For many students, writing assignments and projects can be intimidating and frustrating. “Writer’s block” or “writing anxiety” are phrases typically used to describe one’s nervousness or pessimistic feeling about writing. As Keith Hjortshoj (2001) finds, writing blocks and writing anxieties are situational. This means these feelings of pessimism and apprehension come up when writers experience negativity or difficulties with writing.
There are many reasons why a person might feel anxious or blocked when writing. The UNC at Chapel Hill Writing Center lists the following experiences that might cause negative feelings about writing to arise:
- adjusting to a new form of writing—for example, first-year college writing, papers in a new field of study, or longer forms than you are used to (a long research paper, a senior thesis, a master’s thesis, a dissertation) (Hjortshoj 56-76).
- writing for a reader or readers who have been overly critical or demanding in the past.
- remembering negative criticism received in the past—even if the reader who criticized your work won’t be reading your writing this time.
- working with limited time or with a lot of unstructured time.
- responding to an assignment that seems unrelated to academic or life goals.
- dealing with troubling events outside of school.
Handling Writer’s Block and Writing Anxiety
Because most writing blocks or anxiety are situational, there are several practical techniques you can do to handle these feelings that hamper your writing process:
- Find and build a support system. Having a writing buddy or an accountability buddy whom you trust can help encourage you to write. It can be a classmate, a mentor, a close friend, or a tutor or Writing Coach. The goal is to have someone to talk to about your ideas, your worries, and your successes. It also helps to share your writing with your writing buddy for feedback, support, praise, and constructive criticism.
- Identify your strengths. Writers are often the harshest critics of their own work, which might be distorted or far from what’s really working (or not) in a piece of writing. Make a list of the things you do well. Ask a friend or a colleague to help you list your strengths. Some examples might be “I have strong opinions” or “I am critical of what I read.” It can even be something not writing-related per se, but thinking or speaking-related such as “I listen well” or “I explain things well to people.” Change negative sentence constructions such as “I can’t write” to “I am a writer who can untangle a complex idea into smaller, simpler concepts.”
- Remember that writing is complex and takes time. Many people think that people who confidently say they are writers can start and finish a writing project quickly. This is far from what actually happens. Strong and effective writers recognize that writing takes time and that it isn’t always a linear process.
- Think like an apprentice and learn skills. We all have a writing life and, sometimes, changes in format, length, new audiences, and new subjects can cause anxiety and blocks. Identify what has changed in your writing life that might be causing you apprehension and think of yourself as an apprentice of writing. This puts you in the position of a learner, not an expert, which means that you’re gaining new skills in new areas.
- Ask questions, especially of people who are more experienced with the kind of writing you’re expected to do. Professors, colleagues who might have taken the course or have more experience writing, and the Writing Coach are all viable resources.
- Figure out your writing habits and try different tactics. Writing isn’t linear–it’s a cyclical process that changes in different stages. Figure out what your writing process is and which stages of writing present you the most trouble (brainstorming, researching, editing, etc.). Determine if it is just taking time or if you are experiencing blocks or anxiety. Some stages take longer than others so the feeling of being “stuck” might just be the process playing itself out. When you figure it out, try some different tactics such as talking to your writing buddy (see above) and reading about new approaches (reverse outlining, brainstorming, revisions).
- Build a writing routine. This can be particularly useful if you have long writing projects such as dissertations, master’s theses, articles for publication, and others. Even establishing 15- to 20-minute writing blocks regularly throughout the week can help encourage and maintain productivity, while also alleviating guilty and anxious feelings about the process. This also ensures that you’re never too far away from the last time you wrote, which can sometimes cause anxiety about being “behind” on your writing.
Find and Get Support
Writing doesn’t have to be a terrible experience. It can be managed, and effective writing habits can be learned and cultivated. There are many professional resources for you on campus from professors, staff, counselors, advisors, and, of course, the Writing Coach. The Writing Coach can help with various stages of writing and can help you establish sustainable writing habits to help alleviate writing anxiety and writer’s block.
Hjortshoj, Keith. 2001. Understanding Writing Blocks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.