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.
I was intrigued years ago, when I first saw the cell phone feature that replied to a text that I was driving. I wondered where my life feature was “no emails, no phone notifications, no meetings: I am writing.”
While we are masters of where we focus our attention, small housekeeping habits may help our writing, and in fact help us.
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.
Like most writers, I keep bumping up against, and avoiding, articles on how to treat my writing more like a business. I know I should pay more attention to the articles, but they always seem to interrupt precious writing time. In an infrequent browse through an older business publication, though, I stumbled on an article that didn’t give me administrative agita. Even deep in creative bliss, a writer can hardly resist the title: “Ten Traits That Make You Filthy-Rich” by Jeffrey Strain (TheStreet.com, February 1, 2008).
The five points here from Strain’s evergreen article remind us what we need to do not only to become rich (yes, it’s possible) but to stay true to our writing potential, creativity, and drive.