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Tips for anxious writers: Writing is only a tool

To reduce writing anxiety, it helps to re-imagine the practices in which you engage. People who struggle with writing anxiety often think of “writing” as only meaning the most difficult projects—the dissertation, the journal article, etc. They reduce “writing” to only those projects where they face serious writing blocks and anxiety. Meanwhile, these same people often write eloquently and effectively in a number of other roles—they email friends, they reach out to scholars whose work they appreciate, they make posts on social media, they complete administrative and educational materials, etc.

An expanded view of writing—one, especially, that includes the areas where you write well and effectively—can help reduce writing anxiety if you recognize how writing in the most difficult contexts is similar to writing in other contexts. And, at the same time, you want a more limited view of writing: writing is a general tool that can be used to accomplish academic ends, but it is not, in itself, the truly difficult task for the scholar, which is the job of being a researcher and teacher—of developing and disseminating ideas based on evidence and reason. We could say that academics have two practices: a practice of writing, and a practice of scholarship. Ideally, with practice, you will spend less time thinking about how to write and more time thinking about how to research or how to teach. This, too, can reduce writing-related anxiety, and, though it doesn’t necessarily help with research-related anxiety, any reduction in overall anxiety helps limit anxiety’s impact.

The skill of writing

Writing is the process of translating ideas into a string of words written on a page (or screen). It involves finding the right words for the subjects you wish to discuss. It involves putting those words into coherent sentences, or at least sentence fragments. It involves choosing the order in which to discuss different ideas. These are all individual skills in their own right, and each of these contributes to skill as a writer. And each of them gets some practice whenever you do any writing. I mean that in a very broad sense: maybe writing a grocery list doesn’t count as writing, even though you do need to choose words for the stuff you want, and you need to make sure that the list accurately captures your interests (i.e., you don’t forget anything). But writing a to-do list definitely starts to move into the realm of writing. You have to think about and prioritize ideas and then put them on to the page.  Writing an e-mail to a friend definitely calls on the skills of deciding what information the friend needs and what order to present that information. Social media exchanges often call for the development and exposition of reasoning, which is a fundamental skill required in scholarly writing.

Instead of scorning these various tasks as something less than “writing,” think instead of how they require and exercise exactly the same skill set as the anxiety-inducing “real” writing done for scholarship. Consider, by analogy, a professional musician who, for work, plays highly technical music as a performer in an avant garde classical orchestra, or a member of a prog-metal band. Imagine that this musician also plays music with and for their child. Obviously the music they play with their child will be simpler and easier to perform than the music they play professionally. But do we therefore assume that different skills are involved? Or that playing with the child does nothing support the more technical practice? Playing with the child might not demand the same level of skill, but it certainly draws upon the same set of skills, and if nothing else will remind the musician that music can sometimes be easy.

The practice of writing and the practice of research

To continue our analogy, we can say that the musician actually has two separate overlapping practices, one is a general musical practice, which encompasses things like playing scales and arpeggios as drills, singing with a child, and, of course, all the work they do to perform the pieces that make up their professional repertoire. The other practice is their professional practice—it is the mastery of the intellectual dimensions of classical music or prog-metal, but it also includes things like developing a strategy for their career and managing the financial aspects.

The analogy is imperfect, but it can be helpful to view the work of academics as encompassing two separate practices: the practice of writing and the practice or research. To the scholar or researcher, the primary professional practice is the practice of research—the development of ideas that support the larger research community’s search for understanding. This work is a matter of developing and sharing theories and evidence.  It’s parallel to the professional musician’s work in tasks like composition, arrangement, and presentation (whether as a recording or as a performance). This is the important task that the scholar is engaged in. Scholars are not supposed to publish just for the sake of publication; scholars are supposed to publish because they are sharing valuable ideas and information.

Writing is merely a tool to help accomplish research goals. Writing helps with remembering data and observations, exploring ideas, and communicating ideas. It is parallel to the instruments played by a musician—tools for exploring and sharing musical ideas. For a professional musician, an instrument becomes an almost invisible conduit for conveying a musical idea—they don’t have to think about how to make their instrument make a sound, they just imagine that sound and produce it. (At least easy, familiar sounds; creating completely new sounds would naturally take more work.) Ideally, for the scholar, writing becomes a tool through which ideas are easily expressed—just as easily as ideas are expressed in speech. The more that the basic skill of writing is practiced, the easier this becomes, and attention can shift from the task of writing (i.e., putting words on a page) to the task of explaining (i.e., developing coherent arguments and explanations).

Practice and the attention needed

When a person first learns to drive a car, there are many important concerns that demand attention. In addition to steering, accelerating, and braking, the driver needs to scan rearview mirrors, attend to traffic signal and road signs, use turn signals and a few other things. At first, these many different concerns all need conscious attention, but with practice, most of these concerns basically disappear, so that you don’t even think about the different controls and aspects of driving a car. You just think about where you’re going. For that matter, on a familiar route, you hardly even need to think about where you’re going and your attention can turn to other subjects.
To some extent, this can happen with writing. If you begin to think of writing in this expansive way—as a familiar tool to express ideas, and you become more comfortable with putting ideas into words on the page, you can possibly give the writing less attention and focus more on the research.

Of course, even with familiar tools, as the level of difficulty increases, the ability to use the tool requires more attention. I can drive to the supermarket without giving any real thought to steering, braking, or accelerating. Put me behind the behind the wheel at racing speeds, and suddenly those easy tasks demand all my attention. Similarly, it makes perfect sense that someone who easily writes an email to a friend struggles more when trying to write a piece suitable for academic publication. The ideas involved are more complex, demanding more complex vocabulary and greater attention to nuances of phrasing and punctuation. Nonetheless, it is still the same basic skill set, and by viewing writing through the lens of being a tool that you use all the time, you can often defuse some of the anxiety related to the process of writing.

Focus on scholarship

For the most part, people don’t go into academia because they want to write, but rather because they want to learn and teach. Keep your focus on the ideas to be expressed and the audience to whom you are expressing them. By separating the practice of scholarship from the practice of writing, you can better focus your efforts on what really matters. At the same time, this perspective helps reduce writing anxiety, because, for one, you can see all the writing you do as part of the same skill set, thus recognizing that it’s not really writing that is so difficult, and that the greater difficulty lies with the scholarly concerns. For two, seeing writing as that common practice makes it easier to think about rewriting and revision: if writing a lot of words is easy, then it’s not so hard to write multiple drafts. And for three, the more that you practice writing in the context of scholarship, the more you will develop the skills specific to scholarly writing in your field, so although you might struggle to use certain terms today, they will become natural with practice.

Read the other articles in this series:

Tips for anxious writers: Series introduction
Tips for anxious writers: Gentle persistence
Tips for anxious writers: Use exploratory writing
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