I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I haven’t always enjoyed essay writing.
When I was an undergraduate I did well on essay questions on tests and exams, but I was nervous about formal academic essays. I didn’t have a good handle on the writing conventions and I found it frustrating. I felt like I knew what I wanted to say, but it wasn’t translating onto the page the way I wanted it to. So I avoided formal essays when I could get away with it.
My anxiety about essay writing was mild compared to some. I’ve had otherwise strong students who felt compelled to plagiarize their essays because of anxiety that left them paralyzed and desperate.
But writing anxiety is very common, at all levels of schooling. This past week I surveyed the two classes that I’m teaching this term [at the time I was creating this video], a total of about 200 students, and over half of them said that they experienced some form of writing anxiety, and maybe 5 percent described it as severe anxiety. So let’s talk about this.
I have a few points I want to make about what writing anxiety is and what can cause it, and then we’ll look at some strategies for reducing it or managing it.
Writer's Anxiety versus Writer's Block
First, writer’s anxiety is sometimes interpreted as “writer’s block”. But the term “writer’s block” is usually used to describe the condition where a writer, for whatever reason, is unable to produce new work. It’s defined behaviorally, in terms of this negative outcome.
Writer’s block might be a cause of anxiety, or caused by anxiety, but a variety of situations can bring it about. When we talk about writing anxiety we’re talking specifically about the feeling of anxiety, a negative psychological state, associated with writing, or the anticipating of writing. Writing anxiety doesn’t necessarily keep people from writing, so it’s not the same as writer’s block.
A second point to note is that writing anxiety is often situational.
People tend to be afflicted by it in certain writing situations but not others. For example, you might feel perfectly fine writing up a physics lab report but be anxious about writing an essay for your film class.
You might feel anxious when facing a blank page on your word processor but be comfortable writing a lengthy email on the same topic.
You might be anxious writing for certain audiences but not for others.
You might be a very confident writer in one style, but become anxious if you’re asked to write in a different style, or a different genre.
The point is that it’s a mistake to think of your anxiety as a reflection of a deep personality trait; people aren’t born anxious writers — some situations induce anxiety, others do not.
Strategies for Dealing with Writer's Anxiety
So, a first step in dealing with writing anxiety is to pay attention to the situations that induce anxiety in you, so you’re more aware of the conditions that make you anxious. This is the logical first step in managing your anxiety.
Now, the next point is obvious, given the previous points. If different situations trigger anxiety in different ways in different people, then there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution.
Here’s an example. For some people, writing under a deadline makes them anxious. For them, starting a writing project well in advance can help to alleviate that anxiety.
Other people are just the opposite; writing without a deadline makes them anxious. They can’t work too far in advance. They seem to draw energy and creativity from the pressure exerted by the deadline. For people like this, creating deadlines for yourself and making yourself accountable to them can be an effective solution.
That’s just one example. Being aware of the situations that trigger your anxiety is the first step. The second step is trying out strategies that will help you avoid those situations or manage those situations.
An Obvious Point That Needs to be Made
Before we look at some of these strategies in more detail, I don’t want to pass by an obvious fact without commenting on it. This obvious fact is almost never discussed in the guide books and handouts that writing centers produce on this topic. And the reason is clear, I think — it’s because it’s a problem that is very hard to fix in the short term.
The problem is that many students really aren’t very good writers — they suffer from a lack of basic writing skills. They make frequent mistakes in spelling and word choice, they struggle with writing grammatically correct sentences, and they struggle with writing well-structured and organized paragraphs.
This isn’t a situational problem, it’s a persistent problem, and it’s not one you can easily fix in the moment.
It’s no mystery why students become anxious when this is the case. It’s like the kid in gym class who isn’t good at sports, isn’t physically coordinated in the way most of the other kids are. Of course they’re going to be anxious about gym class, they’re constantly being reminded that they’re lacking in fundamental skills.
But this just speaks to the need for instruction and practice and encouragement in writing throughout a child’s education. This course isn’t about basic writing skills, though; it’s about essay writing, and for the most part it presupposes that people have those basic skills. If you, watching this, feel like you’re in this category — that you’re weak in basic writing skills — I will say confidently that the rest of this course will still be very helpful in improving your writing.
As I said in earlier on in the course, there are strategies for approaching an essay, focusing on writing structure, and understanding the writing process, that can make a big difference in your essay writing, independent of your more basic writing skills. Certain problems will persist as long as those skills are still lacking, but the success of an essay is largely a function of its higher-level structural features. I know for a fact that getting a handle on these structural features, and having some strategies for constructing them, can go a long way to reducing the stress associated with essay writing, even if your writing still has problems at a more basic level.
Back to the Strategies ...
Now, having said that, let’s look at some techniques that writing tutors commonly recommend when asked about ways of dealing with writing anxiety and writer’s block.
First, get support. In some respects writing is necessarily a solitary activity, but writing in isolation for too long can be hard on anyone. Experienced writers share drafts all the time. They show pieces of their work to friends and colleagues. They sit down and spit-ball and workshop ideas off each other. Students can work together, either with a writing buddy or with a group, to share their work and get feedback. It’s like a study group, only with the focus on writing.
That’s one source of support. Of course if you’re at a school with a writing support center, you can take advantage of that service as well.
Second, it’s helpful to recognize that writing is a complex process that has different stages, and some of those stages are harder than others, and have different methods for dealing with them.
If you stop at the first sign of difficulty, that’s a problem. Part of learning to write is how to manage the difficult parts where it’s not clear what to say next or where you want to go. If you understand that this is part of the process for everyone, that it’s not a sign of failure on your part, that can help.
Third, it can be a useful exercise to spend some time focusing on your strengths, not just as a writer, but as a person in general. Sometimes when a writer is blocked or feeling anxiety, they’re consumed with negative thoughts about their own writing, or about themselves, and these can become exaggerated and distorting. Their bad feelings about themselves spill over into their feelings about their writing, and they get blocked.
As a kind of therapy, it can be useful to consciously focus on aspects of yourself that are positive, that you admire about yourself, or that other people like about you. This can reduce the negative spill-over effect, and help you feel more positively about your writing.
Fourth, rather than think of writing as a talent that you either have or don’t have, it can be helpful to think of writing as a craft that requires practice to master, and of yourself as an apprentice of sorts.
How does an apprentice learn a craft? By observing and following the work of more experienced craftspeople. By recognizing that creating a completed work requires mastering a lot of smaller steps, that each of those steps introduces something new that needs to be studied and mastered.
In the context of writing, it might be that you’ve only written short essays in the past, and now you have the task of writing a longer essay. Or you’ve only written narrative essays before and now you’re asked to write a persuasive essay. Or you’ve never had to give citations and references before, and now you have to do that.
In all of these cases, you can study techniques for managing these new tasks, read what’s been written about them, ask people how they do it, study pieces of writing that have the features you want to produce, and so on.
To improve as a writer, think of yourself as an apprentice learning a craft that in principle can be mastered by anyone, if they’re willing to put in the time and effort.
A fifth strategy: if you’re stuck, don’t keep doing the same thing. Try new tactics when you get stuck.
Trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is frustrating. It’s even more frustrating if you think that’s your only option, to keep trying to squeeze that peg into that hole. If you’re not making progress and you think you have no options, that’s when you’ll give up. Understanding that you have options is essential to managing these periods when you feel stuck.
What are some of these options? Some of them can be grouped under the kind of writing you can do when you’ve switched to what I earlier called “writing for discovery”, rather than focusing on the final product. Brainstorming, outlining, vomit drafts, writing from the middle-out, writing on index cards and post-it notes, reverse-outlining — these are all techniques that can help you find a path through the problem you’re facing.
And finally, you might consider switching up your writing mode. When I was younger I was much more comfortable presenting arguments in dialogue format than I was in standard essay format, and I would sometimes write that way to get the ideas onto the page.
Another technique is to start writing emails to yourself, where you write in your email voice. Some of the best things I’ve ever written have been in email conversations with friends.
Writing in a more conversational mode can help, like you’re imagining trying to explain something to a friend.
Another technique I’ve personally used in the past is to literally imagine a famous person in my mind, giving a presentation on the topic I’m writing about, and imagine how they would say it. Pick someone whose verbal and presentation style you admire, and try to write in that style. For me, this is a very powerful technique for finding words and ways of expressing something.
So, these are things you might consider when faced with writer’s anxiety or writer’s block. As with anything, practice makes everything easier. The more you write, the better you’ll become. You’re certainly not going to get worse at it :).
Good Writers are Readers
And finally, I’d hate myself if I didn’t mention one more important thing.
Good writers read a lot more than the average person does, and professional writers tend to devote a certain a certain amount of time every day to reading. Reading helps to exercise the same cognitive muscles that you use when writing, everything from vocabulary to sentence structure to paragraph structure and onward.
So that’s a final tip. Devote more time to reading on a regular basis, and the benefits will spill over into your writing.
Of course, the earlier in life you cultivate this habit the better. It’s not going to help you the night before your term paper is due.
Bounce ideas off classmates, friends, or family members. Ask general questions to people who are familiar with your topic. What seems important to them? What background, terms, or other ideas will they need to know in order to understand your message? Do they disagree with your argument or the points you make? If so, why?
Summarize your own work. In the margins of your paper (or using comment bubbles), write a one-sentence summary of the purpose of each paragraph. Review your summaries to get a clearer idea of your direction, the overall flow of the paper, and how far you still need to go.
Take another look. Ask yourself a few questions: Is this information necessary? Does it add to my argument? What message am I trying to convey? Are these ideas contributing to that message? What ideas could I be missing? When in doubt, read more on your topic—it is never a bad idea to go back to your sources and expand your knowledge when you are trying to work your way out of writer’s block.