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Writing Anxiety

October 11, 2019

What is writing anxiety?

“I sit down but then choke.”

“I paralyze myself by overthinking.”

“I feel completely unprepared.”

“I’m terrified that my ideas won’t be good enough.”

If you’ve had thoughts like these, you’re not alone. Many experience writing anxiety as “negative, anxious feelings (about oneself as a writer, one’s writing situation, or one’s writing task) that disrupt some part of the writing process” (McLeod). The word anxiety originates in a Latin verb for “choke, strangle, squeeze.” By reflecting on what causes these panicky feelings and by devising strategies to handle them, you can discover how to breathe better. You can gain more confidence in yourself as a writer and have more optimism when a teacher says, “Please write an essay on. . . .”

Who experiences writing anxiety?

Everyone from first-year students in composition classrooms to tenured faculty members “are agitated as they compose” (McLeod, Scott). So are anthologized authors. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the iconic collection of essays on sixties counterculture, Cal graduate and master prose stylist Joan Didion describes writing as an activity that can make a person feel brain-damaged: “[T]here is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.”

Once you start looking for famous writers who had difficulties writing, the examples add up fast. Novelists Thomas Mann and Gabriel García Márquez experienced writing anxiety, though they also persevered to receive Nobel Laureates in Literature. Mann points out: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people” as quoted in The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton. No one picks up gel pen or pounds a keyboard because it is easy; even starting is hard, as García Márquez admits, “One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph” (Plimpton). Even Franz Kafka, creator of unforgettable Gregor Samsa whose creepy transformation into a huge critter has mesmerized readers for over 100 years, confides in his diary: “June 7. Bad. Wrote nothing today. Tomorrow no time” (Diaries of Franz Kafka).

These well-known names help us remember a positive point. Writing anxiety happens to those who can write, to those “intellectually capable of the task at hand, but who nevertheless have difficulty with it” (McLeod). Difficulties are not unexpected. In From Student to Scholar Keith Hjortshoj points out, “[R]unning into trouble, getting confused, and feeling temporarily immobilized are normal writing experiences.”

That writing anxiety is both common and conquerable is comforting for us all.

What causes it?

Writing anxiety is often situational, as Hjortshoj explains in Understanding Writing Blocks. A student may feel confident crafting a letter to a newspaper editor about LGBTQ+ rights, but not a literary analysis essay. Another student might happily draft countless versions of a short story but balk at the thought of writing a research project. Someone else might prefer writing only financial analyses for economics class.

Several worries and uncertainties contribute:

  • Fear of judgment
  • Fear of not doing well
  • Fear that criticism of an essay is the same as criticism of a person’s self-worth
  • Fear from past bad memories and negative experiences with academic writing
  • Fear that a teacher will not agree with your argument
  • Concerns for grade point averages
  • Fear of being judged “arbitrarily”
  • Conflicting information on how to write
  • Pressure of feeling the first draft must be perfect
  • Misconception that every word must be edited as you work on a first draft
  • Fear of writing any essay that is less than “perfect”
  • Disorientation from not managing time and multiple projects well
  • Impatience with creating any draft past the first one
  • Feeling alone in the process

What strategies are helpful for dealing with writing anxiety?

Get support.

  • Remember that for all the ways that writing is a solitary activity, it is also about community and dialogue. Reach out for help to your campus Writing Center. Read “Why Visit Your Campus Writing Center?” (Raforth).
  • Find a good tutor.
  • Get to know your teacher. Drop in for office hours. Make an appointment.
  • Talk to friends and family. Sound out ideas over the phone. You can hone an argument that way.
  • Find a writing buddy who encourages you throughout the semester to keep revising, who reads your work and gives you feedback, who listens to you worry, and who cheers when you’re successful.
  • Engage in peer reviews in class.
  • If the stress feels too much, go for a walk, listen to music, step out into nature (could even be a park or a green neighborhood). Then try again.
  • If the I’m-too-stressed feeling persists, find a counselor on campus, or ask your teacher to help you find a counselor to talk with.

Develop a mindset focused on the opportunity to return to and revise your work.

  • Shift your writing perspective from judgments fossilized in words like wrong, right, mistakes, and correct, to assessments like I think this paragraph is vague, but I can revise it.
  • Focus on learning and improving, not solely on the grade.
  • Shift from a descriptive thesis for book-report-type writing to a claim based on analysis of evidence (Sommers and Saltz).
  • Accept that university-level writing demands “something more” from your writing than previously expected (Sommers and Saltz).
  • Embrace being a novice because those who know they are inexperienced “are most capable of learning new skills” (Sommers and Saltz).
  • View writing as a psychophysical activity (Hjortshoj, Understanding). You must write regularly—fingers moving over keyboard or across a page of paper—to learn how to write well.
  • Accept the truth that because writing is not linear, each essay needs many drafts. Writing is a process of revising, of re-seeing, not one of simply “chang[ing] words around” or replacing vocabulary (Sommers and Saltz).
  • Your “primary objective” as a writer is “finding the form or shape of [your] argument” (Sommers and Saltz).
  • Always keep in mind your “readership” (Sommers and Saltz).

Prepare.

  • Remember that writing an essay begins with reading a text well. Annotate. Read actively. Reread. Write down quotes that speak to you, and their page numbers.
  • Read with the prompt beside you.
  • Read the rubric, or if none is given, ask for guidelines. Reread the rubric.
  • Read handouts and study other course materials.

Break the ice.

  • Mindmap. Or outline.
  • Still can’t get started? Freewrite. Set your timer for ten minutes. Write nonstop what you are thinking about the prompt or assignment. During this time, forget about mechanics and grammar.
  • If still stumped, ask these questions, write down answers, and make a plan (Hjortshoj, Understanding):
  • What kind of writing am I trying to do?
  • How should I approach this task?
  • At what point, exactly, does my progress end?
  • What have I done up to the point where I reach an impasse?
  • When I am stuck, what do I do next, and why?
  • Nudge perfection to the curb, gently but firmly. Remember that perfectionism is a key cause of procrastination. Perfect is better as a verb, not an adjective. “Perfect” (pər-ˈfekt) will “do and redo,” not “create a flawless [ˈpər-fikt] product.”

Execute.

  • Try turning off spellcheck to focus less on editing as you draft a strong argument.
  • If grammar scares you, become good friends with the OWL at Purdue website.
  • Look up words you don’t know. Merriam-Webster is a good dictionary and has sample sentences.
  • Nobel laureate Michael Chabon reminds, “[P]ut your — put this [points to phone] — away” (Barnett). Unplug social media.
  • Aim to write “a really shitty first draft” as Anne Lamott would say in Bird by Bird because everyone does it, and only the people we don't like very much refuse to acknowledge it.

Remember the positives.

  • Remember that writing well is a worthwhile life skill.
  • Identify your strengths and goals as a writer. Write these down. Do you have the ability to persuade others? Can you explain an event or activity well? Are you gifted at analyzing what you read? Are you a good listener? Are you able to make connections between assigned readings and other sources like refereed articles, TED Talks, magazine articles, movies, and other credible sources? Are you able to argue well? Do you want to honor your voice? When you hear yourself thinking internally, “Writing is hard for me,” or “I can’t write,” think instead on one of your core strengths or goals. Keep one on a 3” x 5” card near you: “I will honor my voice.”

  • You are not your essay grade. Even when your essay earns an A, that grade and your self-worth are not equivalencies. You are so much more than any grade can represent. Your worth rests in the simple fact that you were born and are loved and are priceless just as you are.

  • Write essays that reflect what you value (Sommers and Saltz).

  • Develop your voice when writing in the more formal, academic essay style.

Writing Confidence.

Award-winning novelist and memoirist Reyna Grande offers wisdom on writing anxiety. She shares this advice in an interview.

I get frustrated and scared. There are times when I say to myself—Reyna, who are you kidding? You can’t do this. You have no talent. Your writing sucks. But that’s just fear speaking. . . . Remind yourself that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Failure is not putting anything down on the page. Just write—and revise, write and revise, write and revise, and little by little you will get there.