Dealing with feedback can be difficult. If you’ve had your work rejected, it is particularly difficult to use the feedback you received effectively. Anxiety naturally runs high in such cases, and it’s not that rare for a writer struggling with anxiety to avoid dealing with feedback. But it is crucial to use feedback effectively: the feedback we receive is the best guide to how to improve our work and get it accepted. In this post, I want to suggest a plan for dealing with feedback, along with some perspective that might help reduce some of the related anxiety.
Many academic writers fear that their work is not good enough and not important enough, and also that they themselves are not good enough. Such doubts are well-known in academia, and recognized by the phrase “imposter syndrome.” Trying to write often triggers such doubts and their subsequent anxiety, which interferes with the focus needed for good writing. If you’re thinking “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t have anything worth saying,” your focus is being drawn away from the things that you do have to say, and how to say them effectively to reach your audience.
Anxiety and uncertainty often go hand in hand. If you’re certain that you’re right, you feel confident; if you have doubts, you feel anxiety. If you’re sure everything will turn out well, you feel confident; if you think you might not succeed, you feel anxiety. Research and research writing are fraught with unavoidable uncertainty that can trigger anxiety and drain confidence. Because uncertainty is unavoidable, it is necessary to be able to act despite uncertainty. In this post, I want to discuss different kinds of uncertainty, why so much uncertainty is inevitable, and how it is sometimes possible to decouple uncertainty and anxiety.
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.
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.
If you struggle with writing anxiety, I want to assure you that it is possible to learn to love writing. Such love is the foundation and motivation for a healthy practice. Saying that it’s important to love your work and calling it “a labor of love” might suggest that I’m getting distracted by woo-woo new-age goals, so I want to be clear that my goal is to help anxious writers write more productively, any emotional benefits are secondary. It just so happens, however, that people often manifest high-level performance because they love what they’re doing and consequently spend a lot of time and effort on it. I imagine that anyone in academia has met at least one scholar who did good work and was truly, genuinely excited by and interested in the ideas they were pursuing.