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2000 word essay in a week? You have to be joking?

Every now and again I read something that throws my mind back to my undergraduate studies and reminds me of just how difficult writing essays can be for someone who hasn’t overcome their dyslexic difficulties yet. The frustration, anxiety and heartbreak at not being able to produce written work to a standard that you feel adequately expresses your thinking is one of the worst things imaginable as a student eager to get the grades you feel you deserve – you know the subject inside out but you just can’t show it on paper!

This brilliant short story by Shirley Cooper from Aberdeen in Scotland gives ‘none-dyslexic people’ an insight into a few of the issues experienced by some ‘dyslexic people’ when faced with the task of having to write a 2,000 word essay in just one week. This might seem like an easy feat for most people who do not have issues with writing but as you will see it presented Shirley with a massive challenge that she had to courageously battle through!

Shirley is an inspiration to all of us at Dyslexic Brian as I’m sure she will be to all of you who read this amazing story.

~ Antonio Giuseppe Farruggia-Bochnak Share this story on FacebookShare

2000 word essay in a week? You have to be joking?

...I did not finish that damn essay...

...I did not finish that damn essay...

Awww the alarm! 7.45am already, which means I slept for….. (Counting on fingers) 4 and a half hours! Mmmm it is going to be a long day. Even though I was up half the night I did not finish that damn essay. Stress! It has to be in tomorrow and I’m not half done yet, even though I’ve been at it for days, long into the night and early morning. Oh well!

So I get and the first thing I do is switch on the computer, ready to start battling with it again…. soon. Must wake up first, brain is in a fog that is particularly hard to shake this morning. Probably prolonged lack of sleep and the fact that my brain is in constant action. Thinking, thinking all the time, thoughts whizzing in and out, playing movies in my head. Constant thought I can’t escape. Thoughts about everything…thoughts about nothing…..just thoughts all the time. Great!! Being able to think fast, that can’t be a bad thing…right…. wrong! Think of these thoughts whizzing around in there, but when trying to apply an appropriate output for these thoughts you become stuck. That is, the thoughts run up against the brick wall in your mind, jumble up and ‘fall’ out in no particular order. Must sit for ten minutes in silence with my coffee, try and quite the jumble.

It’s Sunday so my family are sleeping late, I won’t be disturbed for a while. So I sit with the laptop on my knee staring at what I wrote the night before. I start to read, I’m confronted with a page full of undeveloped thoughts, bad grammar and lots of waffle! Depicted by the spell checker as lots of little red and green squiggly lines. Awww another frustrated groan leaves my throat. I know what I mean when I write it, I know the facts, I’ve done my ‘homework’ I understand the subject. Why, why is this so hard!

A week, that’s what we were given to produce a 2000 word essay, a week! Perhaps an achievable task for someone more adept with the written word than I. But to me, to be honest a mammoth task! I look at my essay plan again, the order in which I think the information should go based on Cottrel, Palgrave and other authors of ‘how to write a good essay’ type books. The trouble is (I think) that I know my conclusion before I start; I’ve made my judgment on the subject. I don’t necessarily know however, why I think that. This leads me to ‘what an essay is?’

I suppose it is a description, or flow of thoughts, describing arguments and evidence that lead to a natural conclusion. Where the writer takes a certain viewpoint, or impartially describes the argument, using a logical flow of the thought. And that’s when the problem is obvious, my chaotic mind struggles with putting my thoughts in any rigid logical order. The undeveloped thoughts (on paper) are a symptom of my fast thought, my hands unable to keep up with what I’m thinking, so ‘skipping stuff’. Add to this a below average ability for spelling, poor short term memory, slow reading and processing rate, and you have the ingredients for a tortures task!

So I say to my friendly lecturer, who said in an encouraging way “its only 2000 words, and I know you have notes… so you can do it” when I complained that a week was not long enough. I say, you’re probably right, given longer I would have just pained over it for longer! But…in no way is it a flippant or easy task. Just so you know, it will take me twice as long, tremendous amount of concentration, a deathly quite atmosphere in which to quite my mind, many re-writes, re-reads and re-arranging. Then when I get my work back, there will be pages of corrected grammar, spelling and sentence structure, to contemplate. Even though I looked that work over at least three times and could see no mistakes, they are there! Almost like a chicken with blue ink on its feet scratched all over my work! Ah well…I pull my wandering mind back to my work and continue with the battle. I just have to work harder…that’s all!?

~ Shirley Cooper from Aberdeen in Scotland

'2000 word essay in a week? You have to be joking?' have 5 comments

  1. June 23, 2010 @ 7:21 am shirley

    Hi Alan,

    I was definitely streamed as dim!! 🙂 they always told me I had to try harder, focus more, stop day dreaming ect, ect, when i left i never looked back. So hopefully, as you say the education system now recognise (and support LD students) who have unrecognized potential to achieve on the same level as their peers. Although reading some comments from the being dyslexic forum it is clear that some people are still put in the position where they have to fight for assessments..therefore support.

    I also had to work hard for my place in uni, i did outreach classes in the community and then access school. Thanks for your words of advice, university is winding down now so not as stressed as I was. Good luck to you when you pick your studies up again 🙂


  2. June 14, 2010 @ 7:59 pm Alan Gurbutt

    Hi Shirley,
    Many people my age have literacy difficulties and dyslexia. 70s education simply didn’t recognise learning disabilities – you were streamed either as bright or dim. Fortunately, I left school straight into an apprenticeship, others weren’t so lucky. Low levels of attainment are prevalent in our community, passed down to offspring so I hope that schools, colleges and universities are beginning to get a handle on learning differences to break this intergenerational spiral.

    I had no choice but to interrupt my studies, if I could have continued I would have. I worked really hard to get my university offer so I was really peeved that I couldn’t continue. I think that what you are doing is great – YOU WILL GRADUATE – Just watch your stress levels. A constant state of low arousal (tiredness and depression) or high arousal (anxiety) is bad, aim for your mid-zone and you’ll be fine. Extreme states of arousal definitely affect concentration and will, without doubt, exacerbate dyslexia. Try relaxation techniques to maintain your ‘zone’. Another tip: if bibliographies are stressful, use an automatic citation system such as Zotero or RefWorks (quick Google), I use the former, it’s free.


  3. June 13, 2010 @ 10:51 am shirley

    Peter, Alan.. Like both of you i found out i was dyslexic later in life , im 31 and found out about 6 months ago, although i always new something was off! To be honest i thought i was just a ‘slow learner ‘ as that was always what i was told at school (i hated school).

    When writing it takes me a long time to transfer my ideas to paper, when i do i can get a decent mark but like you peter, this does not transfer well in exams. Alan, i relate a lot to what you have said about reading, it does literally send me to sleep within a very short space of time, and some nights it is impossible. The prolonged stress of trying to keep up with academic work, (plus life in general) does indeed take its toll on physical and mental health. I admire the fact you have taken a year out, to recharge, and wish sometimes i had done the same (almost finished my Bsc).

    I smiled to myself when i read your description about remembering names and dates etc, as i ‘know’ this also. When submitting any written work i can never remember the correct date to put on the front of my work, usally in the stress of the moment (as its almost always late, like peters) i put the wrong date on. sometimes im a few days out, sometimes a few months or even decades! 🙂

    I would like to study further, but i am thinking it may be jus to much stress….dont know! All the best to you guys in your studies, to undertake a Msc or any further study is an amazing thing for anyone, but to know before you start that you will have to always work harder is something special.


  4. June 12, 2010 @ 4:33 pm Alan Gurbutt

    Shirley, your story is all too familiar to me, I have been down this road so many times. I was only diagnosed as dyslexic last year, at 48, but I had known for many years that I was dyslexic. I went ‘back to school’ in 2007, out of need rather than necessity – a long story which I might share some day. To cut a long story short, I have crammed 0 to MSc in about 3 years (MSc is ongoing), but in doing so the stress of what you have written about, which is me to a tee, almost destroyed my physical health, and I had to take a year out from university as a result.

    Your description of not being able to get your ideas on paper is very accurate, I have exactly the same problem and rely almost exclusively on a text-to-speech program to reread, reread and reread… until the grammar makes sense or does not because I’ve over done it. Sometimes 1000 words takes all day but I’m getting better! I am a lateral thinker, and I have only just realised, after many years, that actually, I have some pretty good ideas, but to get these ideas on paper is a real pain.

    Reading is just as bad, regression over text, too many ideas flooding in, can’t be bothered to put them to paper because the stress of reading, literally sends me too sleep. Do you have this problem? Time management, left and right, times tables, the alphabet, remembering months, names, birthdays, blogs with no spellchecker…..are all problems without having to complete a 2000 word essay in one week!

    Anyhow, I wish you all the best with your studies, Alan.


  5. June 11, 2010 @ 9:22 am Peter

    Very much I have been there. I found some approaches worked better for me but I was always late to submit. Still I was getting 80% on my assignments at the end, which translated into 45% in exams. This was before I knew I was dyslexic.


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