Writer’s Block and Writing Anxiety

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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.

Works Consulted

Hjortshoj, Keith. 2001. Understanding Writing Blocks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Material from this post is adapted from “Writing Anxiety” from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center.

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Writing Bootcamp for PhD Students

Writing Bootcamp is a writing-intensive, distraction-free, one-day event intended for writers who need the final push to complete a long-term writing project. The Writing Bootcamp is an intentional, goal-oriented event that requires writers to establish goals in the beginning of Bootcamp and participate in a lunch discussion to discuss progress and challenges. There will be four 90-minute writing blocks, two 30-minute stretch breaks, and a one-hour “working lunch.”

Writing Bootcamp is best suited for students who need a final push or are near the final drafting or revision stages of their writing projects. Because the schedule is writing-intensive, it is not recommended for writers in the brainstorming stage, research stage, or revision stage, even if they will be writing. Bootcamp is not intended for group or individual tutoring sessions with the Coach, though the Coach will be available for questions. Lunch will be provided. Space is limited to 6 people per bootcamp day.

Bootcamp Dates & Times:

Saturday, June 24, 2017 8:15 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 29, 2017 8:15 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Interested? Click here to RSVP.

Your RSVP is your commitment to attend the full day, including the lunch discussion.

Got additional questions? Contact Francesca Gacho, the Graduate Writing Coach: [email protected]

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PhD Writing Groups starting June 20th

Working on a long paper such as a proposal, dissertation, or an article for publication or conference? Planning to use the summer to start/work on/complete major writing projects? Sign up for a monthly summer writing group. Francesca Gacho, the School of Communication Graduate Writing Coach, will be available to guide the writing session, provide tips for best practices, and provide brief one-on-one consultations as needed.

Writing groups are comprised of 4-6 people who meet regularly to write and establish sustainable writing habits. The group meets once a month for 3.5 hours (two 1-hour writing blocks with two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute peer review/check-in). Students will receive training in best practices for running a successful writing group and additional support from the Graduate Writing Coach. Writing groups work best for students who are starting to write or in the process of writing long-term projects.

The group will meet on the following proposed dates June 20 (Tuesday), July 20 (Thursday), and August 10 (Thursday). Times are TBD.

Joining a writing group is a great way to establish a writing schedule, gain a sense of your own work/writing habits, and manage writing projects in a practical and efficient way. The Writing Group is not intended for group or individual tutoring sessions with the Coach, though the Coach will be available for questions. The Writing Coach will also assist in securing a classroom for the group. Snacks and refreshments will be provided. Interested? Click here to sign up. Open to Annenberg Communication PhD students only.

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What is APA Style?

For students in the School of Communication, the standard writing and citation style  guidelines are found in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association–generally referred to as APA style. The manual is currently in its sixth edition, and it provides generally accepted rules for writing, publication conventions, and best practices for research, methodology, and ethics of authorship for writers, educators, and editors in the behavioral and social sciences.

But what are “styles” in general?

Each discipline or field of study uses a style manual to standardize the usage, practice, and presentation of language. But it also goes beyond that. Style manuals, published by the biggest and most important organizations in that given field, provide writers, students, editors, and educators with guidelines on how to correctly, rigorously, and clearly conduct research and communicate their findings to the members of their scholarly community. The depth with which each style manual discusses its guidelines varies, but they are often considered the definitive and authoritative word in communication within the discipline.

What does the APA manual talk about?

The APA talks about several important writing-related guidelines from writing the introduction to conducting qualitative and quantitative studies and to ethical reporting of research results and citations in the social sciences.

Introduction. According to APA, the introduction should include 1) introduction to the problem, 2) importance of said problem, 3) discussion of relevant scholarship, and 4) hypotheses and their correspondence to research design. The introduction appears as a new page, identified with a  running head and the page number, 3. The title of the manuscript or article also appears in headline case centered at the top of the page followed by the introduction. The next section should follow immediately after the introduction text, starting with the new heading. See pp. 27-28.

Continuity in Presentation of Ideas. APA also recommends that texts should aim for a “continuity in words, concepts, and thematic development from the opening statement to the conclusion” (65). This can be achieved through 1) punctuation, 2) transitional words such as the use of pronouns, time links, additional links, cause-effect links, and contrast links.

Reducing Bias in Language. Because the APA is the authoritative style for scientific writing in the social sciences, the language used in writing articles that follow it should be “free of implied or irrelevant evaluation of the group or groups being studied” (p. 70). This means making sure that your text is free of any expressions that could be interpreted as demeaning attitudes or assumptions about people based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnic group, disability, or age. (See pp. 70-77 for guidelines and suggestions).

Appropriate Levels of Citation. APA recommends citing the works of individuals whose ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work. The number of sources you cite will vary by the intent of the article, but for most articles, one or two of the “most representative sources for each key point” should be included (p.169). Literature reviews, however, might entail a more exhaustive list of citations to better acquaint the reader with all that has been written on a topic. See Chapter 6 of the manual for more information.

The APA manual also includes sample papers and guidelines on how to discuss and display your results. Particularly for research papers, article reviews, and journal-length articles, the APA manual is helpful in helping you navigate your writing assignments.

American Pyschological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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What (or who) is the Graduate Writing Coach at Annenberg?

What is the Graduate Writing Coach?

The Graduate Writing Coach is a free resource for graduate students in the Annenberg School of Communication. Graduate school can be a challenging time, and navigating its academic conventions can be equally perplexing. Because of this, the Writing Coach assists graduate students in addressing and developing their writing skills to develop stronger, more independent, and self-sufficient writers and editors. Additionally, the Writing Coach instructs students in best practices for graduate-level academic writing through individual appointments and group tutoring sessions, as well as workshops.

Who is the Graduate Writing Coach?

Francesca Gacho joined the Annenberg School of Communication staff as the Graduate Writing Coach in the Spring 2017 semester. She also works as a Writing Consultant at a graduate student-only Writing Center and teaches graduate writing and reading courses for first-semester international graduate students, in addition to teaching first-year composition courses at the undergraduate level. She has been teaching and tutoring since 2006 and has been working with graduate student writers since 2012. She is currently a doctoral student in English and received her MA and BA in English from Claremont Graduate University and CSU Fullerton, respectively.

What can I expect from conferences with the Writing Coach?

Each 50-minute conference with the Writing Coach is student-directed. This means students decide what the focus of the session will be. With the Writing Coach, the student will set an agenda for the session at the beginning of the conference to make the meeting as productive as possible. Students are required to submit a Pre-Session Form prior to their conference.

Successful sessions typically address global issues first (larger issues in writing related to answering the prompt/assignment, thesis statement, argumentation, organization and logical structure of arguments, incorporating sources, coherence, and unity). Similarly, students who come prepared with specific questions about their writing typically leave the meetings with practical strategies that they can then employ when writing on their own. Pertinent documents such as assignment prompt, primary and/or secondary sources, samples (if available) can be helpful during the session, though not required.

In 50-minutes, it is typical to read and revise about 4-5 pages of a text, depending on the issues that may be apparent in the text. Each session–just as each writer–is different and develops at its own pace. Conferences are not proofreading or copyediting sessions, though grammar and style are valid and welcome topics of discussion. The Writing Coach provides non-evaluative feedback (as in no comments about what grade the assignment could get); rather, the Writing Coach provides feedback on the degree of which the assignment fulfills assignment requirements, meets genre expectations and academic conventions, and employs rhetorical features of the text to meet its purpose.

At the end of each session, the Writing Coach and the student will decide on action items to complete before the next appointment or before submitting the assignment.


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