mental illness

Writer’s anxiety: How to live with and overcome it

The experience of what is sometimes called writer’s anxiety can be crippling. Especially when that anxiety rears its ugly head just prior to, say, a public reading.

Anxiety can, for writers, be a crippling affliction that brings on various forms of writer’s block.

“Writing anxiety” and “writer’s block” are informal terms for a wide variety of apprehensive and pessimistic feelings about writing.

Writing Anxiety, The Writing Centre – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Fighting back against writer’s anxiety

Writer’s anxiety is a specific form of imposter syndrome. While imposter syndrome is a general feeling that you are a fake and not good enough, writer’s anxiety is a form of distress specifically about writing – usually a specific form of writing.

Understand the cause of your writer’s anxiety

imposter syndrome
What is the source of your anxiety?

Having some level of anxiety about your writing is normal. That is something I have had to remind myself of while writing this post, for example. Understanding where the anxiety is coming from is the first step to getting anxiety under your control.

Fear of a bad grade

If you are writing an assignment in an educational setting, you may fear a bad grade. As a result, you find yourself putting off writing it. Therefore, you get a bad grade.

Your writer’s anxiety is trying to make what you fear real. Do not let it.

Once you realise this, you can see that the sooner you start, the longer you have to get it right.

Fear of not being original

You might have started a novel and then the fear that “it has all been done before” dumps you into writer’s block. Writer’s anxiety tells you, “you have nothing original to add”.

We all face that fear. Yes, everything has been done before – but not by you. Unless you write that novel, the world will never get to see your take on the genre.

The only way to find your voice – to say something original – is to write and keep writing.

Fear of not being good enough

You might fear that you are not good enough. The praise you receive is underserved. You are just an imposter.

This is called imposter syndrome and it is perfectly normal. Even writers at the top of their game feel like this.

Take, for example, Neil Gaiman, who discovered that both he and the first man on the moon felt like imposters.

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.

Neil Gaiman Tumblr, 12th May 2017

Trapped trying to be perfect

You might have gotten caught in the trap of trying to write a perfect page. You are caught in the trap of perfection vs good enough.

Your writer’s anxiety will keep growing as you struggle to be “perfect”. The truth is, no one is perfect. No work is perfect. Perfection is not the yardstick of a good or enjoyable work – finishing it is.

Drew Houston, founder of DropBox allegedly once said, “Instead of trying to make your life perfect, give yourself the freedom to make it an adventure, and go ever upward.”

Writer’s anxiety because you are still learning

Sometimes we writers feel anxious about our writing because we know we are still learning. This can make writing a very stressful task because of the nagging doubt that we might not have the necessary skills.

There are three ways to handle this source of stress.

Allow yourself to make mistakes and accept that you can always fix them during editing. Embrace the necessary mess of being creative. Enjoy the journey. Keep writing until you get good at it.

Allow yourself to be guided by other writers. This is something that writers groups are great for. Figure out which writers have the skills and insights you lack and pay close attention to their writing and their feedback.

Take a creative writing course. We were all beginners once. There is nothing wrong with taking a course or two to beef up your skills.

Shackled by negativity

There is a good reason why writers rarely read their own reviews. Reviewers are rarely your core audience and they get paid to amuse readers with biting and scathing reviews. Not to mention the trolls that just want to cause you pain.

Your writer’s anxiety might be because you have let a lone Negative Nelly dominate your thoughts despite the praise of your better-informed beta readers. It is very easy to let this happen to us. Sometimes it is hard to move past it.

Whatever you fear, name it and face it down

Whatever the fear that is feeding your writer’s anxiety, the only way to get the better of it is to recognise what you fear and gain a little perspective.

Fear can be crippling. Fear can stop you in your tracks. Your fear can own you – or you can own your fear. Identify your fear – your source of anxiety and then you are ready to use some of these tools (below) to overcome it.

When negativity gets you down

When negativity gets you down

Most writers will recognise that feeling of trying to push forward with a piece when highly negative criticism is fresh in your mind. I know that I have found myself second guessing every editing decision, every word choice, and sometimes ever single word.

We writers will often give disproportionate weight to negative comments. We can get a hundred people offering praise but that one negative comment still manages to take us down. If this happens to you, you are not alone.

We writers need to develop a thick skin. Between Negative Nellies who only see the bad in everything and harsh editors that reject our work, we have to somehow continue writing.

The good news is that if you can get past the anxiety that negativity brings, you are already a winner. For every writer that keeps going, there are many more who give up. Which means the competition for success is reduced. In other words, the more we persevere, the better our chances of getting published.

If you are struggling to shake the negative vibe of your Negative Nelly, try some of these tips – focus on smaller tasks, ground yourself, embrace necessary mess. That’s what we shall look at next.

Focus on smaller tasks

Smaller bite-size tasks are easier to deal with.

When a writing project feels overwhelming – when the anxiety over all that writing feels too much – think smaller.

Jane Anne Staw says that she suffered terrible writer’s anxiety and writer’s block. Her big breakthrough was poetry – focusing on one word at a time. Smaller, not bigger.

This is not so dissimilar to the NaNoWriMo approach. 50,000 words is too much but 1,666 each day or three daily sessions of a page and a half are entirely manageable. As a result, the 50,000 words in 30 days somehow happens while you focus on “one more page”.

Poetry began my unblocking process. But to become the writer I am today, I had to continue thinking small. When I moved on to writing personal essays, and then books, I quickly discovered that thinking about the entire book, or even the whole essay, caused a surge of anxiety. So I learned to think small and focus on the current sentence I was composing, or at most, on the current paragraph.

Jane Anne Staw, Make Your Writing Anxiety Disappear By Thinking Small

Ground yourself against negativity

The only method I know to overcome that crushing weight of anxiety over my writing is to give it time and get some distance. There is a mental health technique called “grounding”. Grounding yourself will make you a much harder target for writer’s anxiety (not to mention depression, stress, flashbacks and other mental health issues).

Sometimes I need to take a day off, sometimes I need to force myself to acknowledge the positives, sometimes I just need to say “eff you” and keep going. Whatever you need to do to ground yourself in the reality that this is just one unkind person – do that.

Your writing is not going to please everyone. As long as it pleases your core readers, that is all that matters.

Some methods you might like to try:

  • Talk to a friend – talk about whatever you want, just connect for a while. It helps.
  • Get your blood pumping with a workout. You will feel powered up and much more positive.
  • Look up your favourite comedian on youtube or Netflix and have a good laugh – laughter is amazingly curative.

Here are some links to advice on ways to ground yourself:

Embrace necessary mess

necessary mess
A messy first draft is a necessary step towards a good final draft.

All those books you love – those authors you aspire to be like – these works did not start out well polished. The gradual refinement from scruffy first draft to something a reader can make sense of is hidden away. It still happens though.

It is okay to create a muddled and incoherent first draft. Just getting a first draft written is a massive achievement. Once you have a first draft, you can turn it into a second draft. A second draft can then become something polished enough to show to beta readers.

This process of accepting your first draft will be weak is called embracing the necessary mess. Rather than fearing mistakes, commit to making a few. After all, failure is not fatal.

Anxiety and powerful creativity often go together

A creative mind
A creative mind is sometimes an anxious one too.

Creativity is using your imagination to create something new. In effect, your imagination tells you a story. We writers are simply the ones who try to write that story down.

Anxiety is the exact same thing. Except for this time your imagination is telling you a horror story. The horror story worries you, so your mind focuses on it, which makes it grow. Before you know it, you are in a full-on panic.

One approach to putting writer’s anxiety in its place, is to use up the creative power that fuels your fear on something possitive and pleasant – for example your writing. As far as I can tell, the best cure for writer’s anxiety (not to mention imposter syndrome too) is to just write anyway.

You are not alone

feeling alone
You may feel alone but other writers feel like that too.

One of the tricks of anxiety (and writer’s anxiety too) is to make you think that you are alone in feeling like this. Anxiety is a liar.

Ask any group of writers if they have suffered anxiety, self doubt, or feeling like an imposter – almost all of them will have a story to tell you about how these things have affected them.

Just writing this post has had me feeling like this. Who am I to talk about writer’s anxiety? I still suffer from it. I clearly have no answers to offer.

Yet, I have to remind myself, I am still writing. My own writer’s anxiety may be barking but I have stopped listening to it.

Writer’s anxiety is not your fault

One of the tricks of depression is that it makes you think that this is your fault.

This anxiety is not your fault. It might feel like it is but that is a lie. Do not allow anxiety or imposter syndrome to put the blame on you. It will pass if you let it. Remember, it is okay to have doubts (we all get them) just do not let the doubts stop you being creative.

Instead of listening to your anxiety, reconnect with the reasons you started writing. Remind yourself why you were excited to begin this project. Let that initial enthusiasm get you up and writing again.

The science of beating writer’s anxiety

In a study published this month in the Higher Education Research & Development journal, authors Huerta, Goodson, Beigi, and Chlup explored writing anxiety, self-efficacy, and emotional intelligence (EI) amongst graduate students (N = 174) at a large, research-intensive university in the US.

Amy Green M.A., Writer’s Anxiety, Psychology Today

The study mentioned in Psychology Today found that tactics such as self-regulating your writing, writing regularly, and participation in a writing group helped writers to decrease anxiety.

In other words, to beat writer’s anxiety you need to keep writing. Write regularly, and find a supportive group. For example, our All-Genre Feedback group if you happen to be in Thanet.

When anxiety gets too much

Don’t suffer alone. It is okay to ask for help.

Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. Anxiety is a feeling of unease – such as worry or fear; it ranges from mild to really severe. Feelings of anxiety at certain times are completely normal – such as just before you give a presentation, at the start of an exam, or when you are about to make a big change in your life.

However, sometimes anxiety can be overwhelming. If you feel overwhelmed by anxiety please go and see your GP. When anxiety affects your daily life or causes you ongoing distress there is no shame in asking for help. You may be suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder – something you GP is well qualified to help with.

Share your writer’s anxiety story

Sometimes, what helps most is just talking about it. It can also help to hear other people’s stories so that the truth that you are not alone feels that much more real.

Help yourself and other by sharing your writer’s anxiety story in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Writer’s anxiety: How to live with and overcome it

  1. fitri says:

    Is it hard to become a writer? Does a writer have to find a publisher who wants to sell his book?

    1. The answer to is it hard to become a writer is both yes and no. As for publishers, some writers prefer to work with them while others prefer to self-publish. You might be better off asking that question on Author Buzz UK.

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