How to Hack Your Paperwork to Save Time

We’ve all been there.  You start your new classes, possibly even with some excitement over the titles of each unit, and suddenly you’re up to your eyebrows in reports, essays and general paperwork.  While there’s a HUGE temptation to just ignore the bulk of it until nearer the end of the semester, the best time to tackle them is actually now.

In some cases you’re not going to know everything you need to in order to create your report then and there; that’s what this guide is for.  My aim, with this post, is to show you that you can get 80% of the work done before you really have any idea what you’re talking about.

The Process – A Brief Introduction

When I get an essay or report that I have to write I’ll follow these steps pretty much every time.  Parts of it are fairly new but so far they’ve made things so much easier for me and I hope they help you too.  For all you bloggers out there, this could work in that context as well; let me know how you get on if you try it.

One quick note before we start; be careful.  Some of the steps here make it very easy to sound like a robot with each essay or report you like, and it’s missing the point if you do it that way.  The idea is to get the bulk of the leg work done before you need to go in and add the information, not to sound like an automated doodad capable of only one sort of written work.  You’ll know yourself what you can adopt safely and what you can’t – keep that in mind while you read through this.

Without further ado, here’s my paperwork process:

Basic Hacking

  • Read the brief. Obvious, I know, but this is the most important stage.  Without doing this, you’ve lost before you even start; take five minutes to really read and understand what’s being asked of you.
  • Get Clarification (if needed). At this stage you need to ask your tutor/lecturer if you have any queries about the brief.  Anything at all you’re not sure of, get it cleared up now.  Even final deadlines if they’re not clearly defined.  Take notes if it’s especially complicated.
  • Split the Report/Essay into sections. From your discussion with your tutor and the brief you should be able to group the requirements into parts or sections.  For example, if you had an essay that required you to address the anatomic structure of cats, dogs, and sheep; your sections could be cats, dogs, and sheep.  Or, alternatively, you could split that topic into skeletal, muscular, nervous, and surface if that took your fancy.  The point is that you need to cut it into smaller sections.

Intermediate Hacking

  • Set up your Word Document. Open it up, add a header and footer and save it somewhere sensible that you’ll be able to find it again later.  Create a title page, a contents page, and an Introduction page (if applicable).
  • Add your Sections. For each of the sections you split your report into in the last phase, create a title that describes it and add that to the contents page.  Once you’ve done that for all of your topics, copy the text in the contents page and paste it on a new page after your introduction.  Restart the numbering if you’d been using it, and create a page break between each heading.
  • Explain your Sections. Write a note to yourself for each section explaining what it’s going to be about, what you need to cover in that section, and some of what you’d like to include.  You can also add what you need to research in here if appropriate.

Advanced (Optional) Hacking

  • Split your Sections. If you can, split your sections down further into paragraphs.  I don’t mean write them just now, I mean split it out into what you think should go in each paragraph and write a short note for that under your main explanation.  (Para 1, Para 2, Para 3, etc)
  • Write your Introduction. Again, sometimes you won’t be able to do this right away, but for most essays and reports the introduction is only explaining what you’ll be talking about in the rest of the essay, what each section will contain, and possibly how you plan to deliver the information.  Normally you can find all this information from the brief, so there’s no reason to leave this any longer.
  • Write Standard Sections. This part is a little harder to explain but I’ll do my best.  Say, for example, you had a fairly standard report that required you to say much the same thing in each section but with different pieces of information.  If that’s the case there’s nothing stopping you going ahead and writing the paragraphs and leaving room for the information itself.  I like to do this with square brackets; it leaves me space to write what information I need to place into that part.  Example:

In [year] the town of [town name] was founded to meet [insert requirement; work, economy, industry, etc].  Originally the people there felt [insert opinion about town] about their new home; however over time they became [insert current opinion].

The Most Important Point

  • Read through and Edit. Once you add the information you needed, read back through it and edit some of your sentences.  The idea here is to make it flow more naturally, not to change the entire structure of the report.  Possibly the most important step no matter what you’re writing; that’s why it gets it’s own section.


After you’ve finished those tasks the work you’ve left to do on your essay will be relatively small.  You can then research at your leisure and drop the information in wherever you’ve left a blank for it; it helps to focus on the information you actually need instead of only the interesting parts.  The first two sections should be easy to do every time you get an essay or report that you have to write, whereas the third section will only be possible in some cases.

I started using this method about a month ago formally and it’s made a huge difference to the way I work and how efficient I am.  Previously I’d been using a mixed set of techniques, some of which I kept, but ultimately it left me feeling more stressed than when I wrote them ‘normally’.  I’d say that this is worth trying at least once to see if it makes your life easier.

Final Word

One last thing I wanted to mention before I end this post;  As of next week I’ll be changing my posting days to Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.  This is because my Mondays have become incredibly busy of late because of my new timetable and taking up Tai Chi.  By the time I finally get a moment to write I’m usually really tired, so before my work starts to suffer too much I’m going to spare us all and move it.

Thanks for your patience everyone, I hope you enjoyed this post – let me know how you get on if you try it!  See you on Wednesday.

21 thoughts on “How to Hack Your Paperwork to Save Time

  1. Ralph

    I think those are very good suggestions but I couldn’t help thinking about the dark ages when I was in college. You would have to write out the report in longhand (or I guess you could type it). It was much harder to organize material (you were supposed to use notecards with details, items, etc but I couldn’t never manage that degree of organization). Then finally after you got the report the way you wanted it, you had to type it, correcting mistakes as you went and doing some rewriting. I was always getting hung up about spelling as I typed and so would have to look up words. It took forever to get the final. College would have been so different with a computer and word processor.
    Sorry for that diversion. You kids today have it so good.
    .-= Ralph´s last blog ..What can I learn from comment counts? =-.

    1. TylinaVespart

      Believe me, I’m eternally grateful that we have computers and word processors. 😉

      Thanks for sharing that; I tend to forget just how easy it all us for us modern kids! Would have spent a large amount of time tearing my hair out had I been born back then I can tell you!

  2. TheInfoPreneur

    Really good ways of splitting up and speeding the process. I’d be lost without my laptop, I never write things down by hand (well not never, but hardly ever) great post and fantastically written as always
    .-= TheInfoPreneur´s last blog ..Is Your Website Doing It’s Job Or Pretending? =-.

    1. TylinaVespart

      Thanks James, glad you got something out of it. 🙂

      About the only things I willingly write by hand are my journal, and my fiction stuff (for some reason I just prefer it, not sure why). When I didn’t have a computer for a while I thought I was going to explode!

  3. Lees Shizzle

    I’m like you Ralph when I was in college we didn’t know too much about computers, laptops, cellphones and remote controls were fought over. So we just got up to change the tv and left it at that. Course who needed a remote when you only had 4 too 15 channels anyway and only 3 of those worked. LOL OK a little extreme but really. I still write alot of my things in ink as an outline or reminder to refer back to. My first term paper was written out on over 20 some pages and I let my Godfather do the typing. I was pretty proud of it, scored 145 out of possible 150..

  4. Ben

    Great stuff here Heather.

    I think the important parts for me, as an study skills and revision educator, are things like splitting your task up and asking for clarification.

    Some of these assignments or revision for certain exams can be such a huge task that it turns people away from getting down to work. Split it up and when you’ve done that break it down some more. Make it more manageable by creating small easier to concentrate on chunks of work.

    Also get help and clarification from the experts that are there to help you i.e. your teachers and lecturers.
    .-= Ben´s last blog ..It’s the little things that make a big difference. How do you flap your Butterfly wings? =-.

    1. TylinaVespart

      Thanks Ben, I totally agree – often these essays can be so huge and ambiguous that they get left til the very last moment (then everyone stresses out about them, loses sleep, etc). The one that sparked this blog post was actually frrom last Semester; we had to talk about genre, theme, narrative, and so on within games.

      Sounds simple enough until you actually looked at the brief – I’ve never seen an assignment so badly written! They’re being changed for next year with the framework, but we still had to muddle through it lol. These methods were about the only way I got through it on time.

      I think it’s important to make everything as simple as possible, it also takes out a lot of the willpower involved in making yourself start.

  5. Dr Egg


    You can perhaps even teach an old dog new tricks here. Interesting day today at work. We are trying to get our heads round the lessons we might learn after the swine flu over the past nine months here in Wales. At the same time, our Welsh NHS is going through a major churn of re-organisation and I am concerned that asking everyone to reflect of what went well and what didn’t could end up as one more piece of toil to add to an expanding burden.

    So we cut to the chase: “What things do we need to fix?”

    Now when all the little bits come flooding back, some poor soul (me and my long suffering PA) have to pull it all together and I rather like the advice you have given and I will print out to see if this is an alternative that might help get everything together.

    I personally remain very taken with the recognition of complexity “management” techniques and was very interested to read Ben Lumley’s piece at:
    Ben is probably strictly defining complexity rather than chaos theory. I know that if I were to send out a big questionnaire at this time, a large number of people would put this in the “too difficult” pile and I’d never get the piece written. So, allowing everyone to put in as little or much as they need to say, should pull in more collective thoughts and we can derive a pattern from this complex adaptive system – or so goes the theory!

    Anyway, we shall see but I am grateful that you may have helped me think of a way of pulling the info all together.

    PS – I’m with Ralph! It was a nightmare when I was at university. So glad that I now have such amazing technology at my fingertips!
    .-= Dr Egg´s last blog ..Egging me on? – Dr Egg’s Blog =-.

    1. TylinaVespart

      I’ll admit to not having had time to read Ben’s post; I’ll head over there in just a moment (been off having fun all day :P). Great to see someone using my technique though – you’ll have to let me know how it goes!

      Maybe offer some tweaks once you’ve tried it out? As I said in the post it’s the way I tend to work now, but possibly there are other things that’d make it even easier that I haven’t thought of yet; feedback definitely appreciated.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting 🙂

  6. Dory

    My hubby is working on his Master’s right now. I’ll send him this link and see what he gets out of it! Thanks!
    .-= Dory´s last blog ..Look what just came home to me =-.

  7. Eric

    I admittedly desperately need to get more organised and write more stuff down so I’ll remember for later. The computer I have helps and the laptop I’m getting this year will help even more.

    I can’t remember the last time I used pen and paper to write down something really important though I’d still do it if I wanted to have it as a reminder with me at all times.

    I’m with you, thank God for word processors! lol 🙂
    .-= Eric´s last blog ..When You Should Follow That Blog =-.

    1. TylinaVespart

      I hear ya, writing stuff down to remind yourself is great and all… but then there’s the whole ‘remembering to write it down’ 😉 I have a notebook specifically for that, or did, I need to get another one now!

      Anyway yes, Word Processors; savior of our age. 😀

  8. Travis

    Wow, and we thought MY blog would be good for students?? Sheesh!! Look at you! This was an amazing point!! Rock on.

    Keep up the good work, Heather!! I learned the hard way that it’s best to get stuff out of the way sooner rather than later.
    .-= Travis´s last blog ..You Are Your Own Best Material =-.

  9. Ryan Hanzel

    I think splitting up the essay or project into sections is one of the easiest ways to do it. I have never been big on studying or putting together a project. It usually takes me more time than others due to the fact that my methods have more of a scramble to it until I have it the way I like it. Great post 😀
    .-= Ryan Hanzel´s last blog ..Spending the holidays away 🙁 =-.

    1. TylinaVespart

      Thanks Ryan 🙂 I’m not the world’s biggest fan of studying either, but I figure that if it has to be done then I might as well do it with minimal effort (wherever I can of course :P).

      Nice to see you around again!

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