How To Overcome Writing Anxiety

By: Margaret Wack

Updated February 05, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

For many people, writing can be a tremendous solace as well as a fun and creative way to explore a new world and exercise their creativity. But anyone who's ever tried to put words down on a page knows the frustrations of writer's block and writing anxiety. Whether you're looking to embark on a longer project, or just want to get the words flowing, here are a few strategies for overcoming anxiety and kick-starting your writing.

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  1. Free Associate

When the words just aren't coming, it's frustrating to feel like you'll never be able to come up with the right thing to say, or the right idea to pursue. Instead of mulling over your setbacks, try free-associating. See what your unconscious mind comes up with, and be sure to keep a notebook handy to jot down any interesting connections, phrases, or ideas. This is a great exercise to warm up your mind and get into a good mindset, and you might be surprised what you come up with when you're not thinking about it directly!

  1. Keep a Journal

From Sylvia Plath to Virginia Woolf, many renowned writers have been avid journal keepers. Journals can be a great way to instill a daily practice of writing in a less stressful environment. Since your journal is just for you, you don't have to worry about the quality of the writing or the expectation that someone might someday read it. Instead, journals can be a refreshing change of pace, allowing you to play around, explore your thoughts, and get into the habit of writing just for the pleasure of it. A journal is like a garden, where the seeds of phrases, fragments, and ideas may one day flower up into poems, stories, or essays.

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  1. Try Writing by Hand

Whether for work, school, or creative endeavors, there are numerous benefits to writing by hand. Writing things down by hand often forces you to be more concise, and to think carefully about your words. On the flip side, however, writing by hand also discourages editing, and encourages the practice of completing an entire first draft before you go back and reread your work. When typing, it's easy to get stuck on the first sentence, writing and deleting the same words a hundred times over. Writing by hand frees you up to continue writing, even if things aren't perfect. You can always go back to it later with a little red pen and make things right.

  1. Go for a Walk

If you're stuck on a deadline, legitimate or self-imposed, it can be tempting to chain yourself to your desk until you complete the assignment. But staying in one place for too long isn't always good for creativity or productivity. Walking can help us think better by letting our minds work through things at their own pace. Exercise also improves memory, attention, and cognition, and has lasting positive effects both physically and mentally. Walking is also conducive to thought in that it lets our minds wander, freeing us up to follow new trains of thought or simply to dwell on thoughts, ideas, and sensations without the pressure of writing them down. Walking also has a rich history, and writers throughout history have used long walks as a method of working through their thoughts before writing them down.

  1. Create Something Physical

Burnt out of the life of the mind? Try activating a different part of your brain by making something with you hands. Creating something physical rather than verbal can be a great way to engage your creative faculties without the pressure and anxiety that sometimes comes with writing. Similar to walking, the act of physical creation is also a great way to let the mind work through ideas and problems without focusing on them directly. Whether you're into knitting, baking, carpentry, or some other creative physical enterprise, the switch in activities can shake things up mentally and help you overcome writing roadblocks. Even more, the finished product will be something tangible that you can eat or wear or hold, marking physical progress above and beyond any other writing accomplishments you achieve that day.

  1. Read Widely and Often

Whether you write for work, school, or pleasure, after a sustained period of writing it's common to find that your work becomes stale or repetitive. Reading and writing only your own words is a recipe for stagnation. If you're feeling frustrated by your writing, try picking up a book or magazine and seeing how other people approach the task. Reading widely, in a variety of genres and styles, can help introduce you to different ways of writing and thinking that will inevitably improve your own work. Reading works by authors with different backgrounds or opinions than you can be similarly fruitful. And books aren't the only things that will enrich your creativity - other media like magazines, radio, TV, and games can also do the trick. When your creative mind feels like it's running on empty, be sure to fill her up with quality fuel.

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  1. Consider a Challenge

Sometimes, the best way to break out of a creative rut and overcome writing anxiety is to set a challenge for yourself. One of the most popular creative writing challenges takes the form of the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which takes place each November as hundreds of aspiring writers attempt the challenge of writing a novel in a month. A similar project takes place during National Poetry Month in April, where poets from around the world set goals to write a poem a day for the month. Whether you're attempting fiction, poetry, or another genre, an ambitious goal can be the perfect thing to kick-start your activity and overcome anxiety.

  1. Don't Stress about the First Draft

It's tempting to try to make your writing perfect on the first try. Whether you're a writer by trade and inclination, or are just trying to complete assignments for work or school, a polished first draft is always a good goal to have in mind. But first drafts are rarely perfect - it often takes several drafts and a lot of sustained effort to emerge with a solid finished product. Instead of focusing on perfection, let the first draft be a place to explore ideas, try out turns of phrase, and experiment in your writing. You can always go back later and smooth things over. For most writers, a couple of drafts are often necessary, so it's a great time to experiment, have fun, and get as many words down on the page as you can. After all, the first draft doesn't have to be perfect - it just has to be done.

  1. Don't Procrastinate

Whether you're working on an assignment for school or work, trying to hit the deadline for a call for submissions for creative work, or have told yourself for the past year that tomorrow will be the day you'll start writing the next great American novel, procrastination is a familiar beast to anyone who writes regularly. Procrastination also goes hand in hand with writing anxiety, and often makes it worse. Many people first use procrastination as a tool to churn out papers and assignments the night before they're due from high school on up, and it can be a difficult habit to break. Sometimes it's easier to create under pressure - but procrastination can also result in lukewarm first drafts and not enough time to go back and edit. Instead of procrastinating, try to break up writing projects into chunks, and complete a little bit at a time. If you find that a time crunch helps you write, try instituting a self-imposed deadline several days before the work is due. That way, you can pull an all-nighter, sleep all afternoon, and then edit with clear eyes the following day.

  1. Set it Aside

Once you've finished a draft or two of a project, it's tempting to read and edit it continuously until it's perfect. But at this stage, you're often too close to the work to do it justice. Whether you're struggling to get down the next chapter, or aren't sure how to polish a rough draft into something better, the best option is often to walk away. Take some time for yourself, work on other projects, and try to forget about the ugly draft sitting in your desk drawer or computer file. After enough time has passed, whether a few days or a few weeks, you can return to your work with fresh eyes, and can more accurately judge the merits and pitfalls of your writing.

  1. Edit Courageously

Even if you're pretty proud of your first draft, editing can provoke a whole new round of writing anxiety. Writing and rewriting takes courage, and editing even more so. It's good to remind yourself that even if it needs work, there are worthwhile things about your writing. Editing can often be like carving sculptures from marble, or polishing gems from rough material. Beautiful things are waiting underneath the surface, but they need a little help to take their true form. Don't be afraid to edit your own work, and then send it off to others and see what they think, whether that means a close friend, a beta reader, or your actual editor. And don't be afraid to step away when you think it's done, and send it out into the world.

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