Breaking Through Writing Anxiety

writing anxiety

Writing Anxiety

Unless your name is Stephen King or Karl Ove Knausgård or Aaron Sorkin, writing anxiety can feel like an integral component of the writing process – and a hugely toxic, paralyzing one at that.

I know I feel it. Most new writing projects come with a sense of challenge, the promise of reward – and an unhealthy dose of torment. Which is, frankly, a little weird. I’ve been writing professionally since I graduated from college in the early 1980s. You might think I’d be well past feeling even a hint of anxiety in facing the brutal starkness of the blank page – that I could stare down the barrel of a new assignment with the steely aim of a seasoned pro, a veteran who has seen it all and written it all down, eagerly anticipating the next test of my expositional gifts.

You might think that. But you would be wrong. It would be a lie to say that I have embraced anxiety, but I have worked hard to make dealing with the blank page more manageable and get on with the work at hand. And I’m confident my four-step approach will work for you.

Step 1: Never start writing without a plan.

Process is to the writer what meditation is to the Buddhist: a source of dharmic bliss. So stage one is to never start writing without a plan.

Note, that this does not mean create an outline. An outline is decidedly not a plan. (In fact, unless your boss or client demands one, forget about outlining in general. It is a waste of effort better spent on writing itself.) My plan is simply handwritten answers to three simple questions:

  1. What am I trying to say?

This is the most high level articulation of your content: 

“This piece will introduce a new product (or idea or company).”

“I want to reassure worried employees or consumers.”

“I need to convince investors that the future is bright.”

“Increase sales of our app.”

  1. What do I want the reader to feel (or do)?

This is the most high level articulation of your objective:

“I want to make the reader more confident (in themselves or in us).”

“I want to drive the reader to our website (or to our physical location).”

“Let’s get potential recruits to think about us in their job search.”

“This piece should help people buy our product.”

  1. What’s the best vehicle to reach my goal?

This is the most high level articulation of your approach.

“A short blog post for LinkedIn (or Medium or our corporate blog or Facebook).”

“Prospective customers want an educational and comprehensive white paper on this topic.”

“A direct response email will generate hits to the website and drive sales.”

“A letter from the CEO to our customers posted publicly.”

You can complete this kind of plan in five minutes – perhaps ten if you really need to think about it. But look at what you’ve got once you’ve written this out:

  • A testable hypothesis of what you are going to write. You can share it with colleagues and see if there’s a better idea that you didn’t think of (“this might work better as a Q&A”).
  • A prose “sketch” of what your final product could look like.
  • And, most important, you’ve got your brain fully engaged with the writing process – in part because writing by hand activates lots more neural connections than typing or speaking.

In just a few minutes, you’ve gone from facing an anxiety-producing assignment to setting off on the writing journey with a pretty decent roadmap. There is a world of difference between wandering in the desert and walking towards an oasis. When you have a goal, even if’s a shimmering chimera, you make faster, better decisions about what’s important and what’s not.

Step 2: Never start writing with a blank page.

It is helpful to handwrite your plans for content, objective, and approach, but now’s the time to move into the real writing arena: the white block of nothingness that is a new Word document. Jump-start your writing by typing your handwritten preliminary thoughts on the top of your page one. (I put them in red ink, both to remind myself to take them out later and to separate my preliminary thoughts from actual copy.) If you revise them in doing so, that’s great. That’s another sign your brain is fully engaged in the process.

You’ve just overcome the biggest hurdle any writer will ever face: getting started. You can’t wait around for inspiration, whether you’re writing the great American novel or composing a somewhat clever tweet. As the American painter Chuck Close once said:

“Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will – through work – bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art [idea].”

Step 3: Forget Linearity and Focus on Assembling the Pieces

In Step 1, you charted a course. In Step 2, you got going and overcame your natural inertia. In Step 3, let go of the idea of linearity and write whatever you can write.

We read in a linear way, one word at a time. (Yes, sometimes we read groups of words, but we read groups of words that have one chunk of meaning at a time.) We take in written information in an essentially linear way. Not surprisingly, we are biased to write in a purely linear way. We begin at the beginning, we construct the middle, and we finish at the end.

If you know your argument cold, then this is a reasonable (but boring) approach to writing. But most of the time you won’t know the argument cold. You may not even have an argument to hang your hat on.

Say you’re assigned a speech to rally the troops. It’s not a rational argument; it’s morale-boosting rhetoric, an emotional plea. You’ll wonder if point A goes before point B, or if this fact goes better at the beginning of the piece or at the end. You’ll be on tentative ground – even if you have a decent map, thanks to step 1.

So let go of linearity and write whatever you can think of next. For example: you know that in your new product announcement you’ll have a comment on timing, market availability, and suggested pricing. Start there if you have to, even though you also know it will be the very last chunk in your press release. You also know there will be a beta-user quote, so get that on the page (even if you plan to interview the user, make a quote up now; it will help make your draft more effective and help you elicit the best quote possible). Make the separation between unlinked copy blocks pronounced by typing comments to yourself:

Here’s a thought, but I don’t know where to put it…

This goes somewhere…

Or, my favorite:

I don’t know how to get from the previous paragraph to this one…

When I go back and rewrite, one of two things happens: A) I know exactly how to make that transition; or B) I know that there’s thinking to be done here. Either way, I know there’s work to be done, which makes editing and rewriting much easier.

Writing in this manner is like assembling the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle:

Here’s the bottom edge…

All these red pieces with lines go with this barn in the upper left-hand corner…

This blue is the lake in front of the barn…

You group similar pieces and you assemble what you can. You’re not done, but you’ve made progress. And the more pieces you group appropriately, the faster you start to connect the dots, fill in the background, and complete the picture.

Chuck Close’s words “Inspiration is for amateurs,” are my touchstone: You can wait all you want for the muse to land on your shoulder, but the much more effective strategy is to write – as far as you can, as fast as you can, as carelessly as you can stomach. My inspiration comes from putting words on paper – and the freedom from anxiety that it entails.

Of course, putting words on paper isn’t the endgame; the finished piece is the endgame, and “finishing” is just another word for “editing” (and “editing” is just another word for rewriting) – the subject of my next post.

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