Don’t Be a Completist When Writing Essays

Hi, my name is Anthony, and I’m a completist.


It feels good to get that off my chest. 

What does it mean to be a completist? Well, it’s the reason I have this:




If you looked at this album cover and concluded this record didn’t win any Grammys, congratulations. You are presumably $8.45 (plus tax) richer than I am. A musical connoisseur and very discerning listener once told me, “I’m not the kind of Beatles fan who has to buy everything Paul McCartney puts out.” This kind of thinking is very foreign to me. It’s also a great essay-writing tip. As a Beatles fan who is also a completist, I need not only Paul’s records in my collection but Ringo’s oeuvre as well. But as a writer, this impulse can have negative consequences.


So what is a completist? Here is as good a definition as I’ve seen: “At its root, the completist impulse is about feeling as though there’s no point in collecting something unless you have every single item.”


Being a completist as a collector can be fun. I enjoy hunting down rare records or hard-to-find stamp issues. But when it comes to writing essays, completism should be resisted at all costs.


What does completism have to do with essay writing? More than you might think.


In my case, the process of finding sources isn’t too different from hunting for items to fill out a collection. In both cases, I like to have both standard works and “rarities”—in the case of writing, articles in obscure journals that speak to an aspect of my research or long out-of-print primary sources that may only be held by a few libraries worldwide. I remember being a third-year undergraduate in history and proposing a paper on opposition to World War I in Wales for a British history course. The professor responded that I wouldn’t find enough scholarly material to produce a thorough, nuanced essay on the subject. I went into full collector mode and sent him a list of about twenty sources as a preliminary bibliography. The professor responded “Bravo!” and allowed me to begin work on the essay.


So far so good. But the best essay-writing help I can give is to advise you not to be a completist when it comes to your essays. Why?



It’s because locating sources is only one part of the essay-writing process. It’s an important part to be sure, but an essay lives or dies by its thesis and its analysis and interpretation of evidence. And the thing is: there’s always one more source you can track down, one more footnote you can follow up on, one more passing reference you can spend a day researching. At some point, this can become a form of procrastination. This is especially true if, like me, you’re good at it (or if you prefer it to actually writing your essay—also like me). 


At some point, you have to decide that you have what you need and dive into the hard work of structuring an argument and supporting it convincingly. This is as true for ten-page undergraduate essays as it is for 300-page dissertations. 


Recognising when some material is essential versus when you are indulging your completist instincts requires self-awareness and judgement. Remember that essay I wrote on Welsh pacifism? At the last minute, I decided to delete my section on trade unions and their opposition to WWI. The essay had become unwieldy and I couldn’t get this section to work. It seemed at odds with the other points I was making, so I cut it. And it affected my mark. The professor said, rightly, that you can’t really discuss opposition to war in the UK without discussing the labour movement. So yes, I should have addressed the activities of Welsh unions, but that doesn’t mean I needed to hunt down everything ever written about them or read, say, 500 pages of a labour organiser’s letters to his parents. Judgement. You have to make distinctions.Macbook-Templates

EssayJack is a real help with this. When you create an essay draft using EssayJack, our platform provides a number of body points based on the word count of your essay. If you tell EssayJack that you’re writing a 500-word essay, you’ll have fewer points available in the body of your essay than if you enter 3000 for the word count. This feature serves to tell you that you have space for a set number of discrete points, so you need to make your most effective arguments. In effect, EssayJack stops you from throwing everything but the kitchen sink into your essay. You have the flexibility to add or delete points—maybe you are writing four relatively short points or making two longer points instead of the three we’ve estimated.


When creating a custom template, though, teachers can decide whether to have the number of points be a hard limit or whether to allow students to add additional points. Either way, EssayJack always shows you a live word count, which is another impetus to tailor your writing to the parameters of the assignment. Finding a crumbling document in the dusty library basement in order to explore an intriguing side argument may be appropriate in, say, a senior honours thesis. For other assignments, though, this exercise could be a way your drive toward completism is actually inhibiting your ability to write—and finish—the best possible essay.


It’s important to see tendencies like completism as both positive and negative, to recognise where they help you and ward against the ways they can inhibit you. The impulse to collect sources is part of being a thorough researcher, but if it becomes an end in itself and leads you to postpone writing your actual essay, then it’s not a helpful tendency. With EssayJack, you’re never staring at a blank screen, so it’s easier to resist the temptation to fill out one more inter-library loan request before starting your essay.


EssayJack is designed to help you maximise your strengths while keeping you on task so that you avoid doing work that is more spinning your wheels than writing a successful essay.



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