section too much and another too little. This way, you’ll have a balanced essay that covers the different points well.

Think of quotes and citations as blocks that you can insert into the structure of your essay – set aside a source and incorporate it when it makes sense to you. Do not be afraid to swap them out if you find a better quote.

7. Some Additional Structure Tips for Essay Focus

Effective structuring will make the difference between a good essay and a great essay. It’ll help you deliver a successful essay that will win you points, and boost your confidence.

Write clearly and simply. Use an active tense. Use quality sources.

Look for surprises and really interesting points – chances are, if they surprise and stimulate you, they will do the same for others when you write about them!

Write the introductory paragraph and conclusion last!

Learn to Sift Through Ideas and Concepts Quickly

The following advice is very useful not only for essay writing but also for learning in general.

Chunking is a very valuable concept when it comes to gathering research material, sorting it into buckets, using it, and writing with it.

Think of it as large pieces and small pieces.

A whole section of an essay can be one big chunk into which you insert a whole series of smaller chunks.

In nonfiction writing, which includes essay writing, you can think of a small section as a specific idea expressed in a few sentences at most.

Breaking your ideas down into individual paragraphs (even if you group them later) can do wonders for gaining clarity of thought flow and connections.

Nonlinear Work

Working non-linearly is important: It’s a fact that we can not write down all of our ideas one by one in one sitting; at least, most of us do not.

If we have a system for putting ideas and evidence we encounter in the right place in our essay structure, we make our lives much easier.

Broadly speaking, it will help you to stick roughly to the following work structure:

1. Define the objective

2. Research

3. Outline

4. Writing

5. Editing

I say “roughly” because in practice there will be some overlap with other areas. But if you have a rough flow, you can better manage your overall process and energy.

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to write first drafts before tweaking grammar, spelling, structure, etc. The faster you can get an overview of your essay, the more motivated and original your work is likely to be.

Quick Questions to Keep Asking as You Write

In journalism, there are classic questions that are asked at every stage of research and writing: Who, What, When, How, and Why.

These questions are also very useful in essay writing because if you remember to ask (and answer) the “how” and the “why” at each stage of your essay, you will bring your essay to life.

These simple questions will help you focus on your argument and the evidence you have to support it.

K.I.S.S.

Sometimes it can be easy to get lost in details and not see the forest for the trees.

A good solution to this is to step back from writing. Literally, stop for a few moments or minutes and remember K.I.S.S.: Keep It Super Simple (in the original it’s Keep It Simple Stupid – but I prefer my wording!).

Ask yourself: does the basic argument make sense? What is the main point you want to make? What is the main point that is missing? What is the most important thing the essay needs now to make it work better?

If you can not find the answer to any of these questions, ask yourself, “How can I figure this out quickly?” – let your mind find a solution.

If THAT does not work, you can try saying to yourself, “If I had the answer to this question, what would it be?” Basically, this is a psychological trick to enable yourself (and your mind) to find the right connections and name them.

Methods to Help You Focus Better When Studying and Writing Essays

There are a number of things you can do to help your overall concentration, which will also help you when writing your essays.

The Pomodoro Technique

You can use the ” Pomodoro Technique” to complete short, focused periods of work (sprints) each day that will help you get into the right frame of mind.

The basic idea is that you set a timer for 25 minutes and then work during that time without distractions. There are free and paid apps available on various mobile device stores to act as timers. During those 25 minutes, do not check email, Twitter, Facebook, or other websites.

Once the 25 minutes are up, take a 5-minute break. Repeat this process four times and then take a 15-minute break.

The reason is that it’s very hard to concentrate for more than 25 minutes – but after that, you have a nice break before starting a new 25-minute burst. You’ll find that you can get a lot more done in those 25-minute periods than you normally would. This gets you into the flow.

It also increases the total amount of work you get done over multiple sprints, making you much more productive. The short concentration phases make it easier for you to focus.

Although 25 minutes is the default setting, some people find that other time intervals work better for them; I personally tend to set mine to 45 minutes with a 5-minute break. Otherwise, it’s too short for me to be able to write sufficiently.

This technique is especially helpful for those of us who are easily distracted.

It’s not just about concentration. The Pomodoro technique has the added benefit of giving you a physical break from the screen and keyboard, allowing your muscles to rest and your body to stretch.

The v for Victory Technique

Posture is very important when learning and writing. Firstly for general health, and secondly for writing efficiency.

But that’s not all.

Did you know that you can literally program your mind for success by using a body language hack?

Try this: Stand up and stretch your arms above your head in a V shape. Hold them for a few seconds and breathe normally. Bonus points if you close your eyes and imagine success.

Now go back to doing what you were doing before. Do you feel better? Do you feel more positive?

This is a great technique for all kinds of situations.

Eliminate Auditory Distractions

As we learned above, any kind of distraction can seriously disrupt your work. It’s important to learn how to study peacefully.

Related: Where Can I Study Peacefully

Auditory distractions are especially troublesome because, while they may not be loud, they can be intrusive when you are trying to concentrate hard.

There are several obvious solutions: Close doors and windows, work in a room away from the source of the noise and ask the person making the noise to stop.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the use of noise-canceling headphones. Especially if you combine them with focused music or sound effects like forest rain or wind. I personally use YouTube Premium, which has several Focus playlists built-in. You can also try using the headphones without music, but with noise cancelation turned on.

Some people also report great success with binaural beats. If you search for “binaural beats focus,” you’ll find many options, including hour-long soundtracks.

These binaural tracks have the advantage of not only eliminating the source of the interference but also programming your brain’s waves to help you focus and write better.

Once you find a soundtrack or playlist that works for you, add it to your favorites and repeat if that helps.

Eliminate Visual Distractions

Ideally, remove all visual distractions from your workspace and leave only what is actually relevant to the work in front of you. In most cases, a tidy desk means a tidy mind.

In practice, it’s not always that simple. What you can do, however, is move the unimportant things to the edge of your desk and keep the area directly in front of you clear so you do not have a connection to the keyboard and screen.

It’s worth thinking about the overall placement and ergonomics of your workspace. For me, a good amount of natural daylight falling on the desk is helpful. I make sure it comes from the side and not the front.

I also use a small blue light on the desk when I am working, which helps me think positively and focus.

If you have the space, you might want to try putting your desk in the middle of the room. I first noticed this when I visited the home of Charles Darwin, the famous English naturalist. The first thing I noticed in his study was that the desk was right in the middle of the room. The same was true of Churchill’s desk in the attic of his country residence.

The point is that regardless of your particular circumstances, you can have a considerable amount of control over your visual environment. I would advise you to try different configurations and find one that works best for you. You may also find that changing the configuration of your room from time to time helps your motivation and concentration.

Screen Arrangement

I find that the arrangement of windows and applications on the screen I use for studying and writing is very important for efficiency when working and writing.

Right now, I have a 27-inch iMac right in front of me with two windows on it: On the left side of the screen is my mind map and outline, and on the right side is the writing surface where I am currently writing this article. To the right of the iMac is a laptop on which I have the mind map of this article at a glance.

Although I have experimented with 3 and even 4 screens, I personally find that two screens are sufficient for my particular needs. With more than 2 screens, I feel distracted. Of course, you should experiment and find out what works best for you.

I find that having the most important data immediately in view makes it all the better. I like to avoid switching back and forth between different applications and windows as much as possible.

I also find that having a clear visual memory system (a bit like muscle memory for the mind) helps a lot with writing. That’s why I always have the writing surface on the right side of the iMac screen, while the various research windows are always on the left.

Movement and Posture

What writers and students sometimes forget is the importance of posture and movement while working.

It is very important for motivation and health to move around during a workday, especially to protect your back.

I use a sit-stand desk for this purpose. This allows me to use different types of stands, chairs, and standing positions throughout the day to vary my posture and the angle at which my back moves throughout the day. This allows me to write for long periods of time without harming my body.

If you use the Pomodoro technique described above, you could use the 15-minute breaks for sprints to do a short exercise session. This could be a few short stretches combined with some push-ups, planks, sit-ups, or something similar.

Cold Therapy

It may sound like a terrible cliché, but the value of cold showers is incredible. I had the privilege of going to a British private school called Stonyhurst College when I was young. Stonyhurst has, I believe, the very first school swimming pool, which in my day was nicknamed The Plunge. When I was at Stonyhurst, the pool was surrounded by scary-looking showers and enormous baths with invariably cold water.

What I did not know then, but know now, is the value of cold water for overall mood, health, and learning performance. You may have heard of Wim Hof, the Iceman, who advocates cold therapy for health. If not, check out his videos on YouTube. They are incredible.

The way I practice it is not by jumping straight into the cold shower in the morning, although that’s probably the best method, but by washing with warm water for a few minutes and then turning the water to cold for 1 or 2 minutes. This always makes me feel more invigorated and better prepared for the morning’s work.

All I can say is: try it!

Dictation

One technique that I think really contributes to efficiency in writing is dictation.

I personally use the app VoiceIn for this, but there’s also a free alternative from Google that I describe later in the “Tools” section of this article.

I either handwrite or type out the outline for the essays and articles I write and then I use a combination of typing and dictation when I write the article or essay.

I find that the decision whether I dictate or not is psychological. Sometimes I feel like dictating the article, sometimes I find it better to type it. Often I have found it helpful to start writing and then move to dictate when I am in the flow.

It’s a matter of trial and error, and I encourage you to keep a regular journal of what works and does not work for you personally to discover the best methods for you.

If you find that dictation is helpful, my advice is to get a good microphone on a stand that you can swivel in and out, and position the microphone very close to your mouth for much better results with the dictation software or app.

Finding Flow When Writing Essays

The ideal state when writing – including essay writing – is a flow state. This is the state where everything comes easily to you and you feel like you are doing your best while fully concentrating on what you are doing.

There are some things that can help you achieve this state:

Awareness of Resistance

Resistance is the enemy of flow. Resistance is anything that distracts you from your work and causes you to turn your attention away from what you are doing. The more you are aware of it, the more you can avoid it.

I think it’s important not to give up too soon when resistance comes in the form of procrastination or motivation. In the short term, it’s worse to give in to resistance and procrastinate, so you need to be prepared for it.

I find the easiest way to deal with resistance is to acknowledge it, then just ignore it and get on with the task.

Forming Habits

To make learning and writing a habit, which then makes everything easier, it’s good to understand how habits can be formed.

Habits are formed through three steps:

  • the cue
  • the routine
  • the reward

The best way to form a habit is to choose a cue that is so repetitive that you can not help but do the routine every time you encounter the cue. The best cue is often a place, time, person, or feeling. For example, if I write in the same place at the same time in the morning and I feel a certain way, I can not help but do it, and so a habit loop is formed.

So if you want to make it a habit to write in the morning, you have to find a cue that you can not ignore. Perhaps the moment you finish breakfast.

However, make sure you have a reward at the end of the routine that you look forward to. This will make it easier for you to motivate yourself to do the routine, and encourage the formation of a new habit.

Learn Keyboard Shortcuts

One of the best favors you can do for yourself as a writer is to learn keyboard shortcuts.

If you do not know them yet, you should figure them out and use them. You’ll be amazed at how easy it all is.

Sleep, Diet and Hydration

This may sound familiar, but it’s worth reiterating how important it is to eat right, get enough sleep, and drink enough water.

When you are in optimal condition, you can make better use of the time you have.

A good tip is to darken the room where you sleep as much as possible. You will then have a deeper and more restful sleep.

Use Mental Management Techniques

Top athletes and their coaches use mental management and visualization techniques for a reason. It works.

If you spend a little time visualizing the feeling of success, what it will bring you and how you will get there, the actual process will be easier for you.

Instead of racking your brain over the steps, you’ll have them pre-programmed in your head – and you’ll just do them.

An important part of mental management is to NOT focus on failures, but instead focus on and celebrate when you do something well. This has the effect of anchoring in your mind the practices that lead to success, while not anchoring those that lead to failure.

Tools and Apps That Help With Essay Writing

When writing nonfiction, I use a number of apps on a daily basis that helps me immensely with my work.

DEVONThink

This is a powerful research database app (unfortunately only for Mac) that uses AI to find useful snippets of information.

Related: Is DEVONThink Worth It

InstaText

This is an amazing app that allows you to review and edit text very quickly and adapt to any tone of voice you want.

Related: What Is InstaText

TheBrain

This is the mind mapping and thought development app I use to brainstorm and outline my non-fiction writing. In fact, all my writing.

Scholarcy

A very useful AI summary app that gives you a useful snapshot of a PDF file or book.

VoiceIn

A reliable dictation extension that lets me dictate directly into my writing canvas. Or you can use the free Google Docs tool.

Sudowrite

Something of a secret among writers. It is one of the best, if not the best AI GPT -3 app.

Related: What Is Sudowrite