Can you banish your fear of writing?

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Fear of writing is a terrible burden. But do what you fear and fear disappears, according to writer David Joseph Schwartz. Here’s how to take that advice….

Can you banish your fear of writing?

Fear is considered one of seven universal emotions experienced by everyone around the world. (The others are: anger, contempt, disgust, enjoyment, sadness and surprise.)

Many people I work with tell me they fear writing. Sure, they may have different words to describe the problem — resistance, procrastination, doubt, perfectionism, imposter syndrome — but these words have one emotion in common: fear.

I still consider myself a physically fearful person. I don’t like taking big risks, and I shy away from situations where I might be in bodily peril. Of course, I don’t bungee jump or skydive, but neither do I ski, ride horses or even ice skate. To be perfectly honest, I’d much rather sit home and read a book.

But fortunately for me, I no longer have any fear of writing. 

I couldn’t always say that. When I was at university, I feared every paper I wrote. I knew that, eventually, I could edit them into good enough shape that would earn me a decent grade – but getting the first draft of any paper finished, damn, that was hard.

Then, when I went to work at a daily newspaper — where, despite my superior editing skills, I felt like a full-blown fraud. Yes, I could edit, but didn’t everyone realize I had no idea how to write? No idea! (On some dysfunctional level, I still believe many of my colleagues judged me harshly for this failing, but were just too polite to say it to my face.) 

Now, not all fear is bad. You’ve probably heard the term “fight or flight” syndrome, referring to our body’s ability to perceive danger when faced with something like a fire or a wild animal. Our amygdala  — the brain’s fear centre — sends a distress signal to our body, leading to the release of stress hormones. These hormones result in all sorts of symptoms including an increased heartbeat, more sweat, faster breath and tenser muscles. 

But our habitual response to fear is often not helpful in today’s society. After all, when was the last time you saw a tiger on the street?

How bad fear is for you (and think about it in terms of writing, here), depends on three factors:

  • Intensity: How severe is the harm likely to be?
  • Timing: Is the harm immediate or impending?
  • Coping: What actions can you take to eliminate or reduce the harm?

One habitual response to fear is to walk away from the situation causing it. For writers, this generally leads to procrastination or plain old giving up. (Here’s a manuscript that sits in a desk drawer for decades; there’s a doctoral dissertation that goes unfinished.) 

As a writing coach, one of the jobs I do is to help writers articulate their fears and learn practical and specific ways of dealing with them. I’ve developed a panoply of tricks and techniques that can help suck the fear out of writing and make it a much more comfortable pursuit.

In my own case, learning how to separate the creative act of writing from the evaluative act of editing proved to be the magic formula. But everyone is different. 

If you want to make some progress in dealing with your own fear of writing, here’s what I suggest: Get specific about your problem. Instead of vaguely telling yourself,

I don’t write very well….

I just can’t get started…

I don’t know what to say…

…require yourself to be more detailed and particular:

I need to do more research…

I need to find a colleague I can discuss these ideas with, first…

I’m going to need some help with editing…

Once you can identify your specific anxieties, you can come up with a plan for dealing with them.

Finally, here is a provocative (in a good way) question to ask yourself:

If I could improve just one aspect of my writing, what would I choose? 

Then, plan how to do it. 

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed how to better manage your memoir. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Does your fear hold you back from writing? How do you deal with it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy! 

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