One writer I work with sometimes gets stuck thinking about what needs to be said (written), and sometimes gets stuck thinking about style. These two concerns can stack on each other and amplify each other: feeling stressed about how to include certain ideas in a manuscript, her concerns about poor writing style get activated. Then, some awkward sentence or phrase comes up and she gets stuck trying to come up with a really good version of that one sentence.
Insofar as dealing with anxiety-related writer’s block is concerned, a good first step is to try to separate out the different anxiety-provoking concerns, and to try to deal with those concerns one at a time, and especially deal with those concerns by focusing on one at a time. But I don’t really want to talk about the general dynamic of how anxieties can stack on each other, but rather about this specific case in which worrying about two important but independent dimensions of writing—content and style—slows progress and a writer can benefit from assigning those issues to separate drafts in the process of writing.
In the long run, it’s good to want to improve writing style; it’s an issue worth some effort. But if the figuring out what ideas to include and how to present them is causing anxiety, don’t add to the pile of stress by also worrying that your style needs to be better. First, focus on getting the ideas down, however sloppy and awkward. Style comes later. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, the first thing you want to do is make sure you’re writing. Writing style only matters if you are producing and finishing works that you will give to other people. First, get ideas into words on the page.
In the long run
Ideally, in a productive writing practice, ideas flow onto the page with enough ease that there is emotional space to think about both the message and the style. If you can regularly write hundreds of words in an hour, it doesn’t really matter if you spend a minute or two thinking about style. It doesn’t even matter if you occasionally spend 10 minutes or more getting one sentence just right. But if you can regularly write hundreds of words in an hour, you probably also have some comfort with your own writing style, and probably produce decent sentences a reasonably large proportion of the time without even worrying about style. Once it’s relatively easy to write a decent sentence, you can focus the vast majority of your efforts on the content, which presents difficulties enough. (Mature drafts nearing submission are when style gets focused attention.)
In the short run
In the immediate present, if you’re struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, it can be useful to throw off concern for grammar and style or ideas about “good writing.” Style is secondary and can be added after the fact, so, as a matter of process, it can be set aside for a time. Without good ideas, however, there is no reason to write in the first place, so work on your ideas. (You have something worth saying.) The first, most important thing is to get your ideas into words on the page. Throw aside any concern for writing well. Just focus on the ideas and on finding words to express them. That is task enough.
It is very hard to get ideas into words. It is even harder to organize those words into some narrative that can reach a reader. Crafting a meaningful narrative is frustrating and anxiety inducing: What is the best order in which to present material? What material should be included or excluded? There is no “right” answer to these questions, so there’s plenty of anxiety to be found in choosing between two different alternatives.
If you insist that the narrative also meet stringent stylistic standards, you add another difficulty and additional stress. If you’re struggling to write, the place to start is with just getting the ideas into words. Take that one first task alone. Add on the other levels of concern later.
Some writers can produce good first drafts. Most writers don’t. Most writers should write “shitty first drafts,” as Anne Lamott famously said in Bird by Bird, her book on the process of writing. It’s reasonable to think of different drafts as taking on the different tasks that I mentioned in the previous section. There’s a first draft in which you just get your ideas on the page—that’s a messy, disorganized exploration whose purpose is to get a sense of all that could be discussed and what needs to be discussed and to get a sense of the scope of the project. Next come one or more drafts to work on structure, presentation, and cleaning up the argument, an exploration and refinement of structure. For example, Eviatar Zerubavel , the author of The Clockwork Muse, a book on writing practices, describes his process as typically including four total drafts, with the middle two dealing with content and structure. Eventually (but sooner rather than later, it is to be hoped), you move toward a final draft in which you can concern yourself with cleaning up and polishing the text, with an eye towards style. By splitting up the different tasks—by allowing the first drafts to be about ideas (but not about structure or style)—you can reduce the immediate anxieties, which gives you a better chance to focus on one task and which, hopefully, allows you to set aside anxiety-inducing concerns. If you remind yourself that you will have a later draft in which to work on style, you can focus your attention on the flow of ideas, even if you think that the sentence you just wrote is terrible. “I’ll fix that later; for now I stay with the ideas,” you can tell yourself.
Limiting your field of view
For me, at least, when anxieties pile up, I get overwhelmed. If I deal with one anxiety at a time, it’s a struggle, but I can deal. If I’m focused on only one thing, I can stay on track. When I entertain many different anxieties, however, I get bogged down. My attention is drawn first here, then there, disrupting any flow that might be developing. If, for example, I focus on the stacking of anxieties during the process of writing, I am drawn to discuss one set of ideas. If, on the other hand, I start focusing on the relative value of substance over style (which I did in an earlier draft of this post, and which I may discuss in a future post), I am drawn in a different direction. This division of my attention can increase my anxieties, as I have multiple demands to satisfy, and it also can take time to even make a choice of which direction to pursue (as well as the chance to second-guess that choice).
By limiting my focus, I reduce the anxiety-inducing issues that I deal with, and that helps me keep my anxiety in control. Sure, there are things that I need to do to make this essay better (as well as many other anxiety-inducing things in life in general), but at least for a few minutes, I can say “OK, I just want to focus on the way that a misplaced concern for style (or more generally, concern for multiple things at once) can interfere with the writing process by triggering multiple anxieties.