Tips for anxious writers: Write for the right audience
One big cause of anxiety for a lot of writers is imagining the negative response of a potential reader. This is a particularly potent anxiety trigger for people who have been harshly criticized for their writing in the past. A single harsh comment can emotionally resonate through years, adding to the emotional stress whenever memory of it pops into mind. Whether it was some authority figure of youth or a more recent cutting remark, such thoughts can really interfere with writing: not only do they trigger or amplify anxiety, they draw attention to the wrong aspects of your work. In a previous post, I discussed the difference between writing for practice (with no audience in mind) and writing for performance (with an audience in mind), and argued that you should write for practice to help reduce anxiety. But eventually you have to think about the audience, because different audiences need different content, so you need some idea of what they know and what they don’t to decide what you tell them and what you leave out. Although you can’t always avoid audience-related anxiety, to counter it, you can practice thinking about an ideal audience: who would the best possible audience be, and what would they need and want in your paper?
Real audiences and imagined audiences
When you’re a student, you usually know exactly who your primary audience is: your teachers and professors. Such figures often loom large in the imagination, with painful old memories triggering present-day anxiety.
But, for the most part, we don’t know our audience, at least not for anything that we hope to publish. We might have some idea who the reviewers might be when we submit to some journal or publisher (publishers have been known to ask for recommendations of who could review a manuscript), but we can’t entirely predict all the specific people who will review a manuscript. And it’s even harder to predict who will read the work once published. This lack of knowledge leaves space for remembering past audiences, which can trigger anxieties. Instead of wondering about who your audience might be, I suggest that you practice imagining your ideal audience.
Negative and Critical audiences
Not all audiences are equal. Some have bad stuff to say. Some have valuable critical comments. Some are positive. I think you should assume that if your work is viewed by enough people, you will get some of each type of response.
Whenever possible, avoid writing for a negative audience: what’s the point of wasting your effort on people who will only disagree and have nothing positive to say? You may end up having a negative audience, but you shouldn’t be writing for them. Don’t think about the professor who made your doctoral work hell, or the reviewer who revealed strong bias while shredding your article. There are people who will be able to gain more from your work.
Writing for a critical audience can be scary. But a critical audience can be good: there is such a thing as constructive criticism, even if it can be hard to accept. Overly negative criticism can offer useful insights, and if it’s the only feedback you have, you may have to work with it, but it’s not what you hope for in an ideal audience. An important part of academic writing (and research) is being able to accept and make use of criticism from fellow scholars (see: Analyze feedback) . But another is choosing the audience that you hope to address.
You ought to assume and accept that if your work is seen by many people, some of them will have bad things to say, and there’s a good chance that someone won’t like your work, no matter how good it may be (indeed, some people might say bad things about your work precisely because they think it is good and they feel their own work is thereby diminished). If you stake out any strong position, you can be pretty sure that someone will disagree on theoretical grounds. This is, I think, evident from the scholarly literature: what theories are universally accepted? Even the most widely accepted theories have imperfections and opponents. Additionally, if enough people see your work, it is pretty much inevitable that some will be mean-spirited, with selfish, non-academic motivations. In the long run, you need to be prepared for difficult audiences, but you want to think about a very different kind of audience when you write.
The distraction of a hostile audience
Thinking about defending your work generally distracts and delays you. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t critically reflect on your work—we all make mistakes and should strive to fix them—but if you’re struggling with writing anxiety, chances are that you’re spending more than enough time thinking about defending your work. The difficult and important tasks for a scholar are (1) to develop original ideas and (2) to explicate important ideas to others. Those tasks should be where you spend your most effort. Attempts to defend your work generally take away from attempts to develop it further.
Imagine a positive audience
When you write, think about the people who might be interested in your work and who would benefit from it. Think about the open-minded people—colleagues and students—who would be curious about the same or similar ideas, and who might be interested in the choices you make as you develop your research or pedagogy. Despite all the stories of bad-apple academics, many or most academics want to learn and would rather cooperate to help advance scholarship than advance themselves by putting others down.
If you’re writing about your research, and you have been positively influenced by others, then think about writing to those people. If you are inspired by Dr. X, and their work has shaped what you’re doing, ask yourself what might interest Dr. X: what parts of your work would they most like? How does your work build on, add to, or support theirs? (Remember that you can imagine a nice, friendly Dr. X, even if the real Dr. X is a mean person. Exercise your imagination.)
Imagining a positive audience is particularly important and valuable because it helps you focus on the parts of your work that seem most important. If you imagine a hostile audience, it naturally leads to thinking about defending the weak points. By contrast, when you imagine a positive audience, it leads to thinking about what you would most like to give them. For the hostile audience, you ask yourself “how will they attack my work?” For the friendly audience, you ask either (or both) “what do I most want to say?” or “what will be most valuable to them?” Imagining a positive audience is more likely to get you focused on the positive value of your work.
While you write, your audience is always imaginary
Most of us write when we’re alone. We close the door to our office, or maybe just turn our back to the doorway; we focus on the page in front of us, and try to ignore outside stimuli. This means that, at the most immediate level, we always write for an imaginary audience. In the moment, the only audience we have is the one we create in our heads. When you remember that mean teacher from 8th grade who told you couldn’t write, or that colleague who said your work was boring, you conjure up a hostile audience, and it’s hardly surprising if you feel anxiety.
We don’t have full control of what arises in our memories, but you can consciously practice how you imagine your audience. First, if you start thinking about a hostile audience (whether past or future), take a step back from your work. Take a moment to acknowledge the potential that your audience will be hostile. And then try to imagine someone else—imagine a better audience that would appreciate your work.
Who would be an ideal audience? What would be important to them? What would they care about? Imagine a scholar who has ideas and questions similar to your own. Or, if you’re writing a textbook, try to imagine (or remember) students who appreciate what you teach rather than ones who don’t care.
Step away from your manuscript for while and write a detailed description of the characteristics of your ideal audience. Who are they? What is their prior education? Why is your work valuable for them? Who is the kind of person who will be excited about the topic? What are the things those people will be most excited about in your work? Work on imagining and identifying the precise people who will most benefit from your work.
This exercise is primarily meant to take your attention away from anxiety-inducing memories of past negative feedback, and if you’re struggling with anxiety, then it’s probably best to think about it exclusively as a writing exercise. But there is a potential practical benefit that might also cause some anxiety.
A description of potential audiences is part of the typical book proposal. Publishers want people to buy their books, and they ask for a description of the audiences that might use your book. Trying to imagine and describe a positive audience that benefits from your work—an ideal audience—therefore can help you prepare your book proposal while also getting you to focus on the best possible outcomes. Of course, if you start thinking “this is my book proposal!”, you might start feeling anxiety. The key is to keep focusing on, and imagining, those people who will benefit and who will be appreciative.
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: How to get moving
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 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
Great post! So many scholars really struggle with these issues and you’ve offered some very helpful tips.
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