Is there anything scarier than a blank page?
No matter how inspired you feel when you decide to start writing, a blank page seems to suck all the ideas out of you. Or you want to write, but that inner critic kicks in. Every word seems wrong somehow, and you just can’t seem to put the words on the page.
This is one of the classic, tell-tale symptoms of writing anxiety, and I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t experienced it. Keep reading to learn what writing anxiety is, how to recognize it, and ways to beat it.
What is writing anxiety?
Writing anxiety is the feeling of apprehension, tension, and fear that occurs when a person is about to write — or is currently writing. The feelings can be physical, emotional, and mental. It’s usually not a fear of writing itself, but fear related to the outcome of the work. Writers might be worried that their work isn’t good enough, they don’t know enough, or that they don’t have enough time to finish the project.
With severe writing anxiety, you might feel intense dread when you’re about to write, or even about writing. This might be because of perfectionism, fear of failure, or lack of confidence in one’s writing skills. The symptoms of writing anxiety overlap with generalized anxiety disorder. If you already experience anxiety or panic attacks, the symptoms might feel very similar.
Symptoms of writing anxiety
The symptoms are different for everyone, but they can be mental, emotional, physical, or behavioral. Here are some of the different ways to spot writing anxiety:
- Stomach problems, like issues with digestion, cramps, or queasiness
- Heart palpitations or rapid heartbeat
- Tension in the body, particularly the jaw, face, shoulders, and back
- Panic attacks
- Sweating or clammy palms
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Shakiness, like shaking hands
Mental & emotional:
- Negative self-talk or harsh inner voice
- Feeling frozen when it’s time to write
- Trouble concentrating or remembering; brain fog
- Negative feelings or thoughts, especially when trying to write
- Feeling on-guard or irritable
- Lack of confidence
- Feeling worthless or hopeless
- Excessive fear of judgment or negative feedback from others
- Snapping at others
- Avoiding feedback or communication
- Sitting down to write, but not writing anything
- Getting distracted easily
- Difficulty finishing writing projects
- Comparing oneself to other writers
- Extremely critical of one’s own work
Writing anxiety doesn’t just affect new writers. It can make it difficult for even professional writers finish their work. When writing anxiety gets out of control, it can seep into every area of your life and tank your career.
Some people think that even feeling symptoms of writing anxiety means that they’re not cut out to be a writer. In fact, the exact opposite is true. You can get good at recognizing your triggers and developing positive coping skills to deal with them. This helps to build mental and emotional resilience — a key skill for any writer.
What causes writing anxiety?
Writing anxiety is a common problem among writers. Usually, the fear of writing is connected to some future fear. Writers are often afraid of rejection, not being good enough, or being judged for one’s work.
At its heart, fear of judgment is usually one of two things: low self-esteem or lack of experience. Both of these translate to a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities as a writer.
This is part of the reason many people think that writing anxiety only affects new writers. The truth is, everyone can be subject to feeling insecure or stressed about their writing. New writers might worry about whether they can really make money as a writer, land a job with no experience, or be good enough to be published. Experienced writers might worry about meeting deadlines, submitting work for publication, or hung up on past negative experiences.
A number of writers are very comfortable working within their niche, but get nervous when trying something new. For example, a skilled technical writer might worry about writing white papers. On the other hand, a competent marketing writer might be anxious about publishing their first book. Students are often worried about being judged by other students or teachers.
Procrastination and writing anxiety
The uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and stress can lead to procrastination, which is the act of putting off an unpleasant or difficult task. This might look like not starting on a project or avoiding turning it in.
Procrastination and anxiety create a vicious cycle. Anxiety leads to avoidance and putting off the task at hand. Procrastination steals the time you have to work on the task, making you more and more anxious about doing a good job with it. After a while, you get down to the wire and the extreme pressure forces you to get the project done. Tim Urban calls this the Panic Monster in his TED talk on procrastination.
What’s the problem with relying on the Panic Monster? Inevitably, you’re stressed out, you don’t have time to do your best work, and you start a habit that’s hard to break. The next time a project comes around, you won’t feel good about it, because you know that there’s months of anxiety — followed by a panic-fueled all-nighter — in your near future.
The best way to overcome writing anxiety is through practice and exposure to different types of writing situations. The more you learn to recognize emotional sticking points in your writing process, the more comfortable you’ll get with moving past them.
Writer’s anxiety vs. writer’s block
Writer’s anxiety and writer’s block are a little different from each other. However, both conditions can have a negative impact on one’s writing life and professional writing career.
Writer’s anxiety is the feeling of stress, panic, and fear that a writer experiences before they start a writing task. It can be caused by any number of factors, such as perfectionism, self-doubt, and lack of confidence. People with writing anxiety often feel self-doubt and fear before writing. While writer’s anxiety can stop you from coming up with ideas or feeling inspired, it can happen even when you know what to write.
Writer’s block is the inability to produce words for a piece of writing or produce any content at all. It might be due to a lack of inspiration, frustration, exhaustion, or burnout. Even when you want to write, nothing comes to mind. It feels like something is stopping you from ‘going’ or generating ideas.
How to deal with writing anxiety
Dealing with writing anxiety requires two parts. The first is managing the symptoms of writing anxiety. That means, elimninating the queasiness, tension, and brain fog that often accompanies anxiety attacks. The second part is to find strategies that keep you moving forward, even when you’re stressed.
Here are a few tried-and-tested ways of overcoming writing anxiety:
1. Take a break
It might feel counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to combat writing anxiety is to take a break. Try taking a walk, eating a snack, or going for a coffee (decaf if you have the jitters!).
When you’re up against a deadline, stepping away from the computer can sometimes trigger a bit of separation anxiety. You might feel like any time spent away from your project is time wasted. But the exact opposite is true. Many writers swear by the power of a short break to clear their minds and get the creative juices flowing again.
2. Structure before you start
Sometimes, putting full sentences together seems overwhelming. Instead of trying to craft a perfect paragraph, a cohesive piece, and a compelling narrative simultaneously, break it into parts. Start by outlining your piece, then doing some free writing around a section. This can help break up the overwhelming task of the entire writing project. Small sections can help focus your attention on what’s happening in the moment.
3. Set a timer
You know that miraculous state of flow you get into at the eleventh hour? Harness that creative power by giving yourself a little time pressure. Set a timer (you can decide for how long you want) and focus on word count, not great ideas. Don’t edit, and try not to stop. Everything’s good as long as you keep writing.
If you’re feeling particularly anxious, start with just five or ten minutes, then take a break. Doing this will help you build momentum and get past that blank page.
4. Change your format
If there’s a particular writing style you feel very comfortable with, try imagining your work from that perspective. For example, you could think of a blog post as a social media post (with a couple hundred extra words).
There’s no wrong way to do this exercise. The trick is to approach your writing from your strengths, no matter what they are. If you have to write an essay but you deal exclusively with fanfiction, put your creativity to the test. Try writing your essay as your main character, and see how many subtle references to your plot you can work in.
5. Make writer friends
I might be a little biased, but writer friends are the best friends. Not only do they love what you love and laugh at all your jokes, but they understand writing anxiety better than anyone else.
Whether you’re dealing with publishing jitters, writer’s block, or wondering if you can really make money writing full-time, you’ll benefit from a supportive community. Join a writing group in your area or connect with other writers through social media. You’ll find that you are not alone in your struggle. Having a writing buddy to chat with about the ups and downs of being a writer can make the stress feel much easier.
The symptoms of writing anxiety can feel overwhelming, but they don’t have to stand in your way. Learning to recognize them — and having strategies in place to overcome them — is a key skill for any writer.