Writing Triage, or, Writing a Paper Under a Time Crunch

Developed by Annie Boyer (’21), Writing Center Tutor & Writing Fellow


Tri·age /trēˈäZH/ – the process of determining the most important people or things from amongst a large number that require attention.

While we always suggest coming into ARC even if you’ve procrastinated or only have an outline of a paper, this is the handout to come to when you’re under a major time crunch and, perhaps,

  • ARC is closed.
  • You have X amount of time to get this done, and then you need your sleep more than a perfect paper grade.
  • This essay is due in thirty minutes, and you really don’t have time to come in to ARC.

In any of those cases, this handout is for you. We’ll cover how to use the “triage” technique in academic writing, how to apply it, and what to do afterwards in several different scenarios. 

NOTE: If you have no desire or no time to read the what/why and reasoning behind this writing strategy, and just want the HOW, skip to the HOW section below!

WHAT IS WRITING TRIAGE?

Triage is most commonly known as a medical term, referencing the practice of assigning degrees of urgency to victims during a mass casualty or disaster, which helps medical professionals decide the order of the victims treated. Obviously, this guide isn’t about broken bones or an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. 

But similarly, the triage method of writing involves breaking down your information into three categories. 

Level 1: Information that is essential to your writing/argument, readable syntax and grammar 

You want this information to be clear and well-explained in your paper, and you absolutely want to include it. In medical terms, it is urgent and needs immediate treatment. Don’t let your paper die. 

Level 2: Information that your paper would definitely benefit from including, but less important than Level 1, improved syntax and grammar 

It would be great to include this stuff, but to use that medical equivalent again, no one’s going to die. Your paper will be alive, if injured. 

Level 3: The rest of the information, choice vocabulary, and near-perfect punctuation 

If you have time to include this, great. If not, your paper might have a scratch or two, but it’ll be fine without medical intervention. 

Visit the list of MORE RESOURCES at the bottom of this page for help with each level.

WHEN DO I USE WRITING TRIAGE?

As we said above, feel free to come to ARC anytime, even for help using the triage method. But if we’re closed, you don’t know where to start, or you have no time, this guide to writing triage is to help you do it yourself. 

You can use writing triage in any stage of the writing process: 

  • Outlining 
  • Drafting 
  • Writing 
  • Editing 
  • Checking your work 
WHY SHOULD I USE WRITING TRIAGE?

Why not? It’s a methodical way of approaching essay brain-storming, essay outlining, essay drafting, etc. It’s helpful for checking or orchestrating organization or for checking against a rubric, if you have one. And if you’re tired or just need get started, this is a helpful method to make sure you’re using your valuable time productively.

HOW DO I USE WRITING TRIAGE?

Let’s revisit what we described “writing triage” as above. 

Level 1: Information that is essential to your writing/argument, readable syntax and grammar 

You want this information to be clear and well-explained in your paper, and you absolutely want to include it. In medical terms, it is urgent and needs immediate treatment. Don’t let your paper die. 

So here’s where you start. A thesis statement is essential for most pieces of academic writing – your audience needs to know the point you’re trying to make. Look to make your main argument(s)/points and include key pieces of evidence. This is the life of your paper, and for it to stay breathing, you need all of this. For now, don’t worry about your transitions or the flow of your paper. Make sure your writing makes your argument clear, is supported throughout, and that your evidence and sources are cited correctly (a lack of plagiarism is absolutely essential)! 

Level 2: Information that your paper would definitely benefit from including, but less important than Level 1, improved syntax and grammar 

It would be great to include this stuff, but to use that medical equivalent again, no one’s going to die. Your paper will be alive, if injured. 

Now that your argument is clear, focus on making your paper readable for your audience. Fix those transition sentences, add or improve your introduction and conclusion, and check for conciseness. By that, we mean make sure your sentences add something to your paper, and make sure they are necessary and not just extraneous words or repeated thoughts. Include supporting examples and counterexamples for your evidence. Now is also the time to read through your whole paper and break up long sentences that are hard to read, and explain anything that isn’t immediately clear. 

Level 3: The rest of the information, choice vocabulary, and near-perfect punctuation 

If you have time to include this, great. If not, your paper might have a scratch or two, but it’ll be fine without medical intervention. 

And finally, here’s when we slap on some bandaids or do some unnecessary plastic surgery. Apply those comma rules, throw in a tasteful semi-colon, and analyze your word choice. Double check your rubric and syllabus for formatting and submission instructions, as well as for any required instructions for the paper you may have overlooked. 

Congratulations, you’ve saved a life. No science required (necessarily, sorry STEM majors). 

WHAT IF . . .

I haven’t finished my paper, and it’s time to turn it in. 

Most, if not all of us, have been there, especially me – the ARC tutor writing this – and it really isn’t the end of the world. The earlier you know you’ll be turning it in late, the better, but even if it’s after the deadline, communicate with your professor. The worst thing you can do is pretend they won’t notice; they’ll either think you forgot (irresponsible), you didn’t do it at all (lazy), or you don’t care enough to talk to them (disrespectful). 

Tips for emailing your professor: 

    • Be respectful (i.e. “Dear Professor X,” “Sincerely, Student Y”).
    • Let them know that the paper is on it’s way, it’s just going to be a little late. 
    • Be careful giving your professors an exact time you will have the paper into them by. If you say you’ll have it to them by the next day, make sure you do, and if you realize that’s impossible, communicate that to them as soon as you know. 
    • Feel free to inform them briefly​of any extenuating circumstances, but don’t use them as an excuse. 

If an emergency (death in the family, major illness) is the reason for a late paper, feel free to ask for an extension or talk to the Dean’s office about a notice for your professors. 

If you know you have a lot of work during a certain period, feel free to ask for an extension ahead of time. The worst thing that will happen is they say no. 

I don’t like the result of my writing-triaged paper, and I’d rather turn it in late with more editing. 

That’s fine, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to take a late penalty to give yourself time to turn in quality work. Simply communicate with your professor, and take a look at the above tips for emailing your professor. 

Do pay attention to your syllabus because different professors have different late policies for essays. Most are aware that college happens and that assignments will be late occasionally, so they have policies that just take a few points off. Once in awhile, however, a professor does not accept late work, so turning in an imperfect essay is better than taking the extra day. 

I have extra time after using this method. 

Lucky you! Take that extra time to focus on the 3rd level concerns of writing triage. Fine-tune those commas and that syntax, check your citation formatting, and then relax. You can even have a friend read over your work, or… come to ARC and we’ll do that for you! 

HOW DO I USE THE TRIAGE METHOD FOR A PAPER I’M NOT RUSHING ON?

You can use this method at any stage of the writing process, so start by using this to form your outline. 

  • Write down all your 1st-order concerns, i.e. the important stuff and main points;
  • Under each 1st-order point, make bullet-pointed lists of the 2nd-order concerns that apply to that particular essential point;
  • Fill in any gaps between the 2nd-order information with 3rd-order points and flesh that outline out;
  • Write your essay using your outline, and during the editing process, go back and compare your essay and your outline. See if the organization is clear and logical, and make sure all of your 1st order information is included! 
MORE RESOURCES

Like ARC’s website, many colleges and universities have great online resources for their writing centers. Here are some quick links to the UNC Chapel Hill Writing Center for help at the three different levels of writing triage. 

Level 1 

Thesis Statements 

Evidence 

Arguments 

Citing Sources

Plagiarism 

Level 2 

Writing Concisely

Introductions 

Conclusions 

Flow 

Level 3 

Word Choice 

Comma Rules 

Semi-colons, Colons, and Dashes 

Transitions 

Miscellaneous 

Brainstorming 

Procrastination 

College Writing 

Writing Anxiety