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Academic Coaching & Writing

V. Overcoming Anxiety About Academic Writing

Sep 29, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

The first step toward lessening the power of fear to stall your writing is realizing that there’s nothing wrong or irrational about fears related to academic authorship.

Your professional training has equipped you to be a terrific critical thinker and rigorous reviewer of scholarship. Undoubtedly, you realize that experts trained in the same critical tradition ultimately will evaluate your writing during the peer review process. What a set-up for creating anxiety! An author would practically have to be an extreme narcissist (or perhaps stoned) to feel no anxiety at all about writing in this context. Feeling some concerns or even worry, in other words, is perfectly understandable.

Furthermore, a little anxiety can motivate you to dig deep and bring out the best in your work. But writing blocks set in when authors dwell on fears of possible criticism, allowing those fears to make them discount their own insights and ability. My work on overcoming blocks with a wide range of academic writers has convinced me, however, of the power of a few simple strategies to significantly decrease anxiety.

Decrease Expectations and Increase Writing Sessions

Lowering your sense of the stakes of your writing sessions, as Peter Elbow has famously argued in Writing Without Teachers, is vital to lowering your anxiety. Rushing to meet deadlines puts too much pressure on the process. Giving yourself plenty of time, by contrast, to develop ideas provides space to experiment, make mistakes, and discover exactly what you want to say. Having an hour or two, at least five days a week, of dedicated writing time ultimately will bring you great comfort. Writing in a routine, habitual way allows you to work with, not against, what I describe in the second blog in this series as “the iterative nature” of the normal writing process. In other words, you can relax a little, knowing the draft you’re working on doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to show you the way to the next, better draft.

Loosen Up

Sometimes the drive to focus on articulating your reasoning actually constricts your ability to generate and refine ideas. Another way to get unblocked is to loosen up your focus in some writing sessions. Try incorporating several freewriting exercises into your weekly routine. As a previous blog in this series explains, freewriting means capturing your thoughts as they move your mind—no matter now disorderly they are or how silly you feel. The only rule is to keep your fingers flying over the keyboard or your pen over the paper for a set amount of time, such as 10 to 20 minutes. Don’t pause to reflect or revise. Forget about form, grammar, and correctness. This technique helps you give your internal censor the slip. In The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, Ralph Keyes nails the bottom line for this strategy. “By writing freely” Keyes explains, “you’re essentially saying, I’ll ignore my anxiety about getting it right and write anyway, on a provisional basis.”

As modest as this goal seems, it can help you take the most critical step: getting started. In my own practice, I often end up trashing two-thirds of the few pages I pour out in a twenty-minute free writing session. And that’s just fine. I almost always, however, find one or two “keepers” in those pages—new ideas or ways of articulating a point that make their way into my actual manuscript.

Move Your Body to Move Your Mind

Last but not least, to decrease anxiety, try to balance the life of your mind with the life of your body. Studies show moderate daily exercise, like walking, improves mood and cognitive function, as well as your cardiovascular health. I’ve also observed in my work with individual writers that those who practice yoga have a leg up, so to speak, on staying calm even when they have to struggle towards clarity about their ideas. Recently, I saw the power of even simple daily exercise to combat writing blocks when I worked with an author who felt seriously stalled. She had been pouring long, intense hours into her work, but seemed to be getting nowhere. Each day she found herself deleting most of what she had written the day before. When I challenged her to sprinkle three, fifteen-minute walks into her daily routine, her anxiety decreased and her ability to focus increased. In just two months, she finished the project she had been stalled on for half a year and met her deadline for submission.

Another critical factor in that author’s success was avoiding procrastination. Anxieties often can lead authors to put off writing, which only increases the chances of experiencing writing blocks. So the next blog in this series explores why writers procrastinate and how to avoid it.

  • Diane says:

    Jul 07, 2015 at 6:40 am

    Thank you for this information. I'm just now beginning my program and I was feeling a little overwhelmed because of future expectations. I now tend to start small by observing everything that I write (non-formal emails, etc). As I think about my future topic of research, this information will be very helpful. Thank you. Diane

  • Owen G DeVance says:

    Jul 22, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    Thank you for this information.

  • Deborah Tasker-Brady says:

    Aug 04, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    As a previous international project manager, managing time has never been a problem. One trick that I have learned is that playing classical music very low helps thinking processes.

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