What this handout is about
This handout discusses the situational nature of writer’s block and other writing anxiety and suggests things you can attempt to feel more certain and optimistic about yourself as a writer.
What are writing anxiety and writer’s block?
«Writing anxiety» and «writer’s block» are informal terms for a broad multiplicity of apprehensive and pessimistic feelings about writing. These feelings may not be pervasive in a person’s writing life. For example, you might feel flawlessly fine writing a biology lab report but apprehensive about writing a paper on a novel. You may confidently tackle a paper about the sociology of gender but delete and begin over twenty times when composing an email to a lovely classmate to suggest a coffee date. In other words, writing anxiety and writers’ block are situational (Hjortshoj 7). These terms do NOT describe psychological attributes. People aren’t born anxious writers; rather, they become anxious or blocked through negative or difficult practices with writing.
When do these negative feelings arise?
Albeit there is a fine deal of variation among individuals, there are also some common practices that writers in general find stressfull.
For example, you may fight when you are:
- adjusting to a fresh form of writing—for example, very first year college writing, papers in a fresh field of investigate, or longer forms than you are used to (a long research paper, a senior thesis, a master’s thesis, a dissertation) (Hjortshoj 56-76).
- writing for a reader or readers who have been overly critical or requiring in the past.
- remembering negative criticism received in the past—even if the reader who criticized your work won’t be reading your writing this time.
- working with limited time or with a lot of unstructured time.
- responding to an assignment that seems unrelated to academic or life goals.
- dealing with troubling events outside of school.
What are some strategies for treating these feelings?
Choose a writing acquaintance, someone you trust to encourage you in your writing life. Your writing friend might be a friend or family member, a classmate, a teacher, a colleague, or a Writing Center tutor. Talk to your writing acquaintance about your ideas, your writing process, your worries, and your successes. Share chunks of your writing. Make checking in with your writing mate a regular part of your schedule. When you share chunks of writing with your acquaintance, use our handout on asking for feedback .
In his book Understanding Writing Blocks. Keith Hjortshoj describes how isolation can harm writers, particularly students who are working on long projects not connected with coursework (134-135). He suggests that in addition to connecting with supportive individuals, such students can benefit from forming or joining a writing group, which functions in much the same way as a writing pal. A group can provide readers, deadlines, support, praise, and constructive criticism. For help embarking one, see our handout about writing groups .
Identify your strengths
Often, writers who are experiencing block or anxiety have a worse opinion of their own writing than anyone else! Make a list of the things you do well. You might ask a friend or colleague to help you generate such a list. Here are some possibilities to get you commenced:
Choose at least one strength as your beginning point. Instead of telling «I can’t write,» say «I am a writer who can …»
Recognize that writing is a sophisticated process
Writing is an attempt to fix meaning on the page, but you know, and your readers know, that there is always more to be said on a topic. The best writers can do is to contribute what they know and feel about a topic at a particular point in time.
Writers often seek «flow,» which usually entails some sort of breakthrough followed by a beautifully coherent outpouring of skill. Flow is both a possibility—most people practice it at some point in their writing lives—and a myth. Inevitably, if you write over a long period of time and for many different situations, you will encounter obstacles. As Hjortshoj explains, obstacles are particularly common during times of transition—transitions to fresh writing roles or to fresh kinds of writing.
Think of yourself as an apprentice.
If block or apprehension is fresh for you, take time to understand the situations you are writing in. In particular, attempt to figure out what has switched in your writing life. Here are some possibilities:
It makes sense to have trouble when dealing with a situation for the very first time. It’s also likely that when you confront these fresh situations, you will learn and grow. Writing in fresh situations can be rewarding. Not every format or audience will be right for you, but you won’t know which ones might be right until you attempt them. Think of fresh writing situations as apprenticeships. When you’re doing a fresh kind of writing, learn as much as you can about it, build up as many abilities in that area as you can, and when you finish the apprenticeship, determine which of the abilities you learned will serve you well later on. You might be astonished.
Below are some suggestions for how to learn about fresh kinds of writing:
Once you understand what readers want, you are in a better position to determine what to do with their criticisms. There are two extreme possibilities—dismissing the criticisms and accepting them all—but there is also a lot of middle ground. Figure out which criticisms are consistent with your own purposes, and do the hard work of engaging with them. Again, don’t expect an overnight turn-around; recognize that switching writing habits is a process and that papers are steps in the process.
Chances are that at some point in your writing life you will encounter readers who seem to dislike, disagree with, or miss the point of your work. Figuring out what to do with criticism from such readers is an significant part of a writer’s growth.
Attempt fresh tactics when you get stuck
Often, writing blocks occur at particular stages of the writing process. The writing process is cyclical and variable. For different writers, the process may include reading, brainstorming, drafting, getting feedback, revising, and editing. These stages do not always happen in this order, and once a writer has been through a particular stage, chances are she or he hasn’t seen the last of that stage. For example, brainstorming may occur all along the way.
Figure out what your writing process looks like and whether there’s a particular stage where you tend to get stuck. Perhaps you love researching and taking notes on what you read, and you have a hard time moving from that work to getting commenced on your own very first draft. Or once you have a draft, it seems set in stone and even however readers are asking you questions and making suggestions, you don’t know how to go back in and switch it. Or just the opposite may be true; you revise and revise and don’t want to let the paper go.
Wherever you have trouble, take a longer look at what you do and what you might attempt. Sometimes what you do is working for you; it’s just a slow and difficult process. Other times, what you do may not be working; these are the times when you can look around for other approaches to attempt:
Okay, we’re kind of kidding with some of those last few suggestions, but there is no limit to what you can attempt (for some joy writing strategies, check out our online animated demos ). When it comes to conquering a block, give yourself permission to fall plane on your face. Attempting and failing will you help you arrive at the thing that works for you.
Feast your successes
Embark storing up positive practices with writing. Whatever obstacles you’ve faced, feast the occasions when you overcome them. This could be something as elementary as getting embarked, sharing your work with someone besides a teacher, revising a paper for the very first time, attempting out a fresh brainstorming strategy, or turning in a paper that has been particularly challenging for you. You define what a success is for you. Keep a log or journal of your writing successes and breakthroughs, how you did it, how you felt. This log can serve as a boost later in your writing life when you face fresh challenges.
Wait a minute, didn’t we already say that? Yes. It’s worth repeating. Most people find ease for various kinds of anxieties by getting support from others. Sometimes the best person to help you through a spell of worry is someone who’s done that for you before—a family member, a friend, a mentor. Maybe you don’t even need to talk with this person about writing; maybe you just need to be reminded to believe in yourself, that you can do it.
If you don’t know anyone on campus yet whom you have this kind of relationship with, reach out to someone who seems like they could be a good listener and supportive. There are a number of professional resources for you on campus, people you can talk through your ideas or your worries with. A good place to commence is the UNC Writing Center. If you know you have a problem with writing anxiety, make an appointment well before the paper is due. You can come to the Writing Center with a draft or even before you’ve commenced writing. You can also treatment your instructor with questions about your writing assignment. If you’re an undergraduate, your academic advisor and your residence hall advisor are other possible resources. Counselors at Counseling and Wellness Services are also available to talk with you about anxieties and concerns that extend beyond writing.
Apprehension about writing is a common condition on college campuses. Because writing is the most common means of sharing our skill, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves when we write. This handout has given some suggestions for how to relieve that pressure. Talk with others; realize we’re all learning; take an occasional risk; turn to the people who believe in you. Counter negative practices by actively creating positive ones.
Even after you have attempted all of these strategies and read every Writing Center handout, invariably you will still have negative practices in your writing life. When you get a paper back with a bad grade on it or when you get a rejection letter from a journal, fend off the negative aspects of that practice. Attempt not to let them drown in; attempt not to let your frustration fester. Instead, hop right back in to some area of the writing process: choose one suggestion the evaluator has made and work on it, or read and discuss the paper with a friend or colleague, or do some writing or revising—on this or any paper—as quickly as possible.
Failures of various kinds are an inescapable part of the writing process. Without them, it would be difficult if not unlikely to grow as a writer. Learning often occurs in the wake of a startling event, something that stirs you up, something that makes you wonder. Use your failures to keep moving.
We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial .
Hjortshoj, Keith. 2001. Understanding Writing Blocks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
This is a particularly excellent resource for advanced undergraduates and graduate students. Hjortshoj writes about his practices working with university students experiencing block. He explains the transitional nature of most writing blocks and the importance of finding support from others when working on long projects.
Rose, Mike, ed. 1985. When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Fresh York and London: The Guilford Press.
This collection of empirical studies is written primarily for writing teachers, researchers and tutors. Studies concentrate on writers of various ages, including youthfull children, high school students, and college students.
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