When you imagine yourself as a professional writer, how does it feel?
Chances are good that when you think about starting your writing career, you feel a mix of excitement and terror. You might worry that you’re not disciplined enough, you won’t make any money, or that your writing sucks.
The thing is, if you’re a writer, you can’t not be a writer. Something inside you needs to get out, and it wants to do it on paper. When you see a blank page, you’re never sure if your heart is fluttering or your stomach is sinking.
If you want to be a writer, but you’re scared, you have to take a look in the mirror and decide: Is this something I can’t not do? If you know that — no matter what — you’re going to have that part of you who wants to be a writer, then it’s worth learning how to overcome your fear.
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How do you know if you want to be a writer?
If you’re asking yourself this question, you probably already know the answer.
Ever found yourself sitting in a coffee shop or on your couch, mulling over your words, then you are already a writer. If you have ever had someone tell you that your story isn’t good enough, then you are already a writer. If you have ever dreamt of your book being made into a movie, then you are already a writer.
As I said, some people are just writers. You won’t be able to do anything else. Even if you have fears and insecurities about your writing, you’ll find that it’s the way you think and express yourself the best.
If you’re not sure you’ve got it in you, look at how other people respond to you. Other people tend to spot the writers in the crowd. Your friends, family, and even colleagues probably think of you as the “word person” — even if you don’t.
Still not sure? Here are some ways to know that writing is in your blood.
Sneaky ways to know you’re really a writer:
- You read for fun all the time — books, newspapers, blogs, anything
- You prefer written instructions to video
- People ask you to write or edit things for them
- You mentally correct typos when you come across them in other people’s work
- You always check the bylines of articles you read
- You’re sensitive about the quality of your writing
- You write when you need to think
- You have a strong opinion on the Oxford comma
- In school, you’d choose to write a paper over a presentation or exam
Whether you hit every point on this list or not, the fact is that you know — deep inside — whether you’re a writer or not.
The good news? There’s only one qualification you really need to be a writer, and that’s to write. The bad news? Actually sitting down to write can be a lot harder than it sounds.
What gets in the way? If you want to write, but you don’t seem to be able to, there’s likely a (conscious or unconscious) fear of writing in the way.
What is the fear of writing called?
The fear of writing is called graphophobia.
Of course, most writers are not actually afraid of writing, per se. They’re really worried about something else — whether it be judgment, sharing their work, or not being good enough.
Sharing our writing with others can be an extremely vulnerable process. Even if you’ve been told over and over that you’re a great writer, anxiety can strike every time you start — or share — a writing project.
What causes fear in writing?
Biologically, humans experience fear as a kind of alarm system. The emotion of fear (or anxiety) is meant to let us know that something in our environment is a potential threat.
Fear comes in many forms, but it’s all rooted in the same thing: our perception of danger. It might manifest as a feeling of dread, an emotional response to something that could cause us harm, or an instinctive dash toward safety.
When we’re afraid of sharing our writing, it’s often because we worry about being rejected. When someone doesn’t like a writer’s work, it’s hard not to feel like they don’t like you. Many of us have collapsed people’s opinions of our work with their opinions of us.
When we’re afraid of actually writing — putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard — it’s usually the work of a harsh inner critic. We’re so worried about writing something good that we can’t seem to write anything at all. This becomes a vicious cycle: the worse the self-criticism is, the less inspired and creative we feel, and the more writer’s block takes hold.
You could think of it this way: fear of putting our writing “out there” is anxiety about what others will think, while fear of writing is anxiety about what we ourselves think.
Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown — these are all fears that every writer experiences in their work. Experiencing them doesn’t make you less capable or have to get in your way. Getting familiar with the common fears that writers experience can help you recognize and overcome them for yourself.
Common fears that every writer has
“I want to be a writer, but I’m scared.”
The fear of writing can cause a lot of distress in our lives — especially if you are, or hope to be, a professional writer. When we feel stuck and can’t move forward, it’s often a specific fear that’s holding us back.
Writers have a ton of fears, but there are some that are more common than others. Here are five worries that every writer has at some point in their career (or, y’know, every day):
1. Where do I start?
There are two ways that not knowing where to start freaks writers out. The first is that they don’t know how to actually get their ideas on paper and turn them into a finished product. The story, blog post, dissertation, or even email that’s in their head won’t seem to come out.
The second is that getting from your laptop to actually getting paid to be a writer seems daunting. They’re not sure how to get a job as a writer, or if it’s even possible to make money as one.
2. What if they hate my work?
Writers are almost always worried that their audience — whether an editor, a professor, an academic journal, or their readers — will hate their work. It doesn’t matter how much they’ve written, how experienced they are, or their particular field. Everyone goes through this at some point or another.
At its root, this fear of rejection stems from insecurities about the quality of the work and fear of criticism. If the stakes are high, like a dissertation, first novel, or test assignment for a writing job, you might be completely frozen by the thought of a poor response.
3. What if I can’t finish the project?
Writers are often plagued with the idea that they won’t be able to finish their work. They may be worried about the quality of their work, or the amount of time it will take them to complete. They may be worried about how they will manage to write consistently when they don’t feel like it.
As a writer with ADHD, I worry about this every time I take on a new project. Before getting diagnosed, I felt like it was almost impossible to complete assignments. Getting systems in place (and giving myself a little compassion) worked wonders in helping me overcome this fear.
4. What will they think of me?
Writers everywhere have a fear that if they share their work, they’ll be judged. It’s not just about the writing, though that’s a big part of it. If you’re sharing your words, you’re also sharing yourself.
Your writing is informed by your thoughts, feelings, perspectives, memories, and life experiences. Whether you’re sharing a memoir, a research article, an opinion piece, or even a short story, you’re putting some part of yourself out there.
5. What if my writing sucks?
Many writers are worried that they don’t have the skills to produce quality copy. They feel uncertain about their language skills, grammar, or even whether they understand a topic well enough to write about it.
Each time a writer takes on a new challenge, the fear of “not being good enough” can pop up all over again. You might feel it before you submit your novel, pitch a publication, write a blog post, or start your first writing job.
How do I get over my fear of writing?
Writers are often faced with a lot of fears when they sit down to write. Fortunately, overcoming your writing anxiety is like building a muscle. There are a lot of different ways to overcome your fear of writing, and no matter which one you choose they all make you a stronger writer.
The more you practice managing the uncomfortable symptoms of writing anxiety, the better prepared you’ll be to pursue your writing career. Here are 9 ways to overcome your fear of writing:
1. Find ways to make writing easier
Sit down and think about what happens when you try to write. Where do you get stopped? Do you get frozen by the blank page, stuck on the first few lines, or pulled into a rabbit hole of research?
Whatever it is, brainstorm ways to make it easier. For example, I start all of my blog posts with an outline. Knowing where I’m going helps me organize my thoughts, and I can jump to different sections when I get stuck.
Start with the basics of your writing project. Write short sentences, jot down ideas that interest you, or talk through your ideas with a writing partner. You can also try talking through your ideas by yourself, with a tape recorder. Apps like Just Press Record will transcribe your thoughts so you can organize them later.
It also helps to break a larger project into bite-sized chunks. You can set smaller goals for the day or even the hour, instead of feeling like you have to tackle the entire project at once.
2. Perfect your own process
People are creatures of habit, and everyone needs some sort of routine in order to thrive. If you need to write every day, you need to develop a process that helps you get the words out. There’s no one answer to this, as long as it puts you in the mindset to do your best work.
You might be a fast writer, slow writer, or somewhere in between. Or you might need absolute silence, or the buzz of a coffee shop. You may outline meticulously or write off-the-cuff. It all depends on what works for you as a writer.
As an example, I do my best writing in the morning, when I’m the most focused. I outline my projects and do the research (usually with a cup of coffee in hand) until I start to feel out the voice of my piece. And then I write.
I stay in flow best with some light music on in the background. I really like brain.fm for this, since it incorporates neuroscience research to help you focus better.
Note: The above brain.fm link gets you a month for just $1, if you want to try it out!
3. Manage the feelings
The uncomfortable feelings of anxiety can trigger a cycle that’s hard to escape. When you feel those tell-tale symptoms sneak up, you start feeling powerless against them. The more anxious you feel, the less you want to write. The less you write, the more the anxiety takes over.
You might feel like the best course of action is to keep pushing through the anxious feelings, particularly if you’re up against a deadline. The trouble is, those feelings don’t just go away. Trying to work past them might even make them worse. Anxiety tends to get more and more insistent until you just deal with it.
Instead of trying to push through, take a break. Cultivate a list of self-care practices that help you manage your stress. Don’t forget about basic needs, like food, water, and getting enough sleep. You’ll be a much more effective writer if you take some time for yourself first. The more you practice this skill, the easier it will become to identify these feelings and ease them.
4. Realize that no one is perfect
You are not the only one who has insecurities when it comes to writing. In fact, you’re in good company with other successful writers.
She said: ‘We all spend our twenties and thirties trying so hard to be perfect, because we’re so worried about what people will think of us. Then we get into our forties and fifties, and we finally start to be free, because we decide that we don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of us. But you won’t be completely free until you reach your sixties and seventies, when you finally realize this liberating truth — nobody was ever thinking about you, anyhow.’Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
One of the beautiful things about writing is that the process involves being imperfect. You write, you draft, you edit, you ask for feedback, and you write some more. You get rejected and you move people to tears.
And honestly — it never has to be perfect. Some of the best books in history aren’t, and neither are the writers. I’m quite possibly the biggest Lord of the Rings fan around, and even I recognize that Tolkien never met a run-on sentence he didn’t like.
Embrace the revisions as part of the process. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and neither do you.
5. Learn to love a deadline
I know. You’re trying to be less anxious about writing, and here I am talking about deadlines.
Though it can be hard, it is always better to write when you have a deadline — even if it’s a self-imposed one. Give yourself the time and motivation you need to get into the mindset of writing. Having a deadline is one of the best ways to push past perfectionism, procrastination, and insecurity about what others think of you.
Embrace the attitude that done is better than perfect. You can always revisit, revise, and even retract if necessary. Set milestones along the way so you can keep your momentum high and anxiety low.
6. Embrace what inspires you
Writers are often looking for inspiration; if they’re not, they usually struggle with where to go next. It’s important to create an environment where you feel inspired and ready to create.
You don’t have to go full Walden here — just think about how you need to feel in order to write. I need to be comfortable, focused, and reasonably happy. I have a few spots that make me feel that way (my desk, various cafes, etc) so I go there when I need to work.
For bonus points, cultivate practices that uplift you. Make it a habit to exercise regularly, take walks in nature, play with your kids or pets, or take bubble baths. Taking care of your writing instrument (that’s you) is part of being the best writer you can be.
7. Ask for feedback
It’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and use them accordingly. If you know that you are not the best at grammar, then finish your draft and get your really nitpicky friend to read it over. Focus on what you’re best at and build support for everything else into your workflow.
There are lots of ways to become a better writer. You could find editors for your work, use an outline, join a writing community, and read more books and articles. Think of it as continuing education for your new career.
You’re going to be judged by your writing, and that doesn’t mean you should withhold what you have to say for fear of being criticized. If you believe in your work, you’ll be sharing it with others. Embrace feedback as part of the process.
8. Connect to your work
As you grow in your writing career, you might find yourself having to write things you don’t really want to write about. Try not to let this take up the bulk of your time.
You need to be able to be yourself when writing so that your audience can relate more easily. Writing about something you’re passionate about makes it much easier. You’ll be more confident, have more fun, and your readers will sense your engagement.
9. Keep writing
No matter what, keep writing. The more you write, the better you get, the more you learn, and the more likely that someone will like your work and want to publish it for others to read.
Remember that there is an audience out there who wants to hear your story and learn from you. The world needs more writers, not more perfectionists.
The truth is, content doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be free of errors, and relatively readable. Great writing is in the eye of the reader, and great writers create value for their readers. You won’t learn how to do that until you put yourself out there.
Writing can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be
We all have a fear of writing. It is a natural instinct to avoid something that can be difficult and even painful. But writing is not just about the act of putting words on paper, it’s about conveying your message in such a way that it has an impact on your readers. They’ll learn from your words, but also from your example. Be brave in your writing process so you can be brave in your life.