Academic writers often have high writing anxiety, so you’re not alone if you feel anxious when you write, said Margarita Huerta, assistant professor of educational and clinical studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. They also tend to have low self-efficacy, she said, which can lead to less confidence in their capability to write.
“People with low self-efficacy tend to perform at lower levels, especially if the situation is demanding, uncertain, and holds a possibility of failure,” says Huerta. “Sounds like academic writing. It’s demanding. It’s uncertain. You don’t know if it’s going to get published, but you’re doing your very best. And yeah, you could fail. And in fact, often we do.”
Huerta, and Jennifer Travis, a professor of mathematics at Lone Star College-North Harris, share the following tools to help minimize writing anxiety and maximize writing self-efficacy:
1. Create a personal online blog.
Blogs help with your academic writing by getting the writing flowing, providing a low-stress writing environment, motivating you with immediate “published results”, giving you a sense of completion, and serving as a method of self-reflection, say Huerta and Travis.
Travis started her blog, Writing Uphill, as a way to make a public commitment to being a writer. “Very few people read it,” she says. “I did it as a way to write something, and as a way to reflect on the goals that were ahead of me. Only the people who knew me looked at it, which was a big part of helping me grow as a writer.” She cautions, however, to not write anything for your blog that you wouldn’t want your Dean, PhD advisor, job search committee—or mom—to read.
Huerta said she started blogging about academia and academic publishing as a way to learn and share what she learned with other people, but also as therapy for herself as she was finishing her dissertation. “It’s so nice to feel this sense of completion of a writing piece,” she says. “And it’s published, even though it’s self-published. It’s out there. And sometimes, depending on how private or public you have it, you get feedback from people.” Visit Huerta’s blog, Ph.D. Pudding.
2. Use a stopwatch when you write.
“A stopwatch is great for motivating you to start and complete a task you don’t want to do, giving you a sense of time, and showing you that you can do more in five minutes than in zero minutes,” says Huerta.
Huerta started using a stopwatch to time her writing about a year and half ago. At first she resisted the idea because she thought it would be too restricting, but now finds it very motivating, she said: “When you have so many different projects to write, or especially when you have something you really don’t want to do, if you set a stopwatch for 5, 10, or 15 minutes and make yourself do it, it is amazing what you get done in that time. That’s how I’ve been surviving the first year of my tenure track position, with a stopwatch, little by little.”
The stopwatch actually reduces her anxiety, she says, because she’s gotten something done – and usually it’s more than she thinks she can do because she can record it, and that builds motivation for her.
3. Log your writing.
A writing log allows you to keep a record of when you started and stopped your writing sessions, lets you analyze yourself as a writer, and gives you a physical record that you can look back at to see what you really did, all of which reduce writing anxiety, says Travis, who learned about using a writing log from Patricia Goodson, director of the P.O.W.E.R. Writing Initiative at Texas A&M University.
“It was a revelation when I first started using a writing log,” she said. “I had been all gung ho about writing over the summer, but when I went back and looked at my writing log a year later, there was an entry in September and then nothing until May. What happens between September and May? I’m a teacher, right? And so I’m like, ‘I didn’t find time to write for a whole year?’ That’s not good. Without my writing log I might have convinced myself I was actually doing something when I wasn’t.”
Huerta said she also loves using a writing log as a way to record her writing. “It helps me get to know myself as a writer,” she says. “I put in where I’m writing and what I’m doing, and what my next steps are. And I color code it. It gives me a sense of how much time I can write before I need a break.”
4. Eliminate distractions.
To eliminate distractions, Travis uses an online tool called ManicTime that tracks how long your computer is open and how much time you spend on certain applications and documents. “It marks your time on applications and documents using a green bar that turns red if you’re away from your computer for 10 minutes with no activity,” she said.
She also uses FocusWriter, which clears away all the task bars on your screen and leaves you with a big white blank screen free of distractions. “When you write on it you only get a couple of font options, and you can even turn on an old-fashioned typewriter noise, which can be fun and relaxing,” she said. “You can edit, copy, bold, but not necessarily a whole lot of other formatting. When you’re done, you can save it as a .docx file. Although there are many such tools out there, I have found FocusWriter to be the most user-friendly and clean.”
5. Build accountability.
In a study of writing anxiety conducted by psychologist Robert Boice in the 1970s and 1980s, he found that faculty that committed to writing daily in short sessions and logged their writing time wrote four times as many pages as a comparison group, said Huerta: “But faculty who wrote daily, logged their time, and met bi-weekly with Boice for prodding and log-sharing wrote nine times as many pages as the comparison group.”
Huerta and Travis serve as each other’s accountability partners and have found the experience to be very motivating. “It can be as simple as saying, ‘Hey Jennifer, here’s my log for the week. Okay, that’s it,’” says Huerta. “But I know I’m going to show it to someone so it makes me accountable to myself, but also to someone else, who also shares their log.”
Travis has also built accountability by joining a writing group by Skype. The group uses a rendition of the Pomodoro method where they write for 35 minutes and take a break for 10 minutes and chat. While some of the writing group members are in multiple time zones and are not all always there at the same time, she said, they just create and post a schedule: “It’s nice to know somebody else is working on something too.”
In what ways have you worked to minimize writing anxiety and maximize self-efficacy? Share them in the comments section below.
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