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Fear of writing is a terrible burden. But if you can do what you fear, the fear will disappear. Here’s how to take that advice….
Emotions help us deal with important life events — without having to think. We don’t choose to feel these emotions. They just happen to us automatically, whether we want them.
There are seven universal emotions that we all feel, despite our language, regional, cultural, and ethnic differences. They are:
- Surprise, and
Rational vs. irrational fears
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 consider myself a physically fearful person. I don’t enjoy taking risks, and I shy away from situations where I might be in bodily peril. Of course, I don’t bungee jump or sky dive, but neither do I ski, ride horses or even ice skate. I even know some of these fears are irrational. But, to be perfectly honest, I’d prefer to sit home and read a book rather than worry about them.
(And notice that telling me I’m being irrational will not help me one bit. So don’t use that as a strategy for combatting your fears.)
Fortunately for me, I no longer have any fear of writing.
The beginning of my fear of writing
When I was at university, many decades ago, 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.
Paradoxically, part of my challenge was I had a natural talent for editing. So, writing seemed unbelievably difficult by comparison. This is a surprisingly common issue. People who are good at one thing often resent the amount of work required to become good at something else, especially something similar.
For me, getting a first draft committed to paper felt simultaneously draining and boring, not “natural” at all. Even though I like to use original language, here I’m inclined to evoke a cliché: writing was like getting blood from a stone.
And of course, I insisted on editing while I wrote, which only made the whole exercise even more painful. (Don’t take this burden on yourself. Learn how to write without editing while you go. Always do your editing later, after taking a break.)
Then, when I went to work in a daily newspaper, I felt like a full-blown fraud. Yes, I could edit — I was exceptional at that part of the job — but I didn’t know how to write. I had no idea! I’ll never forget the time it took me two painful hours to write a 278-word story.
I still believe many of my colleagues judged me harshly for this failing, but I always figured they were too polite to say it to my face. And, of course, imagining people whispering behind your back only provokes even more anxiety.
The up side of fear
Now, not all fear is terrible. 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 many symptoms, including an increased heartbeat, more sweat, faster breath and tensed 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?
The factors that make your fear of writing worse
How debilitating your fear is for you (and think about it relating to 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 usually 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, I help writers articulate their fears and I give them practical and specific ways of dealing with them. Over the decades, 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.
For me, 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.
How to deal with your fear of writing
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. Vagueness is a particular curse for writers. In specificity, we can often develop reasonable and helpful plans to lesson the fear.
More tricks for aspiring writers
Here are some more techniques you can use:
*Monitor your breathing: Many writers forget to breathe when they write — I call this state “writing-apnea” and it leads to a whole hairball of physical issues.
When we forget to breathe, our autonomic nervous system assumes something is terribly wrong and our heart rate increases, our palms become sweaty and we instinctively become more anxious. But breathing isn’t hard work! Keep reminding yourself to do it. It will make you calmer.
*Use your best time of day for writing: We all have certain times of day when it’s easier for us to be more productive. For most people, this is the morning (and if you’re an exception, you probably already know what time to target, so do what works for you.)
We are all hard-wired slightly differently and if you acknowledge the demands of your own mind and body, you’ll get more cooperation from them, and you’ll have less fear of writing, too. Why would you try to write at a time of day when you need to be napping, eating or exercising?
*Separate the various jobs associated with writing: Writing differs from researching, which differs from editing, which differs from thinking and planning. Do only one task at a time. Our society’s obsession with multi-tasking simply increases fears — especially writing fears.
When you think, think. When you write, write. When you edit, edit. When you research, research.
Specific advice for imposter syndrome
So many people mention imposter syndrome to me, I want to make a few additional comments about this self-doubt syndrome.
Don’t ignore your feelings of being an imposter or, worse, beat yourself up for having them. Just make sure you’re exercising these feelings in the healthiest way possible.
Mainly, you want to avoid self-handicapping, a habit identified in 1978 by social psychologists Steven Berglas and Edward Jones. People who use this strategy deliberately lower their own chances of success, for example, by leaving writing projects until the night before it is due. This action — used by undergrad and grad students around the world — allows them to have a ready-made excuse when things go wrong.
So, acknowledge that you feel inadequate, but make a plan to do the best job you can, even though you’re certain it won’t be nearly good enough. Don’t allow your self-handicapping impulses to make the situation worse for you.
Most of all, understand that imposter syndrome expresses doubt — and doubt is neither good nor bad. Do your work regardless and know the feeling will pass, as feelings inevitably do. Consider the advice of yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar:
“If doubt arises in your discipline, let it come. You do your work and let doubt go about its work. Let’s see which one gives up first.”
Specific advice for perfectionists
Many other aspiring writers like to tell me they’re perfectionists, and they trace their fears to this mindset. If this word describes you, understand that perfection is bad for you. It’s not a charming quirk or minor annoyance.
Perfectionism hurts your motivation because it doesn’t allow you to tolerate deviations from your goal. And, perfectionism is also bad for your health as it leads to depression and anxiety.
To deal with this hidden monster, begin by making your writing goals embarrassingly small. I always suggest beginning with just five minutes of writing a day. I know that won’t feel like nearly enough time but if you do it every day, it will be. Write just 250 words a day and by the end of a year you’ll have 65,000 words.
Watch your self-talk
We all talk to ourselves all the time. And most of what we say isn’t pretty. We tell ourselves we’re lousy writers, we have no talent, we’re lazy, we’re unable to meet deadlines and that we’re never going to succeed.
If you heard nothing but negative talk all the time, wouldn’t you start to believe it?
Here’s a better habit for you to adopt right away: Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found people who spoke to themselves as another person (in my case, by using the word “Daphne,” or “you”) perform better under stress than people who us the word “I.”
So if your name is Michael, you should say something to yourself like, “You can do this, Michael! I know you have it in the bag.”
Let go of the trash talk and tell yourself something positive and uplifting for a change.
Final step for writers who hold fear
Finally, here is a provocative (in a good way) question to ask yourself:
If I could improve just one aspect of my writing to reduce my fear, what would I do?
Then, go ahead and do it.
This is a substantially updated version of a post that first appeared on my blog on Nov. 19/21.
Have you ever been paralyzed by fear of writing? Don’t let this nasty psychological barrier make your life miserable or cost you missed income. Let me show you 18 proven and simple techniques you can start deploying today to banish your fear of writing. Learn more here.
My video podcast last week described how to build better LinkedIn connections. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe 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.
How do you deal with your fear of writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Rohi Shetty, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a Jan 30/23 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Rohi!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 28/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!