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Tips for anxious writers: Practice and performance

In the previous tip, I argued for the use of exploratory writing—writing whose purpose is to explore ideas, not writing that helps you communicate with other people—and I’m going to follow up on that notion here to focus on the emotional difference between practice and performance—between writing to learn from the process and writing something that other people will see and evaluate. One of the main anxieties that people face is about how their work will be received, and if that can be put aside, even for a time, then writing anxiety can be reduced and writing productivity increased.

The practice of writing and research

Writing and research are like many other skilled activities: when we work on them, our skills improve. If we work on research writing, we have the opportunity to explore evidence and ideas and their implications and refine our theories about the world, and a chance to practice different ways to express and communicate those ideas.

Like in other skilled activities, the practitioner benefits from setting aside time to practice the skills away from the critical eyes of others. For a musician, there are scales, etudes, work on phrasing and emphasis, and many other activities that take place away from the eyes of any spectator. For an athlete, there are exercises, drills, and experimentation with different strategies and tactics. These, too, take place away from the eyes of spectators. For a writer, there is exploratory writing.

Like in other skilled activities, the practice—the repeated activity—helps build basic skills. The writer who writes a lot of different sentences, starts to see more and more subtle distinctions between good and bad sentences, as well as developing a greater feel for different ways of presenting a lot of information. The researcher who tries several different answers to a difficult question will see more and more subtle issues within that question.

Repetition builds comfort and confidence

Practicing writing—engaging in the activity so that your skill increases—can allow a step back from causes of anxiety.  Instead of saying “I need to sit down to write my paper,” which carries with it all the anxieties of doing it right and getting published, you can sit down saying “I’m going to practice my ideas and my writing.”  This shift in attitude will not immediately remove all worries, of course, but it can allow you more freedom to say, “I’m just going to throw some words on the page and see what comes of it.” Each time you feel free to jot a note without worrying about whether it’s grammatical, you ease the route to repeating that action, and putting another sentence or phrase or fragment on the page.

The more you repeat this basic action, the more comfortable it becomes, and the more confidence you build in your practice. In a sense, you want to have a little of the mindset of a musician playing scales—sure, they want to play the scale “right,” but they’re not really worried about it, because they’re going to repeat playing scales whether they get it wrong or right.

When you’re writing for the sake of practicing and exploring, you don’t have to worry about being wrong, you just have to try stuff to see how it works and to learn from it. And in that practice, you will become more comfortable writing notes that you won’t want to show to other people, and will, hopefully, feel somewhat less anxiety, and can therefore spend more time exploring ideas and trying different ways of presenting material without concern for getting it right, and without the burden of saying “This is the paper; I have to get it right.” Yes, of course, you want to get it right in the long run—you want your work accepted and published—but in the moment, in order to reduce anxiety, you just want to focus on the practice and the exploration.

The performance of writing and research

As with a musician or athlete, the researcher ultimately wants to do something for public consumption—something other people will look at. Ideally this will be something that educates people (an idea to keep in mind when writing), but also will be something that others will judge (an idea that can trigger anxiety in writing). We could argue that writing is unlike music or athletics where live performance is what is judged, whereas with writing, it is an object that is judged. But, while that is undoubtedly true, there is still an element of similarity in the practice of research and research writing.

As I have argued before, the primary concern for the academic is the production of ideas and communication of ideas, and this is something that does often take place without writing: researchers give lectures and participate in panels. To some extent, this is a matter of public speaking, but to a much greater extent, this is a matter of putting ideas into words in a form that people can understand. Many of the same skills that make a good public speaker—understanding how to string ideas together and keep the audience interested—also make a good writer.

From the large-scale view—in terms of a life or career—you want to be able to perform research. That’s why you practice it.  You want to be able to formulate complex ideas into words so you can communicate with colleagues, students, administrators, funders, and others. You want to be able to formulate complex ideas into words so that you can yourself reflect on them and critique them to find errors.  In this vision of the research/writing practice, you formulate ideas quickly and put them into words quickly, whether speaking or writing. There is no significant reason that writing should take much longer than speaking. Yes, writing a word is physically slower than speaking it (unless you write or type extremely quickly), but that’s a factor of maybe three or four.  If you can give a good speech in 10 minutes, you should be able to write those same words in 30 or 40. If you can answer an unexpected question about your work in two or three minutes, there’s no reason that you can’t formulate a good written answer to the question in maybe 10 minutes.

This kind of thinking and writing is well within reach of most people who have taught classes and done research, but they don’t think in terms of research and research writing being, to some extent, a performance. If you practice putting ideas into words, if you’re willing to engage in exploratory writing and revision and rewriting, you build the skill that allows you to formulate and express ideas quickly, and you also build a repertoire of ideas and phrases that you can reuse.

The goal of a research practice, generally, is to be able to perform research—to be able to formulate and express ideas quickly, clearly, and effectively. While it is natural to think of the written output as the goal of the practice, you can shift your attention and reduce anxiety by focusing on the notion of practice.  The musician practicing a piece doesn’t fret over making a mistake—they just play the piece again to try and get it right.  To some extent, your research and research writing should have a similar sense: try to express the ideas, and if you don’t get it right, you just try again, maybe taking a different approach. This builds your skill to perform research. In the long run, being able to perform research will lead to production of published output.

The recording of research

I would like to take the analogy to music a little further, to compare the researcher to the recording musician. The recording musician generally has the talent and skill for live performances, often including improvisation. The researcher, too, wants the skill for live performances—lectures, panel discussions, etc.—including some improvisation (i.e., answering unexpected questions). In addition to that performative ability, the recording musician goes into the studio and records and multitracks and overdubs and whatnot, to create a recording that is then shared with the world. Similarly, the researcher wants to be able to revise and edit, etc. to create a publication that can be shared with the world.  The work of polishing the final presentation is considerable, but at the heart of the recording/written work is the performance—whether that of the musician or the researcher.

Spend your time practicing

Most of the time, the performer is practicing—an activity that is meant to explore, experiment, build skill, and refine the ability to perform. If you struggle with anxiety, it is particularly valuable to think in terms of skill-building practice because it distracts from anxiety-inducing concerns about what others will think. Yes, of course, in the long-run you want to produce publications.  If you struggle with writing anxiety, however, in the short run, the emphasis should be on building skills and experimenting with ideas and writing.

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: Use exploratory writing
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