The definitive guide to reducing writing stress

Reading time: Just over 4 minutes

Is your major aim reducing writing stress? Over the last 40 years, I’ve developed 11 strategies that really work…

My number 1 stressor right now? Organizing high school debate tournaments. Picture this: An event featuring 48 articulate and argumentative teenagers who must be matched against each other in 12 rooms, with a volunteer timekeeper and two volunteer judges apiece. It’s not only noisy, it’s an organizational nightmare. The tournaments must include dinner for everyone and require accurate tabulations and awards. There are so many moving parts that I never fail to feel the frisson of stress whenever I’m approaching such an event.

But I’m lucky. In my regular working life at least I don’t get stressed by writing. This is not because I’m so smart. It’s because I’ve engrained some deep, protective habits. Here are 11 ways you can keep stress at bay, too:

  1. Listen to others – your boss, your client, your interview subject. When we’re stressed, our social skills tend to shut down. You know those movies where they show someone in a doctor’s office receiving a cancer diagnosis? The person always goes into what a friend of mine calls “lum-lum land” and the voice of the doctor becomes muted, then inaudible. Or perhaps it turns into the horn-like sound of Charlie Brown’s teacher? That more-or-less captures the way we react when we’re stressed. So be aware of this default human reaction and guard against it. With your boss or clients, be sure you understand the assignments. What are the messages they want you to communicate? Who are the key audiences? How many words are the pieces supposed to be? And with your interview subjects, be sure to let them guide the conversation. This means allowing the interview to be a conversation rather than an inquisition. Allow yourself to become intellectually engaged with them rather than assuming the role of interrogator. Here are some tips on how to be a better interviewer.  And you might also want to read this insightful review about the interviewing mistakes radio personality Shad is making in his CBC show.
  2. Challenge your assumptions about yourself.  We all talk to ourselves a lot, every day. And most of this talk is shockingly negative. I’m a lousy writer. My boss is never going to like this. Readers are going to find this so boring. Even Nobel Laureate Maya Angelouonce said: “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ ” But instead of trying to ignore something you believe to be true, question it. And, then, go one step further: Use “if-thens” to help make your negative self-talk more positive. For example, “If my boss criticizes my article, then I will stay calm and relaxed,” or, “If I don’t feel like writing today, then I will make myself do it for only five minutes.” I started using the if/then strategy this week and have already found it amazingly effective.
  3. Rely on habits and routines. In my Get it Done group, I ask participants to commit to writing X number of words per day (X is different for everyone – I meet individually with each participant to agree on what it should be). The great benefit of this system is that it removes a daily decision. Instead of thinking ‘how much am I going to write today,’ people already understand that they need to write X number of words. Decision-making is a huge, and usually unrecognized, source of anxiety for most people. In particular, the decision about whether to write, and how much, is inordinately stressful. Having routines — even over seemingly “simple” decisions, such as what you’re going to wear (remember Steve Jobs always wore a black t-shirt and jeans) or how much you’re going to write — is a big stress reliever. It’s always better to write out of habit rather than using willpower.
  4. Seek progress in your writing, not perfection. When I was young, being called a perfectionist was almost a compliment. Now, I think, most of us recognize it as an insult or a complaint. But writers seem to be particularly old-fashioned in this department. Instead of trying to write something that’s perfect, adopt a “Getting Better” mindset. Focus on developing your writing ability and learning new skills. This leads to self-comparison, which will not only reduce your stress but it will dramatically increase your likelihood of succeeding.
  5. Breathe deeply. I know this sounds crazy but when I’m stressed (and especially when I’m exercising), I forget to breathe. My Pilates teacher is constantly reminding me to suck some air into my lungs. At least I now know to do it when I’m feeling stressed. Several years ago a client of mine taught me what he called the 7-11 breathing technique, which I still use to this day (thanks, Joseph). If you’d like to give it a try, breathe in for a count to seven. Focus on belly breathing first (your abdomen should rise before your chest does) and breathe as slowly as you can manage. Then breathe out — also slowly — counting to 11. Rinse, lather, repeat.
  6. Meditate. I know, it’s a royal pain to find the time to do this but I’ve made it a priority for the last little while and have been doing it for 15 minutes first thing every morning. (And for only 5 minutes when I have an early morning meeting.) I was caught in a bad rainstorm recently and ended up having to spend 40 minutes walking home, soaking wet. In the past, this would have enraged me. I’m convinced that my meditating experience was what helped me cope with the situation with relative calm and even a smidgeon of good humour. Meditating also helps a great deal with writing stress.
  7. Do only one thing at a time.  Did you know that so-called “knowledge workers” check their email as many as 36 times an hour. The result? Increased stress! So, stop checking your email so often. This will not only make you more productive it will also make you happier and more relaxed. As well, your colleagues will come to understand that they shouldn’t expect instantaneous replies from you. My delightful copy editor checks her email once a day. I know this so if I have an urgent need to speak with her, I pick up the She’s trained me well.
  8. Lower your standards. I loved reading Jennifer Louden’s blog post this week. In it she tells the great story about a conversation involving the prolific poet Bill Stafford. The poet Robert Bly once asked him, “Bill, how do you manage to write so much?” According to legend, Stafford cocked his head and, after a thoughtful pause, said, “I lower my standards.” This is such excellent advice for writers — particularly thesis writers, who often labour under the ridiculous notion of producing the best thesis ever written. No one can ever achieve this! Isn’t it better to get your project done?
  9. Physically relieve the stress. Pound a pillow. Jump up and down like a two-year-old. Go for a run. Go for a long meditative walk. Stress is usually a result of trying to control something you can’t. (Read that last sentence again!) Ironically, your attempt to wrestle control is just one more thing that increases your stress. Stop fighting a losing battle. Instead, create a way for the stress to escape.
  10. Have self-compassion. Look at your mistakes or failures with kindness and understanding. People who are self-compassionate are happier, more optimistic, and far less stressed. They’re also more successful. You don’t need to be hard on yourself to perform at your best. You just need to be persistent and to keep on trying.
  11. Celebrate the progress that you’ve already made. If you’ve been working at your writing you’ve undoubtedly already achieved some “small wins.” It might be one interview that went spectacularly well. Or perhaps it’s a single article that your boss appreciated. Or maybe you felt especially proud of a particular piece. Our happiness depends on the rate at which we are closing the gap between where we are now and where we want to be. So take a moment to reflect on what you’ve accomplished. Then, you can focus on the challenges that remain.

What do you do to reduce the stress of writing? 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 Dec. 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of Writing in Bullets by Kim Long. Please, scroll down to the comments, 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.