Tips for anxious writers: How to get moving
If you’ve been struggling with writing anxiety, getting started can be very hard. Anxiety-inducing concerns—do I write well? will my audience hate it? am I smart enough?—accompany the decision to write and crowd upon the writer, sometimes causing severe discomfort, or even paralysis. It can feel like writing is so hard that effort is futile. To approach your work when such anxieties hit, you want to identify small, easy, gentle steps to get started. Start with a tiny step that you know you can accomplish, then you can have small successes that help you move forward, and you can build comfort and confidence over time.
The barrier of anxiety and the vicious cycle of reinforcement
In the grips of anxiety, almost anything related writing seems an arduous task, even the smallest things, like opening a file or just sitting down to work. Objective measures of difficulty are not really relevant, only the internal experience, and anxiety can make any task difficult and uncomfortable. This is part of why “just be more disciplined/force yourself to write for x minutes” advice can go so wrong. It may be true for most people that 10 or 20 minutes isn’t a very long time, but what is true for most people does not apply to everyone. If the anxiety is high enough, forcing yourself through 20 minutes might reinforce the expectation that writing is painful, even if those 20 minutes were objectively successful in terms of producing part of a manuscript.
In the long run, gaining a little progress on a manuscript at the cost of reinforcing a negative experience with writing can be counterproductive. Such negative reinforcement might explain why people who have been productive writers in the past sometimes hit “writer’s block.” Why does someone who used to write stop writing in the present, even though they want to write? One explanation might be that a steady baseline of self-discipline is able to push through some anxiety, but if the anxiety grows, it can reach a point where the baseline of self-discipline is no longer sufficient. When the anxiety grows past the point of tolerance, a formerly productive writer suddenly hits writer’s block. It’s not that the writer has lost any self-discipline, it’s that the barrier of anxiety has grown too great.
To begin a healthy practice, the place to start is with little, easy tasks—gentle tasks. You’re looking for tiny things that you can accomplish to move your writing forward, however trivial they may seem. Be sensitive to the barriers that you face: where in the process do you begin feeling anxiety? What steps can you take before anxiety hits? Take one small step forward, and listen to yourself. Be aware of what you can do with minimal anxiety, and use that knowledge to build a foundation of confidence on the little things you know you can do without anxiety.
The worse your anxiety, the more you want to focus on just engaging with writing or your project more than on accomplishing any serious writing. Build a healthy practice, first. Instead of thinking, “I need to finish my paper,” ask yourself “what one small thing could I take to move this forward?” Writing will come with the practice, so build the practice first, listening to your anxiety and respecting it. You need some patience; putting pressure on yourself to be productive will only exacerbate anxiety. Separate your thoughts about the practice of writing (which, hopefully, is motivated by your interests LINK TO Philosophy, a labor of love) from thoughts about how your work might be received or how it impacts your career.
Listen to yourself each step of the way. First, tell yourself it’s time to write. How does that feel? Anxiety levels still OK? Then take some tiny action—turn on the light at your desk, for example. Are you still OK? Sit down. Still OK? Turn on your computer. OK? Open a file on your computer. OK? Each step of the way, check in with yourself to make sure you’re not suffering from anxiety. Celebrate each tiny step as a success on which to build.
Don’t view these tiny steps as trivial just because many people might think them trivially easy. Remember that your experience is your own. If your anxiety is strong enough, opening a file is hard, and you don’t do yourself any favors by telling yourself that it should have been easy. If it was difficult for you, it was difficult for you. As a writing coach, I have worked with writers who were too overwhelmed with their project to open a file, or even sit down (or stay seated) as soon as they thought of working on their main project. Personally, I have suffered agonies of anxiety, including physical symptoms like sweating and difficulty breathing, while doing things that others think trivial. If you have been struggling with anxiety, do not dismiss the small steps you take just because they “should” be easy or are easy for someone else; listen to your experience and learn from it. Building a healthy practice means understanding both your abilities and your limits.
Ultimately, if you develop a healthy practice, small steps will come easily. But even then, don’t dismiss the ease that you do find in writing. A healthy practice builds on itself: things that were hard on the first day, become easy over time, so any task that was once hard and has become easy is a victory in itself, and a sign of growth. If you once struggled to open your project file, but now it’s fine, celebrate that growth.
Building from a good foundation
A healthy practice is built through repetition and confidence that you can do again today what you did yesterday, and not only that you can do it again today, but that you can do it with some ease, confidence, or even enjoyment. Such a foundation makes it easier to take small chances: you know you can do the simplest things without difficulty or harm, so you’re willing to take a risk on a slightly bigger task. And as each bigger task gets accomplished without too much trouble, you build confidence for further challenges and risks.
The idea of enjoyment may seem ridiculous when talking about the smallest steps—who enjoys opening a file?—but in the larger scope of a research and research writing practice, there are many interesting challenges that many people do enjoy, which suggests at least the possibility that you, too, can come to enjoy such challenges. And while I don’t expect you will ever come to enjoy opening files, I do think that if you can reduce your anxiety, you won’t notice many of the easy steps that are so difficult when experiencing severe anxiety.
Wherever you are now, you want to look for those things that can be done easily. If you can sit down and open your file, and even do a little editing before anxiety sets in, acknowledge that you are engaging with the project, do a little editing, and then give yourself credit for engaging. And try something easy again later in the day, after the worst of the anxiety has receded, or the next day. Focus on the development of your practice, not on any progress toward publication. Focus on how, in the long run, you can build confidence, knowledge, and skill through practice.
Finding interest and allowing yourself space
Once you get started, it’s easier to keep going. Small accomplishments build confidence to take on more challenges, and doing one task will often give you an idea for something else that you can do, or something that you want to do for your project.
Look for things to which you are drawn—anything that seems easy and useful—so that you have motivations beyond simple force of will. When thinking about the very next step—should I correct that reference now? should I write a sentence about X?—and about the long term—which project should I pursue?—keep looking for the things to which you are drawn, so that you are pulled into your work by interest or confidence in addition to being pushed by self-discipline. Without building on the positive motivations, any practice will begin to run against the limits of self-discipline because it won’t feel sufficiently rewarding.
Getting started and building momentum
If you’ve been stuck, it takes effort just to get started again. Not only do you need to push through any barriers of anxiety, but you also have to rebuild familiarity with the project: where were you when last worked on it? what are the tasks in which you have to engage? As you take first small steps, recognize that someone who has been away from a project needs to do extra work to become familiar with it again; don’t expect to jump back in at peak productivity. Instead take each tiny step to build momentum and develop confidence. Maybe the first day back, all you do is open the file, and then celebrate that as a success. But you keep coming back, and soon you’re looking back over what you wrote in the past, or making some notes about ideas you’ve recently had (exploratory writing). Any writing task has big, difficult parts, and smaller, easier parts. If opening a file is already easy (with respect to anxiety), but writing serious content is too intimidating, try looking for smaller tasks: fix the formatting of your section headers, or make sure that your references are all in order, or make sure that one reference is in order. If that’s too easy, try revising a paragraph here or there. As you engage with these smaller tasks, you may be motivated to try something a little more difficult.
Research and writing are hard; they require a significant investment of energy to keep moving forward. But if you get momentum going (i.e., greater familiarity with and continuity in the project), you get more return on your effort. This aids the formation of virtuous cycles because progress inspires confidence, which makes it easier to invest more effort, which leads to further productivity, leading to more progress.
Every small step you take can help you move forward. If you have been struggling with significant anxiety, prioritize finding tasks that let you work around the edges of your difficulty, build confidence and momentum, and, perhaps most importantly, build greater engagement and interest in the project. If you’re struggling with anxiety, don’t force yourself to face the biggest, hardest, and most important task; find small tasks to build momentum, and allow yourself to be pulled by the tasks that either most interest you or that you feel can be most easily accomplished.
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: Practice and performance
Tips for anxious writers: Philosophy, a labor of love
Tips for anxious writers: Write for the right audience
Tips for anxious writers: Accept uncertainty; trust your practice
Tips for anxious writers: You are no an imposter
Tips for anxious writers: Analyze feedback
Dave 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 www.thoughtclearing.com