Writing anxiety: how to beat it

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Are you ever undone by writing anxiety? Take some straightforward steps now to get this monster off your back!

I’m lucky enough not to feel debilitating anxiety. Sure, I get nervous about things from time to time. But I don’t get that racing-pulse-sweating-palms-heart-in-the-throat feeling that my life is going to end soon because I need to do (or not do) something.

I know about crippling anxiety because I have a family member who faces it and because I’ve worked with clients who deal with it when they write. Certain types of anxiety can present an almost-overwhelming challenge, I know.

For some people, writing anxiety arises out of a bad experience with a teacher or supervisor. Perhaps this person of authority was disrespectful or inappropriately negative and you’ve taken their views too much to heart. Or maybe personal problems or life events are getting in the way of your writing. Or, possibly, anxiety colours every part of your life — and writing is just like everything else. 

But a writer and cartoonist for the New York Times, Carl Richards, has something funny to say about anxiety. Here’s how he puts it:

“Things helped by worry: Hmmm, there’s nothing there!”

Richards’ comment reveals something interesting: People who worry a lot tend to think that worrying is useful. They believe:

  • it helps them prepare for challenges, 
  • it increases their motivation,
  • it helps them solve problems. 

And the more they worry, the more they are convinced that what they’re doing is useful. The problem is, worrying usually doesn’t pay off. A recent study of undergrad students by Lucas La Freniere and Michell Newman showed that most worries don’t actually come true. And while I’d never base an argument on the results of a single experiment or study, you can see that other studies have illustrated the same principle, here, here and here.  

The trouble with worry is that for some people it’s not a habit you can stop with discipline or willpower. Often, the habit of worrying has become deeply engrained and it takes time and repeated measures to address. When I work with people struggling with writing anxiety, I have 11 questions I suggest they ask themselves:

  1. What are your strengths? Yes, your life might seem out-of-control right now but everyone is naturally good at some things. Start with what you’re already good at and build from there. For example, you might be:
    • Extra diligent at research
    • Talented at interviewing people
    • Adept at analysis
    • Skilled with organizing
  2. Do you understand that writing is a complex process? Many people believe they learned or at least should have learned to write in grade school and therefore it’s a basic, easy-to-learn skill. In fact, I’ve found that most schools (including universities) fail to teach writing adequately. Generally, they emphasize the end product and fail to focus on the process of writing. But writing always demands both creativity — yes, even non-fiction writing — and logical analysis — yes, even fiction writing. Juggling these two competing needs is the heart of the problem for many writers.
  3. Are your expectations for yourself appropriate or are you demanding too much? People often shrug and ask me how could they know? But a good way to determine if your expectations are problematic is to ask yourself whether you’d make the same demands of your best friend. If the answer is no, then your expectations are too high.
  4. Are you using realistic language to describe your writing needs? Would a book short of a New York Times bestseller really be a waste of effort? Is anything less-than-a 90% or better grade on one assignment going to ruin your academic record? Make sure your expectations of yourself don’t fall into the “nearly impossible,” category.
  5. Are you writing without editing (until later)? People who edit while they write often think they’re just being ultra-efficient (either that or they’ve never learned to write any other way.) But editing while you write practically forces your inner critic to start questioning your abilities. People who edit while they write always have much higher levels of anxiety. Instead, procrastinate with your editing until you’ve finished writing — and done some incubating as well. This is a get-out-of-jail-free card, so be sure to use it.
  6. Are you making writing more fun by using mindmapping? Many people feel their anxiety start to rise when they sit and stare at a blank screen, wondering how to begin. Don’t do that! Try mindmapping, first. The process is fun and productive and will help you get yourself inspired to write. 
  7. Are you making your writing job small enough? Many people give themselves writing jobs that are way too big. I understand the temptation, of course. If your book (or dissertation) needs to be 80,000 words, it’s hard to get that number out of your head. But, paradoxically, focusing on the big goal is only going to make you less likely to achieve it. Big goals are debilitating. Instead, start small. Write for no more than one to five minutes a day. (I have helped clients write 100,000-word works this way). Then,  increase your daily writing time, gradually from there. 
  8. Are you dealing with overall health issues that can also affect your anxiety? Sometimes, when I talk about matters relating to sleep, diet, posture, breathing, meditation and exercise, people think I’m veering way off topic. But these fundamental daily issues have a big impact on anxiety. Make sure you’re looking after yourself adequately before you do anything else. Only five hours of sleep a night or a diet heavy on Pringles and Coke are going to make your anxiety go through the roof.
  9. Do you think of yourself as someone who can improve?  While, essentially, all writers are apprentices, all the time, some believe that talent must play a key role in success. In fact, everyone can become a much better writer with enough persistence and practice. Researcher Carol Dweck has shown that a “growth mindsetpredicts success far more reliably than talent. As well, if you do more of something you’ll inevitably get better at it.
  10. Are you getting enough support? Writing is a lonely, isolating job. Having enough support is key to the success of many people. If you can’t get it from family or colleagues (and odds are high you can’t) then consider joining a writing group or getting some coaching. (My Get it Done group supports 50 writers from around the world.)
  11. Are you rewarding yourself for your successes? Writers often forget to reward themselves for the work they do every day. But the trouble with big writing projects is that the ultimate reward — finishing the work — is too far off in the distance to be truly motivating. Give yourself small rewards every day. They don’t have to be money-based. Reward yourself with a trip to the library. A walk in a forest. A coffee with a friend. 

One last point for anyone who’s really struggling with anxiety related to writing. There is a lot of evidence that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is extremely effective with anxiety. Such counselling can be expensive but an inexpensive and excellent book can help you help yourself. It’s called Mind Over Mood and I’ve written about it before. Note that the authors of the book provide many downloadable (and extremely helpful!) worksheets at no additional charge. 

Don’t let anxiety make your life miserable. If you’re used to approaching your writing with dread, try imagining that it’s going to be fun. It can and it should be! 


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. 


My video podcast last week addressed writers and their fear of failure. 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.


Have you ever struggled with writing anxiety? 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 Oct. 31/21 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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