Overcoming Writing Anxiety, Writer’s Block, and Procrastination
You may be thinking, “All this advice is good, but sometimes I just get stuck! What I normally do just isn’t working!” That’s a familiar feeling for all writers. Sometimes the writing just seems to flow as if by magic, but then the flow stops cold. Your brain seems to have run out of things to say. If you just wait for the magic to come back, you might wait a long time. What professional writers know is that writing takes consistent effort. Writing comes out of a regular practice—a habit. Professional writers also know that not everything they write ends up in the final draft. Sometimes we have to write what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty rough draft.” One of my favorite writing professors, Duncan Carter, used to say that he was a terrible writer but a great reviser, and that’s what helped him write when inspiration wasn’t available. So how do writers get going when they feel stuck or uninspired? They develop a set of habits and have more than one way to write to get the words flowing again.
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You might associate the idea of writing anxiety or writer’s block with procrastination, and procrastination certainly can be either a cause or an effect of writing anxiety. You can learn more about procrastination later in this section of the text. But writing anxiety or writer’s block is more of a condition. We might even venture to call it an ailment. Uh oh. Do you have it? To aid you in self-diagnosis here, let’s take some time to figure out what it is. Then, if you find that you’re afflicted, we’ll help you to determine the best course of treatment.
What is Writing Anxiety and How Do You Know if You Have It?
Do you worry excessively about writing assignments? Do they make you feel uneasy or agitated? Do you have negative feelings about certain types of writing? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might suffer from writing anxiety. Writing anxiety simply means that a writer is experiencing negative feelings about a given writing task. The last of the questions above points out something important about this condition that has been afflicting writers everywhere for centuries: writing anxiety is often more about the audience and/or purpose for a given writing task than it is about the mere act of writing itself.
Let’s consider this situational nature of writing anxiety for a moment. Say you just bought a new pair of headphones. You brought them home, removed all the packaging, plugged them into your MP3 player, and they’re amazing! So you decide to visit the company website, and you write a stellar review of the product, giving it a five-star rating and including descriptive details about the headphones’ comfortable fit, excellent sound quality, ability to cancel outside noise, and reasonable price.
Now, let’s say that the next day in biology class your instructor covers the topic of biomes, and you learn about animal habitats and biodiversity and the interrelation and interdependence of species within biomes. You find it fascinating and can’t wait to learn more. But then something terrible happens. Your instructor assigns a term project on the subject. As your instructor begins to describe the length and other specifications for the report, complete with formatting guidelines, citation requirements, and a bibliography at the end, your palms start to sweat, your stomach feels uneasy, and you begin to have trouble focusing on anything else your instructor has to say. You’re experiencing writing anxiety.
Writing anxiety is the condition of feeling uneasy about writing. Writer’s block is what you experience when you can’t manage to put words on the page. But your condition isn’t about the act of writing. Just yesterday you wrote a great review for those cool new headphones. So why do you suddenly feel paralyzed by the thought of writing the biology essay? Let’s consider some possible causes.
What Causes Writing Anxiety?
The causes of writing anxiety are many. Here are just a few:
- Inexperience with the type of writing task
- Previous negative experiences with writing (e.g. someone, maybe a teacher, has given you negative feedback or said negative things about your writing)
- Negative feelings bout writing (e.g. “I’m not a good writer”; “I hate writing.”)
- Immediate deadline
- Distant deadline
- Lack of interest in the topic
- Personal problems or life events
Level of experience may explain why you felt comfortable writing the headphone review while you break out in a sweat at the thought of the biology paper. If you’ve never written anything similar to a specific assignment, maybe you’re unsure about whether or not you can meet the assignment requirements or the teacher’s expectations. Or maybe the last time you turned in a written report for school you received negative feedback or a bad grade from the teacher. Maybe you procrastinated most of the term and now the paper is due next week and you feel overwhelmed. Or maybe it’s the second week of the term and the finals week deadline seems so far away that you’re not motivated to write.
Knowing the cause of your writing anxiety can help you move beyond it and get writing, even if you can’t completely eliminate the problem. If the topic doesn’t interest you or if you’re having problems at home, those probably aren’t issues that will just disappear, but if you try some of the following strategies, I think you’ll find that you can at least move forward with even the most anxiety-inducing of writing assignments.
Strategies for Overcoming or Managing Writing Anxiety
There are a number of strategies upon which you can draw to help you move past the feeling of being lost or stuck. Consider if some of the following tactics can help you to get writing again.
Just Start Writing
It might sound like it’s oversimplifying the matter, but it’s true. Half the battle is to just start writing. Try some strategies like freewriting or dialectic notetaking. (For more on freewriting, see “Strategies for Getting Started” in the “Prewriting” section of this text, and for more on dialectic notetaking, refer to the section on “Writing about Texts”). You should also believe in the importance of writing badly. Bruce Ballenger, a well-known writer and professor of English at Boise State explains why writing badly is an important part of the writing process:
Giving myself permission to write badly makes it much more likely that I will write what I don’t expect to write, and from those surprises will come some of my best writing. Writing badly is also a convenient alternative to staring off into space and waiting for inspiration.
Sometimes the biggest problem writers have with getting started is that they feel like the writing needs to be good, or well organized, or they feel like they need to start at the beginning. None of that is true. All you need to do is start.
Have you ever seen a potter make a clay pot? Before a potter can start shaping or throwing a pot, they have to bring the big wet blob of clay and slap it down on the table. It’s heavy and wet and messy, but it’s the essential raw material. No clay? No pot. “Bad writing” is a lot like that. You have to dump all the words and ideas onto the table. Just get them out. Only then do you have the raw material you need to start shaping the words into something beautiful and lasting. You can wait until the revision stages to worry about shaping your writing to be its best. For now, just get the ideas on the table.
Create Smaller Tasks and Short-Term Goals
One of the biggest barriers to writing can be that the task just seems too large, and perhaps the due date is weeks away. Each of these conditions can contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed or to the tendency to procrastinate. But the remedy is simple and will help you keep writing something each week toward your deadline and toward the finished product: divide larger writing tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks and set intermediate deadlines.
The process that the authors used for writing this text provides a good example. As authors, we had to divide the text into sections, but we also had to plan the process for a first draft, peer reviews, and revisions, along with adding images, links, and other resources, not to mention the final publication of the text online. Had we not divided up the larger tasks into smaller ones and set short-term goals and deadlines, the process of writing the text would have been overwhelming. We didn’t meet every single intermediate deadline right on time, but they helped move us along and helped us to meet the most important deadline—the final one—with a complete text that was ready to publish on schedule.
Imagine that you have a term paper that’s assigned during Week 1 of a eleven-week term, and it’s due during finals week. Make a list of all the tasks you can think of that need to be completed, from beginning to end, to accomplish all that the assignment requires. List the tasks, and assign yourself due dates for each task. Consider taking it a step further and create a task table that allows you to include a column for additional notes. Here’s an example:
|Brainstorm topics and select a topic||Wed., Week 2|
|Do some preliminary research on the Web to learn about the topic||Wed., Week 3|
|Develop list of search terms for some more focused research||Fri., Week 3||Ask instructor to look over my search terms|
|Spend some time at the library searching library holdings and databases, and do some more focused research on the web||Mon., Week 4||Plan ahead to make sure I have time and transportation|
|Read sources and take notes||Mon., Week 5||Consult notetaking examples in my textbook|
|Create an outline for the term paper||Fri., Week 5|
|Begin drafting||Mon., Week 6||Remember to try some freewriting|
|Complete first rough draft||Wed., Week 7|
|Ask a couple of classmates to read draft and comment; meet with instructor and ask questions||Fri., Week 7||Ask classmates week before if they want to meet and exchange papers|
|Do some additional research if needed||Mon., Week 8|
|Revise first draft and complete second draft with conclusion||Mon., Week 9||Try revision strategies we learned about in class|
|Meet with tutor in the Writing Center to go over my essay||Fri., Week 9||Call the Writing Center the week before for appt.|
|Make final revisions, proofread, make sure formatting is right, citations are in place, and works cited entries are correct||Fri., Week 10||Have someone new give it a final read-through.|
|Print, staple, and turn in (or save and upload) essay||Mon., Finals Week||Celebrate!|
Get support from a friend, family member, or classmate. Talk to your friends or family, or to a tutor in your college writing center, about your ideas for your essay. Sometimes talking about your ideas is the best way to flesh them out and get more ideas flowing. Write down notes during or just after your conversation. Classmates are a great resource because they’re studying the same subjects as you, and they’re working on the same assignments. Talk to them often, and form study groups. Ask people to look at your ideas or writing and to give you feedback. Set goals and hold each other accountable for meeting deadlines (a little friendly competition can be motivating!).
Talk to other potential readers. Ask them what they would expect from this type of writing. Meet with a tutor in your campus writing center. Be sure to come to the appointment prepared with a printed copy of the assignment and a short list of what you want to work on, along with a printed copy of your essay.
For more about getting help from a tutor see “Why Meet with a Writing Tutor?” and “Preparing to Meet with a Tutor” in the “Giving and Receiving Feedback” section of this text.
Don’t imagine the situation of your writing assignment to be any better or worse than it really is. There are some important truths for you to recognize:
- Focus on what you do best rather than fretting about your perceived weaknesses.
- Acknowledge that writing can be difficult and that all you need to do is do your best.
- Recognize what might be new or unfamiliar about the type of writing that you’re doing.
- Understand that confusion and frustration is a natural part of experiencing new things, and it’s okay; it’s part of the learning process.
- Remember that you’re a student and that you’re supposed to be experiencing things that are new and unfamiliar (new formats, new audiences, new subject matter, new processes, new approaches, etc.).
- Repeat the mantra, “It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be DONE.”
Seek Out Experts
If you can, find more experienced writers (especially related to the type of writing that you’re doing) and ask them questions. Sometimes, this might just mean a friend or family member who’s already taken a couple years of college courses. Maybe it’s a fellow student who has already taken the class you’re taking now. Also, the tutors in your college writing center can be a big help at any stage in the writing process. Give them a call and make an appointment. And don’t forget the expert you see all the time throughout any class that you take: your instructor. Ask your instructor for suggestions. That’s what she’s there for.
Another way to learn from the experience of others is to look at examples of other pieces of writing of the type that you’re working on. How is this piece organized? Does it make use of source material? What sort of tone does it use? If you don’t know where to find examples, ask your instructor. If he doesn’t have them at the ready, he’ll likely be able to give you some suggestions about where to find some.
Many of the tips for overcoming writing anxiety discussed in the previous section are also just plain good tips for getting the job done. Here are a few more good writing habits.
Practice Recursive Writing
Use a variety of writing strategies (many of which you can gather from this text) and avoid the tendency to view writing as a linear process. If you acknowledge that the process of writing is recursive—meaning that you will come back to different parts of the process again and again—you are most likely to keep moving forward toward your final writing goal, and your writing is also likely to reveal your full potential as a writer.
When you return to a previously written section of a draft to generate new material, collaborate with others, or take a break from your writing and come back to it again, you’re practicing recursive writing. Most successful writers will tell you that they practice recursive writing in some way. Good writing doesn’t happen in a single late night cram session the day before the deadline. Good writing takes time. This includes time away from the writing itself to allow for distance and reflection, and good writing requires multiple drafts. That said, everyone finds themselves in a time crunch sometimes. If that’s where you’re at, check out “How to Fix Procrastination,” found under the topic of “Procrastination,” later in this section of the text.
Revise, Revise, Revise
As we’ve just explained, one linear trip through the writing process is not enough to achieve your best writing. In addition to strategies for generating material, you will also find revision strategies in this text. Try some different approaches to revision, and see which ones work best for you. Understand the difference between revision and proofreading, and make sure you allow ample time for each. Revision is the act of seeing something anew. This means considering higher level concerns in your essay, for example, the overall organization or how well you’re addressing the audience or purpose for the piece. Proofreading is what you do at the end to make sure that your final draft is free from errors. For specific revision strategies, see the “Revising” section of this text.
If you play it too safe, there’s probably not going to be anything original or imaginative about your essay. Good writing involves risk. Too often, inexperienced writers will begin writing from a position of considering only what they think their readers expect to read on the subject. What a boring world it would be if we only ever read or experienced what we expected! Begin by exploring your own thoughts and what most interests you about the topic. Open yourself to all the possibilities. Of course, this does not mean that you can forget about the parameters of the assignment or about the audience or purpose for your writing. But allow yourself to be creative first, and then think about how you can best tailor your own ideas to the audience and purpose dictated by your writing assignment.
Be Patient and Be Willing to Learn
Good writing takes patience. As with all good things, it takes time to create something good. And good writers also understand that a big part of writing is learning. You’re selling yourself—and your readers—short if you begin the writing process with the idea that you already know everything you have to tell your readers about the subject. Even experts in a subject area continue to learn new things and expand the boundaries of their chosen fields (that’s how they become experts!).
Neil deGrasse Tyson, a prominent American astrophysicist, writes about the importance of the quest for knowledge in his 2005 article for Natural History Magazine, “The Perimeter of Ignorance” (found online at naturalhistorymag.com). He explains that great scientific thinkers like Newton and Galileo were successful in expanding the boundaries of human understanding (the perimeters of ignorance, as Tyson calls them), precisely because they did not conform the reports of their findings to what society—and especially some of the most powerful institutions in society—expected them to report. I hope that you will also allow the creative and inquisitive potential of your mind to search beyond what you expect to say and what your readers might expect to hear about this topic.
Consider Environmental Factors
Finally, not all aspects of writing are about process or about the inner workings of your mind as a writer. Some factors are external or environmental. Consider what time of day is best for you to write. Write every day, or as often as you can, and establish a schedule (as suggested in the section on overcoming writing anxiety, earlier in this text).
Don’t multitask. Recent studies have proven that the human brain does not operate at its best while multitasking. Switching between tasks has been shown to cause each of the tasks to take longer to complete than if they were handled independently (“Multitasking”). So put away your phone and turn off other distractions (like social media or the television). Find a quiet place to work where you are less likely to be disturbed. And don’t try to work on more than one subject or project at the same time. Make sure you have everything you need as you get started: pens, pencils, notebooks, textbooks, computer, snacks, or whatever you need to be productive and feel comfortable. Allot a set period of time to each task, and attend to each one separately.
Hopefully, these tips will help you to get started, help you gain some momentum, and help you to make the best use of that one precious resource that is limited for us all: time. As with any strategies, try different ones, and if something doesn’t work for you, move on and try something else. Select the strategies that work best for you, and modify them to suit your needs.
Take two or three minutes to list some examples of a time when writing was difficult for you and you found it hard to get started. Note that that your list does not need to be constrained to times when you were writing for school, although you should consider those times too. But also consider other writing situations, such as applications, letters, or requests. Then, choose one of those times and take a couple more minutes to consider what barriers or obstacles may have made it difficult for you to write in that situation:
- Inexperience with the type of writing
- A previous negative experience with writing
- An immediate deadline
- A distant deadline
- A lack of interest in the topic
- Personal problems or challenges
Discuss your list of writing obstacles with some classmates in a small group. Then, as a group, try to identify some strategies or good writing practices discussed in this chapter that might have helped you overcome those obstacles. If class time allows for it, your small group might share some conclusions with the whole class about which strategies and practices would best suit the difficult writing situations that you discussed.
Is procrastination always bad? Or is it a necessary part of your writing process?
What is it? What does it look like for you? For some people, having a writing assignment suddenly stirs a desire to clean, go for a walk, catch up on chores—do anything other than write. That’s procrastination. Vacuuming CAN be the same as taking time to think about your topic or assignment, unless you never get to the actual writing.
How to use procrastination
If you know that you have a tendency to procrastinate, you can analyze your habits to find a way to get back to productive work. If you just have difficulty getting the words onto the page, you might try some techniques that don’t feel like writing but produce results. Try some of these:
Bribe friends to listen and/or scribe. If you have more trouble with getting the words on the page, but like to talk over your ideas, invite a friend out for coffee or lunch in exchange for helping you out by writing down what you say about your assignment.
Use dictation software. Dictation software allows you to speak your ideas while the software captures your words onto the page. You may have dictation software already available on your own computer; it may be provided by your school; or you may find a free mobile application.
Use downtime to freewrite. If your problem is that you don’t have enough big chunks of time, use the time you do have for some freewriting. That means keeping a notebook or electronic device handy so that you can fit in a quick bit of writing while you are riding the bus, stuck waiting at an appointment, or in between classes. Some authors write entire articles and even books by writing in small chunks throughout the day. Try using your phone or other device to leave yourself a voice message, or use an app that records and makes a written transcript of your voice.
Set a limit to procrastination. Limiting procrastination may be necessary if you find that you just waste time, or you may need to ask someone else for help.
Use a time limit/timer. If you find yourself procrastinating with social media or some other distraction, set a time limit on that activity and use an alarm to let you know when that time is up. There are even apps that will do this for you! You may also find that setting a time limit on your writing makes the writing feel less burdensome. After a certain amount of time, you might even give yourself a reward.
Set aside writing time. If you find time to do everything but work on your assignment, then you may need to set appointments with yourself to ensure that you have enough time set aside to write your paper.
Get an accountability partner. Some people find that they accomplish more by working with another person or a group that they feel accountable to. Having a regular meeting or a scheduled check-in where you have to show your work can ensure that you get it done.
Here are some potential resources for finding an accountability partner:
- Join a writing group—even a group of classmates.
- Ask a friend to check in with you.
- Make use of your instructor’s office hour or visit your school’s Writing Center.
Ask your instructor for an extension. If you are writing a class assignment, your instructor may be willing to give you an extension. Be aware that the instructor may say no to your request. You have the best chance of receiving an extension if you have been participating and turning in assignments on time before the request, make your request before the actual deadline, are able to explain how you will use the additional time, and can show the instructor a draft or an outline so that she or he can see that an extension would result in completion of your assignment.
How to Fix Procrastination
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you will find yourself having to complete a writing task just before the deadline, without adequate time. Use the time you have to make the best effort possible. Peter Elbow, a prominent writing expert, calls this “the dangerous method” because there is a strong chance that your work will not be good enough to meet the expectations of your instructor (or your audience, editor, etc.) But if this is your only option, it’s better to use the dangerous method than do nothing at all. (Note: If your assignment is to write a research paper, this method will not work if you start the night before the assignment is due. You may be able to write a draft or an outline, but you will not be able to complete the necessary research and write a long research paper in less than 24 hours.)
The first step is to figure out how much time you can realistically spend on the assignment. Then you can make a timeline that includes the tasks you need to complete. Here’s an example:
If you have an assignment due at 10 am on Friday, and you can start at 4 pm on Thursday, and you do not have class or work or major interruptions until 10 am on Friday:
4-5 pm: Review assignment and materials you need to refer to in your writing; make an outline or a list of the topics you need to include.
5-6 pm: Freewrite in 10 minute timed bursts, starting with an item on your list or outline. Whenever the timer goes off, review what you’ve written and decide to either continue on the same topic or move to another topic.
6-7 pm: Eat dinner and take a walk (or whatever you do to recharge that also allows your brain to continue working in the background. For some people, this means solitude; for others, this involves other people.) You may be tempted to skip steps like this due to your worry about completing the assignment. Don’t skip steps! if you want to work until midnight or later, you will need to take care of your body and brain to keep going. You will often find that when you return to your work, you have fresh ideas and perspectives.
7-10 pm: Continue timed free writing until you have written about as many of the topics as you can in this time period. Take a short break every hour, and make sure that you move, drink water, and perhaps have a healthy snack. Set an alarm or timer to ensure that you get back to your work as planned. Save one chunk of time to make a Works Cited page; use one chunk of time to insert any missing quotations and/or citations. Resist the urge to constantly reread the first part to revise it to perfection. That will keep you from finishing your draft. Remember the goal is to FINISH, not to write a perfect introduction.
10-11 pm: Complete the draft, making it into complete sentences and paragraphs. Write an introduction and conclusion if you don’t yet have these pieces.
11 pm-12 am: Review your work. (Suggestion: use the reverse outline method, discussed in the “Revising” section of this text.) Make sure, as best you can, that all required parts of your outline are included. Review the assignment and compare it to your draft.
12-7 or 8 am: Sleep. NOT KIDDING. Your body and brain need this time away from your work. When you get up, you will be better prepared to finish your paper by the deadline.
8-9 am: Proofread and edit your paper. Do the best you can, knowing that you will not have time to catch everything or make the paper perfect.
Travel to class, turn your work in online, or do whatever you need to do to get your piece turned in. Remind yourself that while this is not your best work, you got it done. Expect to receive feedback about what could be improved.
Study Techniques for Increased Efficiency and Less Stress
Look at this list of strategies we created in class to help us focus on our studies. Look over the list and circle any strategies that you use now. Then, highlight 3 or more strategies that you think you can start using to help you improve your study habits.
- Stop studying for a little. Turn on the music and dance wildly for a bit before you go back to studying. It gives you more energy!
- Create visual, charts, or pictures to help me remember the material in a reading or a lecture.
- Ask someone to help you when reviewing.
- Take a 10-15 minute break when you study. This is a good strategy!
- The library is motivating because I see other students studying.
- Studying is like going to the gym. You have to study regularly to get in shape and prepare properly for exams.
- Study with good, hardworking partners. Pick your partners carefully, so you don’t waste time studying with people who are not pulling their weight in preparation for exams or in doing collaborative projects.
- Eat well and sleep well.
- Do meditation about 10 to 15 minutes before bed each night. Studies show this leads to better performance at work and in school.
- Study in the morning works best for me.
- Create a to-do list every morning or every evening for the next day.
- Eat a full course meal before studying.
- Make flashcards.
- Record your own ideas about what you read or heard, not just the exact words of the author or speaker.
- Look up more information. Be active readers and spend time on-line researching about topics that you need more info.
- Studying in groups helps me.
- Eat healthy food.
- Do stretching exercises for 10 to 15 minutes before studying.
- Study in the library.
- Studying with snacks help me focus. If I don’t have snacks with me, I think about eating a lot.
- Think about my future and how investing time and energy into my studying now will help me reach my goals.
- Review the information from that day’s class every night or the next morning.
- Study in a quiet place.
- Study in a busy place, so I don’t get bored.
- Go to the gym before I study.
- Go to the gym after I study.
- Take short breaks.
- Concentrate on your studies and you will finish more quickly.
- Do Sudoku or other math games to activate your brain before studying or for a break.
- Play Scrabble or a game of rummy with my son.
- Drink tea and hot drinks.
- Black coffee helps me focus.
- It’s easy to study when I’m interested in the topic.
- It’s difficult to focus on a topic that is not interesting to me.
- Take a break and have a drink of water when I get bored or can’t focus.
- Wash my face before I go back to studying.
- Study in a comfortable place, but not in bed.
- Study where there is appropriate lighting.
- Listening to music helps me focus.
- Read out loud important information that I want to remember.
- Drink water while I’m studying.
- Eating junk food is a reward for my hard work.
- If it’s vocabulary, I make cards with the word on one side and the definition on the other side. Then, I can test myself.
- Study at the library or somewhere not close to your family, which can be distracting.
- Write test questions and then test my peers to prepare for exams.
- Write down examples and apply the information to myself or to someone or something I know about.
- Put my phone away. It’s a distraction!
- A warm study space is good for me.
- A room that smells good helps me focus.
- Do research on a related topic similar to the one that I’m studying.
- Read and review my notes from class.
(adapted, in part, from The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear. This OER text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.)