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Confronting the anxiety of academic writing: What if anxiety about academic writing were to be taken seriously?

The first step in confronting the anxiety of academic writing is to ask, “What if anxiety about academic writing were to be taken seriously, rather than ignored, treated as a punchline, or accepted as inevitable?” said Rachael Cayley, author of the forthcoming book, Thriving as a Graduate Writer: Principles, Strategies, and Habits for Effective Academic Writing, in her October 19, 2022 TAA webinar, “Confronting the Anxiety of Academic Writing”, available on demand.

“If we instead try to understand why academic writing is the site of so much anxiety, we can then find ways to improve the experience of academic writers,” she said.

To do that, said Cayley, we first have to acknowledge the centrality of writing to academic life and see it as the key metric of professional accomplishment: “No matter how good you may be at every other aspect of your professional life, you still have to thrive as a writer in order to thrive overall.” And that acknowledgement leads us to this dilemma, she said: “Despite this centrality, writers often lack both technique and time. So, despite the overwhelming importance of academic writing, writers still often feel confused, unclear, unable to do it well, and struggle consistently with finding the time to do it.”

Cayley takes on these two challenges—technique and time—addressing the concerns of each:

Concerns about technique lead to concerns about the actual product.

Some writers say, “I’m a terrible writer”, meaning that they think their writing isn’t good. In her experience, she says, it is overwhelmingly common for academic writers to think of themselves as bad writers: “And thinking of yourself as a bad writer is different than thinking of yourself as a writer who is struggling with some particular writing challenge. It’s a lot worse because you’ve defined yourself rather than just acknowledging that you find an activity challenging.”

One way to help with the reframing—moving away from, “I’m a terrible writer”, to “I’m a writer who’s having some trouble with this or that” —she said, is to remember that you aren’t just one kind of writer all the time: “We often find ourselves quite proficient writers in some circumstances, and yet freeze up at other key junctures. When you feel comfortable with your expertise, for instance, when you’re speaking to an audience that you think doesn’t know as much as you, writing can get easier. When you feel you may be out of your depth, when you’re speaking to an audience that you think has expertise, you worry about your credibility, and each word can feel agonizing.”

That realization alone doesn’t solve the problem immediately, she said: “That lack of confidence could be an ongoing issue for all of us, but it can help to remove the notion that you are fundamentally bad writer, and just recognize that you struggle with writing in certain complicated instances.”

Concerns about the role of time in the writing process.

Concerns about time obviously lead to concerns about the writing process, she said: “Some writers say, ‘I have a terrible time writing. My writing may turn out okay but getting there is horrible.’ Even those of you who don’t necessarily feel that you’re bad writers, may very well feel that you’re writing process is unsustainable. That it’s difficult and drains you in a way that feels like it can’t be the optimal way to organize your time.”

These concerns about writing product and writing process are so deeply rooted, said Cayley, that they start to feel kind of inevitable: “How draining is it to consistently feel one of those two emotions? It’s either, ‘I hate what I come up with’, or ‘I hate the process that I go through to get it.’”

The next article in this series will cover how writers are making these issues worse through a series of unfair comparisons.


Rachael CayleyRachael Cayley is an associate professor (teaching stream) at the Graduate Centre for Academic Communication, which is part of the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. She teaches academic writing and speaking to graduate students. Before joining the University of Toronto, she worked as an editor at Oxford University Press in Toronto. She has a PhD in philosophy from the New School for Social Research and a BA in political science from the University of British Columbia. Rachael blogs about graduate writing at Explorations of Style and has a book forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press, Thriving as a Graduate Writer: Principles, Strategies, and Habits for Effective Academic Writing (June, 2023).