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Tips for anxious writers: Use exploratory writing

An anxious writer once told me “I made some notes and organized my thoughts but didn’t get any writing done.” She was feeling anxiety, shame, and a sense of failure about not adding to her manuscript. But that narrow view of what counts as “writing,” doesn’t recognize the value of some activities that are valuable parts of the writing process. In the previous post, I argued that all types of writing—email to friends, social media posts, etc.—can contribute to your skill as a writer. In this post, I’m following a related idea—another idea about what does and does not count as “writing” and what does (or does not) help you make progress on a manuscript. You can do important academic work without adding a single word to a manuscript if you are using writing as a tool to explore ideas.

There is more that is necessary for a research practice and for research writing than simply producing a manuscript.  In academia, it is the underlying ideas that matter, which is why there are so many published manuscripts that are poorly written but still recognized as valuable. Crucial to any research practice are three tasks for which writing is valuable: to remember, to communicate, and to explore ideas. The third of these three is often neglected, which can inhibit writing and research progress.

Writing for communication

We are mostly taught to write for communication. In elementary school, we write for our teachers. At home, our parents teach us to write thank you notes. Or at least, that’s what most people think about when they sit down to write. Of course, we’re also implicitly taught to write as an aid to memory, at least inasmuch as we’re taught to take notes in classes or to write shopping lists, though those aren’t usually subjects covered in “writing” classes. In some contexts, we’re also taught to use writing as a tool to explore ideas: in mathematics courses, at least, the idea of working out your ideas on “scratch paper” was so common that big exams like the SAT made provisions to allow the use of scratch paper (whether that’s still done in this electronic age, I do not know). For healthy and effective research and writing practices, all three of these purposes for writing are important. Unfortunately, many writers focus exclusively on writing’s role as a mode for communication, thus increasing anxiety and while also losing a valuable part of the writing process.

For a lot of writers, when they think about “writing,” they’re thinking about people reading their work, and about many of the formal and stylistic concerns associated with writing, from spelling, punctuation, and grammar, to narrative structure, use of tone and voice, and other high-level writerly concerns. Taking such considerations into account can certainly help improve the quality of one’s prose. They can also give you a lot more to think about, leading to greater stress and anxiety. Often, in scholarship, where ideas are complex and refined, it is hard enough just to figure out what’s going on. Questions about how to write well can add to anxiety, especially if you start thinking about specific people giving you bad feedback.

Layers of anxiety

Scholars are often feel multiple layers of anxiety: they’re concerned with ideas—will their theories stand up to scrutiny? Do their arguments make sense? How do they interpret their data?—and they’re concerned with writing well—will they be criticized for their tone, for their use of language, etc.? Writers struggling with writing anxiety often have both these layers piled on top of each other, which can increase the impact of anxiety, as concerns about writing well intrude on the process of working out the ideas, and concerns about the ideas impede the processes of revision and rewriting.

In a good practice, you can separate out these layers of anxiety by using different kinds of writing to approach different sets of concerns.  Sometimes—when you want to work through ideas, and when you’re not quite sure about what the intellectual content should be—you can write to explore ideas, in a process akin to using “scratch paper” to solve a mathematics problem, or in the way that a painter or architect might make experimental sketches to explore possibilities for some general idea. Other times, you want to work on creating a more formal product to be presented to a wider audience, with more attention to the formal elements of writing. Whichever type of writing you’re working on, you try to set aside one of the layers of anxiety: If you’re doing exploratory writing, then the concerns of writing well for communication are irrelevant; if you’re writing for communication, then, hopefully, you have the main ideas in order, and can thus set aside those concerns, at least for a time.

Exploratory writing

Writing is a great tool for exploring ideas. When you put an idea down on the page, you can reflect on it, and maybe begin to see dimensions that you had not previously imagined.  Sometimes, I compare the experience of writing to teaching a class: when teaching, students ask unexpected questions; and when I write and look back at what I’ve written, unanticipated questions can similarly arise.

Putting words on a page makes a commitment to some idea, and that commitment forces recognition of its implications, thus a whole train of ideas is set in motion. Sometimes, such trains of ideas crash horribly into confusing jumbles. Less often, but often enough, with practice, these trains of ideas find a clear route. The most important task for the academic writer, and the most difficult, is, in this metaphor, to find that clear route for a train of ideas. Academic research is supposed to express original ideas, observations, and/or reasoning. Thus, finding that clear line of ideas ought to be your primary concern as a scholar or researcher. Exploratory writing is a tool for that.

Exploratory writing is a process and a practice whose concern is for your intellectual development—for your exploration of your vision of the world and your voice for expressing what you see. It is something you do to explore, produce, and refine ideas. The important results of this process will primarily be in your head and not on the page. For the most part, what goes on the page can be thrown away, if you want. If, in the process of writing, your ideas developed and you learned something, that is success, for exploratory writing.

Because it isn’t really about what you put on the page, exploratory writing need not conform to any rules or expectations. It doesn’t have to have coherent sentences (though, as your practice develops, you’ll find it easier to create full sentences while doing exploratory writing). Punctuation, spelling, grammar, style—these are all irrelevant to exploratory writing. It’s writing that you do for yourself, so potential criticisms are irrelevant. Almost any mark on the page can contribute to exploratory writing. Doodling images can intertwine with words—anything goes, as long as it carries some idea.

Write multiple drafts to separate the layers of anxiety

The idea of exploratory writing is not particularly novel, but does sometimes get obscured by concerns for the formalities of writing for communication. Most people, I think, are familiar with the idea of writing multiple drafts, and have at least heard the idea that first drafts can be a mess. The reason the first draft is a mess is that it is exploratory writing—writing to feel out ideas about what to say and how to say it.

Unfortunately, for some writers, like the one who said “I made some notes and organized my thoughts, but didn’t get any writing done,” even a first draft isn’t about exploration, but rather is a struggle to produce something close to a real, complete draft. As soon as its “a draft,” it becomes site of writing anxiety related to writing for communication, rather than a space for exploration, inhibiting precisely the kind of exploratory thinking that characterizes good academic work.

To reduce anxiety, you can designate different purposes for different drafts. For example, you have a first draft to explore ideas, a second draft to explore ideas and explore overall presentation strategy, a third draft to work out presentation issues, and a fourth and final draft to refine and polish presentation. Hopefully, by focusing on a specific purpose in each draft, you can separate out layers of anxiety.

Find ease in exploratory writing

When writing is slow and tedious, the idea of “just making notes and organizing thoughts” seems like a waste of time: “I need to work on the paper,” cries the anguished writer who dreads the idea of writing one draft, much less several. But in a healthy practice, and with lower anxiety, writing speed increases, and writing multiple drafts becomes easier.

Exploratory writing—writing to work through ideas without concern for who reads it—is a great tool for a writing practice, and can free some of the writing process from common anxieties about writing well. Sometimes just writing notes and organizing thoughts is valuable. Give yourself the freedom to spend time in such exploration. Put aside concern for who might read a later draft and attendant anxieties, and use writing as a tool to explore the ideas that are the most important part of your academic work.

Read the other articles in this series:

Tips for anxious writers: Series introduction
Tips for anxious writers: Gentle persistence
Tips for anxious writers: Writing is only a tool
Tips for anxious writers: Practice and performance
Tips for anxious writers: Philosophy, a labor of love
Tips for anxious writers: How to get moving
Tips for anxious writers: Write for the right audience
Tips for anxious writers: Accept uncertainty; trust your practice
Tips for anxious writers: You are not an imposter
Tips for anxious writers: Analyze feedback

Dave HarrisDave Harris, Ph.D., editor, writing coach, and dissertation coach, helps writers develop effective writing practices, express their ideas clearly, and finish their projects. He is author of Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (Thought Clearing, 2015), Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice (Routledge, 2020) and second author with Jean-Pierre Protzen of The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (Routledge, 2010).Dave can be found on the web at