By Holly Berkowitz, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
There is a widespread perception that TikTok, the popular video-sharing social media platform, is primarily a tool of distraction where one mindlessly scrolls through bite-sized bits of content. However, due to the viewer’s ability to engage with short-form video content, it is undeniable that TikTok is also a platform from which users gain information; whether this means following a viral dance tutorial or learning how to fold a fitted sheet, TikTok houses millions of videos that serve as instructional tutorials that provides tips or how-tos for its over one billion active users.
That TikTok might be considered a learning tool also has implications for educational contexts. Recent research has revealed that watching or even creating TikToks in classrooms can aid learning objectives, particularly relating to language acquisition or narrative writing skills. In this post, I discuss the conventions of and consequences for TikToks that discuss college writing. Because of the popularity of videos that spotlight “how-tos” or “day in the life” style content, looking at essay or college writing TikTok can be a helpful tool for understanding some larger trends and student perceptions of writing. Due to the instructional nature of TikToks and the ways that students might be using the app for advice, these videos can be viewed as parallel or ancillary to the advice that a Writing Center tutor might provide.
A search for common hashtags including the words “essay,” “college writing,” or “essay writing hack” yields hundreds of videos that pertain to writing at the college level. Although there is a large variety in content due to the sheer amount of content, this post focuses on two genres of videos as they represent a large portion of what is shared: first, videos that provide tips or how-tos for certain AI tools or assignment genres and second, videos that invite the viewer to accompany the creator as they write a paper under a deadline. Shared themes include attempts to establish peer connections and comfort viewers who procrastinate while writing, a focus on writing speed and concrete deliverables (page count, word limit, or hours to write), and an emphasis on digital tools or AI software (especially that which is marked as “not cheating”). Not only does a closer examination into these videos help us meet writers where they are more precisely, but it also draws writing center workers’ attention to lesser known digital tools or “hacks” that students are using for their assignments.
“How to write” Videos
Videos in the “how to” style are instructional and advice-dispensing in tone. Often, the creator utilizes a digital writing aid or provides a set of writing tips or steps to follow. Whether these videos spotlight assistive technologies that use AI, helpful websites, or suggestions for specific forms of writing, they often position writing as a roadblock or adversary. Videos of this nature attempt to reach viewers by promising to make writing easier, more approachable, or just faster when working under a tight deadline; they almost always assume the writer in question has left their writing task to the last possible moment. It’s not surprising then that the most widely shared examples of this form of content are videos with titles like “How to speed-write long papers” or “How to make any essay longer” (this one has 32 million views). It is evident that this type of content attempts to target students who suffer from writing-related anxiety or who tend to procrastinate while writing.
Sharing “hacks” online is a common practice that manifests in many corners of TikTok where content creators demonstrate an easier or more efficient way of achieving a task (such as loading a dishwasher) or obtaining a result (such as finding affordable airline tickets). The same principle applies to #essay TikTok, where writing advice is often framed as a “hack” for writing faster papers, longer papers, or papers more likely to result in an A. This content uses a familiar titling convention: How to write X (where X might be a specific genre like a literature review, or just an amount of pages or words); How to write X in X amount of time; and How to write X using this software or AI program. The amount of time is always tantalizingly brief, as two examples—“How to write a 5 page essay in 2 mins” and “How to write an essay in five minutes!! NO PLAGIARISM!!”—attest to. While some of these are silly or no longer useful methods of getting around assignment parameters, they introduce viewers to helpful research and writing aids and sometimes even spotlight Writing Center best practices. For instance, a video by creator @kaylacp called “Research Paper Hack” shows viewers how to use a program called PowerNotes to organize and code sources; a video by @patches has almost seven million views and demonstrates using an AI bot to both grade her paper and provide substantive feedback. Taken as a whole, this subsect of TikTok underscores that there is a ready audience for content that purports to assist writers in meeting the deliverables of a writing assignment using a path of least resistance.
Similarly, TikTok contains myriad videos that position the creator as a sort of expert in college writing and dispense tips for improving academic writing and style. These videos are often created by upperclassmen who claim to frequently receive As on essays and tend to use persuasive language in the style of an infomercial, such as “How to write a college paper like a pro,” “How to write research papers more efficiently in 5 easy steps!” or “College students, if you’re not using this feature, you’re wasting your time.” The focus in these videos is even more explicit than those mentioned above, as college students are addressed in the titles and captions directly. This is significant because it prompts users to engage with this content as they might with a Writing Center tutor or tutoring more generally. These videos are sites where students are learning how to write more efficiently but also learning how their college peers view and treat the writing process.
The “how to write” videos share several common themes, most prevalent of which is an emphasis on concrete deliverables—you will be able to produce this many pages in this many minutes. They also share a tendency to introduce or spotlight different digital tools and assistive technologies that make writing more expedient; although several videos reference or demonstrate how to use ChatGPT or OpenAI, most creators attempt to show viewers less widely discussed platforms and programs. As parallel forms of writing instruction, these how-tos tend to focus on quantity over quality and writing-as-product. However, they also showcase ways that AI can be helpful and generative for writers at all stages. Most notably they direct our attention to the fact that student writers consistently encounter writing- and essay- related content while scrolling TikTok.
Write “with me” Videos
Just as the how-to style videos target writers who view writing negatively and may have a habit of procrastinating writing assignments, write “with me” videos invite the viewer to join the creator as they work. These videos almost always include a variation of the phrase— “Write a 5- page case analysis w/ me” or “pull an all nighter with me while I write a 10- page essay.” One of the functions of this convention is to establish a peer-to-peer connection with the viewer, as they are brought along while the creator writes, experiences writer’s block, takes breaks, but ultimately completes their assignment in time. Similarly to the videos discussed above, these “with me” videos also center on writing under a deadline and thus emphasize the more concrete deliverables of their assignments. As such, the writing process is often made less visible in favor of frequent cuts and timestamps that show the progression toward a page or word count goal.
One of the most common effects of “with me” videos is to assure the viewer that procrastinating writing is part and parcel of the college experience. As the content creators grapple with and accept their own writing anxieties or deferring habits, they demonstrate for the viewer that it is possible to be both someone who struggles with writing and someone who can make progress on their papers. In this way, these videos suggest to students that they are not alone in their experiences; not only do other college students feel overwhelmed with writing or leave their papers until the day before they are due, but you can join a fellow student as they tackle the essay writing process. One popular video by @mercuryskid with over 6 million views follows them working on a 6000 word essay for which they have received several extensions, and although they don’t finish by the end of the video, their openness about the struggles they experience while writing may explain its appeal.
Indeed, in several videos of this kind the creator centers their procrastination as a means of inviting the viewer in; often the video will include the word in the title, such as “write 2 essays due at 11:59 tonight with me because I am a chronic procrastinator” or “write the literature essay i procrastinated with me.” Because of this, establishing a peer connection with the hypothetical viewer is paramount; @itskamazing’s video in which she writes a five page paper in three hours ends with her telling the viewer, “If you’re in college, you’re doing great. Let’s just knock this semester out.” One video titled “Writing essays doesn’t need to be stressful” shows a college-aged creator explaining what tactics she uses for outlining and annotating research to make sure she feels prepared when she begins to write in earnest. Throughout, she directly hails the viewer as “you” and attempts to cultivate a sense of familiarity with the person on the other side of the screen; in some moments her advice feels like listening in on a one-sided Writing Center session.
A second aspect of these “with me” videos is an intense focus on the specifics of a writing task. The titles of these videos usually follow a formula that invites the viewer with the writer as they write X amount in X time, paralleling the structure of how-to-write videos. The emphasis here, due to the last-minute nature of the writing contexts, is always on speed: “write a 2000- word essay with me in 4.5 hours” or “Join me as I write a 10- page essay that is due at 11:59pm.” Since these videos often need to cover large swaths of time during which the creator is working, there are several jumps forward in time, sped up footage, and text stamps or zoom-ins that update the viewer on how many pages or words the writer has completed since the last update. Overall, this brand of content demonstrates how product-focused writers become when large amounts of writing are completed in a single setting. However, it also makes this experience seem more manageable to viewers, as we frequently see writers in videos take naps and breaks during these high-stakes writing sessions. Furthermore, although the writers complain and appear stressed throughout, these videos tend to close with the writer submitting their papers and celebrating their achievement.
Although these videos may send mixed messages to college students using TikTok who experience struggles with writing productivity, they can be helpful for viewers as they demonstrate the shared nature of these struggles and concerns. Despite the overarching emphasis on the finished product, the documentary-style of this content shows how writing can be a fraught process. For tutors or those removed from the experience of being in college, these videos also illuminate some of the reasons students procrastinate writing; we see creators juggling part-time jobs, other due dates, and family obligations. This genre of TikToks shows the power that social media platforms have due to the way they can amplify the shared experience of students.
To conclude, I gesture toward a few of the takeaways that #essay and #collegewriting TikTok might provide for those who work in Writing Centers, especially those who frequently encounter students who struggle with procrastination. First, because TikTok is a video-sharing platform, the content often shows a mixture of writing process and product. Despite a heavy emphasis in these videos on the finished product that a writer turns in to be graded, several videos necessarily also reveal the steps that go into writing, even marathon sessions the night before a paper is due. We primarily see forward progress but we also see false starts and deletions; we mostly see the writer once they have completed pre-writing tasks but we also see analyzing a prompt, outlining, and brainstorming. Additionally, this genre of TikTok is instructive in that it shows how often students wait until before a paper is due to begin and just how many writers are working solely to meet a deadline or deliverable. While as Writing Center workers we cannot do much to shift this mindset, we can make a more considerable effort to focus on time management and executive functioning skills in our sessions. Separating the essay writing process into manageable chunks or steps appears to be a skill that college students are already seeking to develop independently when they engage on social media, and Writing Centers are equipped to help students refine these habits. Finally, it is worth considering the potential for university Writing Center TikTok accounts. A brief survey of videos created by Writing Center staff reveals that they draw on similar themes and tend to emphasize product and deliverables—for example, a video titled “a passing essay grade” that shows someone going into the center and receiving an A+ on a paper. Instead, these accounts could create a space for Writing Centers to actively contribute to the discourse on college writing that currently occupies the app and create content that parallels a specific Writing Center or campus’s values.
Holly Berkowitz is the Coordinator of the Writing and Communication Center at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She recently received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she also worked at the UW-Madison Writing Center. Although she does not post her own content, she is an avid consumer of TikTok videos.