Dealing with writer’s block, tip 17: Don’t get trapped by competing ideas

When I started this post, I was not thinking abut writer’s block or tips for dealing with it. I was thinking about managing the many things that compete for attention. But as I wrote about it, I realized that I was, in fact, writing about the way competing ideas can lead to writing paralysis in which the authors sits debating which idea to write about—an experience that can easily be recognized by many writers who are struggling to write. (I have written on this subject before.)

Recently I was talking with a writer who was bemoaning the many different things she had to say and commenting on how that made writing difficult. This is a common issue: for a lot of writers—myself included—many different ideas compete for attention. But, since only one idea can be put on the page at a time (or, at least, given my technology and abilities, I can only put one word on the page at a time. I assume you face a similar limitation), a lot of writing becomes a question of making a choice between competing alternatives.

I started this post thinking that I was going to write about gardening and how my relationship to gardening could provide insight into the practice of writing (because writing is the topic of this blog, after all). But as I began, several different ideas popped into my head, which made me think about another writer who was recently lamenting all the ideas that she wanted to put on the page, and the difficulty in moving forward in the face of such competing ideas. As I, too, was faced with many competing ideas, I thought I’d write about that.

Competing ideas can lead to doubt. If you have several different ideas that you could focus on, it’s possible to spend a lot of time debating which idea to write about, and that debate can trigger anxiety, especially if you criticize each potential idea in turn. Rather than getting trapped in vacillation, it’s beneficial to choose a single focus and work on that, even though it means setting aside the other ideas for a time. (For a time, but not necessarily for ever. After all, the sooner you finish writing about one of your many ideas, the sooner you get to move on to writing about the others.)

Association of ideas

Every idea can spark another (or more than one). Each idea is a pebble thrown into the stream of consciousness, sending out ripples in all directions. For me, the phrase “association of ideas” brings to mind my master’s thesis (though it was written 25 years ago), which was literally concerned with John Locke’s philosophy and his ideas about the “association of ideas,” and its role in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Locke’s “association of ideas” was about how ideas can become connected for non-logical reasons, where I am more interested in ideas that do have some reasonable connection (gardening and writing, for example, are connected because they are both practices, and thus share some features). But even if we only make connections through reasonable paths, still, each idea can spark many new ones.

If we look at all the ideas that present themselves in response to a single idea, we see a vast web of connected ideas. That web can be viewed as an array of opportunities: every strand of the web might provide the focus for a piece of writing. But that same web of ideas can also trap us, just as a spider’s web catches a fly: we sit down to write, and then each associated idea that pops into mind ties a thread of distraction—a temptation that the essay move in a different direction.  In a short time, with the associated ideas multiplying, we are pulled in dozens of directions at once, and can become immobilized.

Spider web at Anstey Swamp, Rockingham Lakes Regional Park, June 2021 01

Making choices

When you’re pulled in different directions, you can get paralyzed: do I go this way or that? Am I going to write about this or about that? Getting paralyzed is bad. Getting paralyzed is unproductive, frustrating, and depressing. You don’t want to get paralyzed.

To avoid paralysis, you need to make a consequential decision in the face of uncertainty: which course of action will be best? There is a definite cost in making the wrong decision: if I invest my efforts into a project that fails in some way, then I have lost that valuable time. It is this dynamic that creates the paralysis: “I want to make the right decision, but I’m not sure which the right decision is!”

But focusing on the different possible directions to explore can actually obscure another decision: the choice between (1) choosing the best subject for writing and (2) writing on some less-than-best subject.  Every minute you spend considering your choice of subject is a minute that you don’t spend writing. In terms of developing a good writing practice and a good relationship with writing, working on a less-than-optimal project is the better choice. 

The difference in value and quality between a finished project based on idea X (the best idea) and a finished project about idea Y (the second best) is much smaller than the difference between a complete project and an incomplete one. If you finish a project centered on a weak idea, you still have a project to present. If you get paralyzed debating which will be the best project, then you don’t have anything at all.

Making a choice—however imperfect—gives you a better chance of success. And it’s more emotionally satisfying, too. The paralysis that comes from wondering what to write can be painful. There’s a famous quote that “writing is easy—just stare at a blank page until your forehead starts to bleed.”  You know who stares at the blank page? It’s someone who is paralyzed by many choices. Writers don’t stare at a blank page because they have nothing to say; people always have something to say! I don’t like to use universal generalizations, but I feel absolutely safe in saying that everyone has something to say. You may tell yourself that your ideas are not interesting or important (it’s easy to imagine people thinking that your ideas are uninteresting and unimportant); you may temporarily go blank when sitting to write; but you have something to say—probably many things to say. Paralysis comes from rejecting potential options or by vacillating between those options.  The writer who is pouring words onto the page doesn’t think writing is torture (at least not at the moment that they are pouring words onto the page).

Prioritize

To break the paralysis that comes with too many options, it helps to prioritize: which ideas do you care about the most?  Trying to prioritize can help provide focus.  Firstly, the task of prioritizing itself requires a certain amount of focus, and, if you do it, can also provide some momentum to move forward. Prioritization is facilitated by writing down a list of different ideas (trying to prioritize without making a list allows the prioritization scheme to shift around too much—it allows you to escape the choices that help break paralysis). When you start writing different ideas on the page in order to make a list of different potential topics, you are taking the first steps in putting various ideas onto the page. If a list of priorities is viewed as a to-do list, it can also help assuage any distress that comes from leaving a specific idea out of the text: if you have five important things to say, a list of priorities can help you remember that working on the first thing doesn’t exclude working on the second thing at a later time. A list of priorities as a to-do list is something of a promise to yourself to attend to the lower priority items as soon as you have finished with the high priority items: so you’re not neglecting things, you’re just focusing and planning.

A list of priorities can be a good writing exercise for someone struggling with writer’s block. Firstly, it gets you to identify in words the different ideas you want to discuss. Secondly, it allows you to cover a large amount of territory (each item in the list might be a subject for pages of writing). Thirdly, there is some emotional comfort in thinking that dealing with a single item on a to-do list is the most efficient way to deal with the list as a whole. Fourthly, a list of priorities is just a tool to help you get moving, so it doesn’t have to be perfect or neat—it’s not something to show other people.

Of course, there is some danger that writing a list of priorities itself becomes a significant task if you try to get it just right. Don’t go there! Make a quick list, pick the top item on it, and get to work. You can always change course later, but in the moment, it is crucial to pick one idea for a focus and work on that idea for a while.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 16: Scholarship is valuable

My previous post—about weaponization of doubt—was written just a few days ago, while I started writing this post months ago.  I got stuck mostly because it had gotten bloated and I wanted to either cut it short or cut it into two pieces. I haven’t done that, but I feel like this is a related subject, and I wanted to follow up a little. Doubt is one of the big barriers that scholars face—uncertainty cannot be eliminated by empirical science—and if scholarship isn’t producing any objective, certain truth, then why is it any better than just making up random stories?  In this post, I’m not really addressing the philosophical question of whether or how research is better than fiction—that would take me more space than this long post, and I’m not sure that I could do a good job arguing the point. Instead, I want to accept that there is something that makes the works of scholars valuable, and talk about some of the other doubts that arise even for scholars who aren’t bothered by the philosophical/logical uncertainty suggested by the problem of induction (or by other critiques of philosophical attempts at “truth,” such as the post-modern challenges to the idea of objective truth.

The block: “My research isn’t important”

I’ve known more than one dissertation writer who was on the verge of quitting because they felt their work was so far divorced from the “real world” that it was essentially meaningless. The common notion that the “ivory tower” of academia is somehow out of touch with the real world is a big emotional issue.  If you believe your work is so esoteric that no one will care, or so narrowly focused that it will have minimal real-world impact, then you face a serious barrier to motivation: Why work through the frustration of research and writing to no effect? If your work doesn’t matter, why do it?

In this post, I argue that the value of scholarship is great enough to justify the effort and frustration.  This post is closely related to my earlier tip 11: You have something worth saying. In that post, I focused on internal doubt and feeling overwhelmed by ideas.  In this post, I’m looking more specifically at doubts about the value of academia and academic research.  The better you feel about academia and research, the easier it is to invest effort in it. And the easier it is to invest effort, the easier it is to develop a positive and productive writing practice. (Additionally, but off the topic of writer’s block, the better you feel about your work, the easier it is to write things that other people will appreciate…but that’s a separate issue, perhaps for a future post. Please let me know if you would be interested.)

Why do people think scholarship is meaningless or valueless?

There are several reasons that people come to think their scholarly work is meaningless. Some are external, for example, the scholar who worries that no one will read or appreciate their work. Some are internal reason. For example, when you learn something new, your old work may seem off-base to you. Or you think that your work is incredibly narrow, or too abstruse, or otherwise limited.  In this post, I am more interested in the internal question of whether there is any inherent value in research. If you believe in the value of your work, the size of your audience will be less important. (But as I suggest above, believing in your work will help attract an audience. Again—that’s a subject for a different post.)

The existential crisis

I have heard more than one scholar cry, “Why am I doing this? It doesn’t mean anything; it won’t help anyone; it won’t have an impact on the world. It’s all just mental masturbation!” If you have a cry of despair anything like this, it’s hard to move forward. It’s difficult to maintain motivation for things that seem meaningless (in the sense of having value within some larger framework, i.e., “my life is meaningful,” not in the sense of sense vs. nonsense).  Existential crises are hardly the exclusive domain of academia.  People in all walks of life can struggle with doubt that their life is meaningful, which can be a tremendous source of distress. The field of existential psychology generally argues that emotional health is highly dependent on whether a person sees meaning in their experiences (see, e.g., Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning). If you doubt that your research is meaningful—if you think it has no value—then it’s pretty depressing to work on it.

Why does the crisis arise?

There are many different reasons that people come to doubt their research’s value, and to try to address them all would reach far beyond the scope of a single blog post (and this is already a long post). Generally, however, there is some trigger that leads a researcher to think that their work isn’t valuable, which drains motivation and creates anxiety about the future.  I want to exclude from this discussion doubt about your abilities. Thinking you lack ability may make you feel your efforts are meaningless (“why bother, I never will do it right!”), but that’s not a critique of academia. In this post, I want to specifically focus on doubts about academia and research, and the idea that academia is so flawed that it’s meaningless.

What is academia?

In academia, ideally, we seek abstract objective truth—things that are true for everyone. Laws of nature. The sciences are, in a way, most emblematic of academia—seeking evidence by which we discover the operation of nature in a way that is generally true. A chemist looking for a compound with certain properties will assume that laboratory experiments reflect the general behavior of the compound. A computer scientist developing an algorithm will assume that the properties (runtime, for example) will be consistent with general principles. Even in fields where the very idea of objective truth is explicitly rejected, there is an underlying presumption that scholarly work—the use of evidence and reason—has some underlying general value. Even a Jacques Derrida, who wrote work far outside of scholarly norms and who questioned ideas of absolute objective truth, retains some underlying sense of right and wrong perspectives—after all, why argue against objective truth if you really believe that all ideas are purely subjective?

The limits of academia

The search for answers to questions or solutions to problems, however, is limited in many different ways.  There is the inevitable uncertainty—it’s disappointing to find out that academia rarely offers certainty. There are the political dimensions: academic institutions, like all institutions made of people, are made up of different people with different motivations, purposes, and desires, which creates the political reality of academia: your work isn’t evaluated in a vacuum, but rather by self-interested people. There are the practical dimensions of research: the ideal experiment may not be possible, and we’re forced to do projects that only make small steps towards that ideal.

The practical dimensions of research—our ability to gather and process information—force scholars to focus narrowly even when they are generally interested in broad questions. The grand and noble search for, e.g., a cure to cancer, a solution to homelessness, or the best possible economic policy, etc., gets reduced to one specific analysis of one specific factor among the many, in an attempt to produce research that contributes to understanding a larger whole. It’s disheartening to think that the one specific factor you’re studying is only one among many, and also disheartening to think that the one experiment only reveals a little about the large picture (and even perhaps only a little about that one specific factor).

The sense that research is meaningless is also partly an unfortunate outgrowth of the nature of research practice, or, more generally, a natural progression of human experience: as humans, we change and grow, including the things we value. And, in particular, we experience a big difference between novelty and familiarity.  It is said that “variety is the spice of life,” and “familiarity breeds contempt.” Both sayings address the general shift from new to known. With the new, we’re likely to focus our attention on the best parts, and not notice problems. With the known, however, we it’s harder to avoid problematic aspects. The product that looked so promising when you researched it, stops working smoothly. The journey that promised such fun when you set out, suffers through periods of hot, dusty, boredom. The relationship that starts with passionate love, ends in boredom or hatred. And the research that starts with enthusiasm, gets bogged down in details, bureaucracy, politics, etc.

The value of research

At risk of over-generalizing, I will argue that whatever the cause of your existential crisis, you can ease it by focusing on the value of research.

What is the value of research? Why might it meaningful to you? There are number of different possibilities, in two main classes:

  1. Personal value
    • you want to satisfy curiosity/learn
    • you enjoy it 
    • it provides career opportunities
    • it provides a sense of self-worth
    • it develops useful skills (e.g., critical thinking, communication)
  2. Value for others
    • it solves social problems
    • it helps others solve personal problems
    • it entertains/amuses/educates other people

Research, despite all its limitations, offers the potential for all of these. It is important to remember them when the practical and political realities of academia can easily make it seem like your work isn’t important. It is, for example, easier to believe that your work is valuable if you think lots of people will read it than if you’re thinking that no one will. If you’re find enjoyment in the work, or you think it will help you to a better career, then you may not need to think many people will read it (for example, a dissertation may have a big impact on a career, even if it only has a small audience).  The more dimensions of value you see, the easier it is to maintain motivation.  If you say only “I enjoy it,” that’s less motivation than saying “I enjoy it; it will help me have a good career; it will help me do work better; and it will help other people, too.”

Rediscovering value or finding it anew

It seems something of an irony that scholars come to view their work as meaningless when the basic work of the scholar is to understand and explain the world, and thus give meaning to the incomprehensible.  In the abstract, isn’t knowledge of the world valuable? And, more practically, isn’t knowledge useful?

In my experience, the people who enter academia are generally interested in and motivated by a search for a truth that has some personal or external value (or both). People sometimes set out in academia motivated by curiosity, trying to find answers that are personally valuable.  Many set out motivated by some altruistic desire to help people (e.g., to cure depression, or eliminate homelessness, etc.). Fame, fortune, and power are usually more common outside academia, so people who want them generally won’t end up in academia unless they also see positive value in academia. 

If you’re struggling with anxiety related to doubt about the value of academia, it’s important to reconnect to your personal sense of purpose: what is important to you? What value can you find in academia if you momentarily set aside the myriad frustrations and look to the most hopeful possibilities? Consider the different personal and social benefits that could follow from your in the most optimistic outcomes. Look back to the reasons you entered academia and ask whether they still are important to you. It’s possible that you have changed and grown and that, therefore, some other choice of career might suit you better—it is possible to have a good life outside academia even after investing years.  But, I think for most scholars facing the existential crisis, the initial motivations get obscured behind the many frustrating practical details of research.

Exercise: Why did you enter academia? What were your hopes and dreams then? Taking time to write about your original passions can help you reconnect with an early sense of purpose, and that sense of purpose can then provide support for developing and dealing with the practical limitations of academic research.

Narrowly focused projects

The well-known expression argues that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In academia, good intentions generally pave the way to narrowly focused projects of small scope. (And such projects can come to feel like hell, especially if things go wrong.)  It is likely that every decision that you made  en route to your project was the best decision you could make with the best intention to produce the highest quality research. (Of course, you—like anyone—might have made some mistakes along the way, but your making a mistake is hardly a reason to think that academia is suddenly worthless (nor is it reason to think you’re not good enough). Making a mistake and having to fix it is frustrating—but that’s true in and out of academia, and you’re just as likely to make a mistake after you leave academia as you are while in it.)

Academia produces narrowly focused projects because, practically speaking, the best way to study things, especially to gather empirical evidence, is to focus narrowly. Without narrow focus, projects include too many dimensions and aspects for any sort of close analysis in any reasonable time. The world is vast and complicated, but scholars/researchers, as humans, have limited time. It is certainly more imaginatively powerful to do research that encompasses the whole scope of an issue—homelessness, mental health, market regulations, world hunger, Victorian literature, etc.—than to do something tightly focused—for example, an analysis of one specific market regulation and its effect on one specific product. But, pragmatically speaking, a close analysis of a specific data set using specific theories focusing on specific aspects of an issue takes time and effort both to execute and to explain to others (i.e., to write it up and publish). The larger the scope, the more time necessary.  Scholars who want to contribute to a research community have to make a choice to limit the scope of their work so that they can finish.

For those worried about narrow focus, it’s valuable to remember that research is a community effort to which scholars usually contribute by adding little pieces of work. Only occasionally does a scholar completely redefine a field in the way that Einstein did for physics, and it is even more rare that the full scope of such a revolution is recognized in its time. For the most part, scholars work within theoretical schools that have been developed over previous years, and they contribute details to more fully understand the implications of the theories.

It is this process of many scholars contributing to a community process that has led to the many benefits of research in sciences, social sciences, and humanities. (I’m not going to try to argue that research does lead to benefits—one the one hand, I think it’s obvious, and on the other it leads into a mire of evaluation: what counts as a benefit?)

Focusing on details can lead to losing sight of larger context

If you become narrowly focused on details of the project you have chosen, it’s possible to lose sight of the context in which it was created.

Exercise: Reconnect your current project with the motivations that inspired it.

What were your initial motivations? What inspired you? Were you motivated by curiosity? Was there some specific problem that you wanted to address? 

How far are you now from those previous motivations? Have you abandoned them? Or can you see how they led you to where you are now?

The size of your audience is not the only measure of value

One specific cause of distress for many scholars is the idea that their work is only read by a handful of people. Let’s acknowledge that it is often the case that work is only read by a few.  Does that necessarily mean that the work is not valuable? Many philosophers have been rejected in their own time but appreciated by posterity. In the middle of the 20th century, some scientists started writing about climate change. Was their work unimportant simply because it was largely ignored?

The fact that only a small number of people might read your work may be disappointing, but it is not an accurate reflection of its value. (As I mentioned above, a dissertation can have a big impact on your career even if only read by a handful.) A small audience can have large influence.

Conclusion

Academia is not perfect, but that’s no reason to assume that it’s not valuable. New ideas are accepted only slowly. Good research often depends on precisely the sort of narrow focus that limits its scope, and limits the size of interested audiences.  This does not mean, however, that the research is not a valuable contribution to a valuable communal exercise.  

If you have lost sight of the purpose and value in your work, it can be hard to maintain motivation.  It’s crucial to find again a sense of purpose. It’s possible that you won’t (in which case you should probably leave academia). But if you step back and think about your original purposes and the general aspirations of academia, I believe you can rediscover a sense of the value of research, and that sense of value can help you rediscover motivation. 

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 15: Don’t stack anxieties, or one thing at a time

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.

Drafts

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.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 14: Grab low-hanging fruit

When it’s time to write, what do you work on? My previous post considered different kinds of writing and their value to the writer, even if they are not directly contributing to the text of some draft that will be shared with others. I want to follow up on that idea about different ways to contribute to the process of writing, again in much the same vein as the previous: it is valuable to recognize all the actions that help in the creation of a written work, both those that directly impact the work and those that contribute indirectly. For anxious writers, fear that time is being misused can lead to vacillation about where to expend effort, as well as anxiety that time is being ill-spent. Ironically, such vacillation takes time and energy away from writing (“I don’t know what to do!”), and can contribute to future anxiety (“I didn’t get anything done because I was feeling lost, and now I’m even farther behind!”).

Let’s take it for granted that the ideal is for a writer to sit down, immediately focus on the most important project, and write productively. But what do you do, if you don’t match this ideal?  Do you say “I need to try harder” or “I need more self-discipline” and then grit your teeth and try again tomorrow the same thing you did today? As I have suggested earlier, “try harder” isn’t always the right strategy, especially not for people who generally and regularly demonstrate self-discipline throughout most of their lives, but struggle with writing due to anxiety. In this post I am going to consider the choice between working on immediate productivity and working on long-term growth.

Immediate use vs. long-term growth

Speaking generally, in many skilled activities, there is a choice between applying the skill directly, and working on building the skill/ability. For example, consider a competitive runner: sometimes—at a track meet or race, for example—they directly apply their ability (i.e., they run a race); other times—during training—they engage in many different activities—weight-lifting, calisthenics, study of nutrition, etc.—that will help them when it is time to run. Or, for example, sometimes a musician performs to an audience, and sometimes they play scales, study music theory, etc. to build skill. 

A writer, too, benefits from separating the performance from the practice. There are absolutely times when it’s most beneficial to try to add to a manuscript that you will give to someone else for review. But there are also times when you benefit from activities that don’t directly contribute to any manuscript but that do help you develop your ability as a writer.  Seeing this potential benefit can free a writer from anxiety in making choices of where to work. A whole range of activities can help develop a better practice. Perhaps the most valuable is time spent writing to develop ideas and explore, but many other writing tasks can be helpful in the long term, especially if you start to view those activities as being part of writing practice.

All kinds of writing are writing

Writing, the skill, develops when it is used, and especially when it is challenged. This means that all writing can be an opportunity to become a better writer.  Writing a text message to a friend, writing tweets, writing e-mail—these common activities are all writing, and they all contribute to your skill and ability as a writer.  At a most basic level, this is neurologically inevitable: if you keep putting ideas into words on a page/screen, you reinforce the patterns that do that. This benefit may be small, but it is real, and just for this reason alone, it’s worth remembering that all writing contributes to your ability as a writer. There is a potential related emotional benefit: recognizing these simple and easy actions as writing, might counter the idea that writing is terrifying/terrible, peeling away at least one contributor to anxiety—you may still say “writing my scholarly work is terrible,” but at least you could say “not all writing is terrible,” or even, “I enjoy some kinds of writing; maybe I could learn to fear scholarly writing less.”  

Obviously, not all types of writing contribute equally to your ability. Basically, the easier it is, the less growth you get from it. Writing “see you at 6” is going to improve your ability about as much as walking to the refrigerator will improve your long-distance running ability.  In terms of building skill, the greater the challenge, the greater the potential growth. In terms of reducing anxiety, however, and building a long-term, positive practice of writing, the emotional dimension of those easy tasks is important. For the writer who has gotten overwhelmed by anxiety, it can be calming to have experiences with writing that do not cause anxiety.  If you struggle with writing anxiety, remember that all kinds of writing are writing and are part of your writing practice and can help you develop a better relationship with writing. For the long-distance runner, walking to the fridge offers little benefit, but for the person recovering from an injury, that walk to the fridge can be an indicator of potential future growth.

Recognizing benefit

To even think about the “most beneficial” course of action raises the difficult question of how to measure value. One particular issue is the question of the time frame in which to maximize that value. Loosely speaking, are we measuring benefit over a short time or over a long time? 

Consider, as a thought experiment, a writer who has to submit writing every day, and whose work is entirely judged by word count. Let us assume that this writer currently produces 1,000 words/day. And further, let’s assume that, instead of producing any writing for submission, the writer can spend a day doing skill-building exercises, that will increase future productivity by 20%.  If we judge this writer over a time frame of only one day, obviously it’s better to write 1,000 words than to do exercises and produce nothing. Similarly, over two days, the writer who writes both days produces 2,000 words, while the writer who takes one day for exercises and one day to write produces only 1,200 words.  In this example, the break-even point for doing the exercises is on day 6, after which the writer who did no exercises and the writer who did exercises on day 1 have both produced 6,000 words. In this example, the writer who took a day off for exercises is more productive over any period longer than six days.

This example demonstrates the fundamental potential in investing time and effort into improving your ability to write. The precise numbers in the example are simplistic, but the principle is important: actions that help you develop a better writing practice are increasingly valuable over longer time frames.  If you’re just thinking about the next week, you have less incentive to step away from your manuscript to do some writing exercise than if you’re thinking about the next year.

Valuing improvement

It’s overly simplistic to measure writing output in terms of word counts, but it’s also useful for this discussion, because it allows us to focus on issues of writing practice rather than on evaluation of writing quality. We can think of word count as an indicator of anxiety level.  Let’s hypothesize that a writer with no anxiety produces 1,000 words/day, and that the greater the anxiety, the fewer the words produced, and that there are some writers so anxious that they produce 0 words/day. For writers who are overwhelmed with anxiety, any slight reduction in anxiety corresponds with relatively large improvements in productivity: going from 0 words/day to 5 words/day is significant, and should not be scorned just because 5 words/day is small in absolute terms. In emotional terms, it’s the difference between utter paralysis and beginning to act in the face of fear!

This is worth stressing, because so many people struggling with writer’s block will dismiss real progress because it’s not enough progress. I’ve worked with many writers who, though they have been unable to write for months, get frustrated that they “only” wrote a few sentences. Yes, it’s true that you’re not going to build a prolific writing practice on the basis of one sentence a day. And yes, it’s frustrating to perform at a level far below expectations. But if you’re thinking about building a healthy practice, you have to be practical enough to value real improvement. Moving from 1 word/day to 2 words/day is real growth to be valued, even if it’s not what you’d like.

In dealing with anxiety-related writing blocks, you want to find every little thing to celebrate, and try to peel away as many layers of anxiety as possible. Focusing on growth keeps you from focusing on low productivity (at current).

Grab the low-hanging fruit

Beating your head against the most difficult tasks is not necessarily the best choice.  Don’t scorn activities that you can accomplish and even celebrate in a small way. Free writing, email, and other small tasks may not directly and immediately address your current projects, but if they can help you reduce anxiety and stress, they may contribute to your overall productivity. Of course, for them to reduce anxiety and stress, you can’t beat yourself up for doing them.

Small tasks that are easily completed—low-hanging fruit—can help you remember what it feels like to succeed as a writer, even if it is only small success, and even if it’s not what you hoped for. 

Conclusion

In the long run, you want to develop a writing practice where your efforts are rewarded with the manuscripts you need. If you battle with anxiety, that might seem inpossible, but with the right practice and perspective, you can reduce anxiety and improve productivity. There are many different activities that can help you improve your writing practice but that don’t immediately or directly help with your current manuscript. Remember the long-term goal of healthy practice when deciding where to put your efforts: sometimes it’s worth investing your time in some exercise that won’t help immediately. Maybe that’s some free writing that doesn’t lead anywhere, maybe it’s writing an e-mail that has been nagging at you but has nothing to do with your main project, or maybe it’s even some debate in social media. Such activities can help you reduce anxiety and develop a more positive relationship with writing, even if they don’t help with your current project. That social media argument doesn’t contribute to your manuscript, but it does practice your skill in presenting arguments—a skill needed by scholars. That e-mail can be an experience in writing despite anxiety, providing a model for the experience of writing despite anxiety. The free writing helps bring many new ideas into sight, and some gems might be found amongst the dross.

In short, sometimes it makes sense to work on relatively easy tasks that do not directly help you move your difficult task forward, but that do help you develop a better writing practice and relationship with writing.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 13: See the value in different kinds of writing

One reason people struggle with anxiety about writing is that they think about other people reading their work. If someone else is going to read what you’re writing—even a friendly audience—the emotional stakes are higher. To build a healthy writing practice, it’s important to recognize that a lot of the practice of writing does not focus on communicating with others.  If you can focus your efforts on the other purposes of writing—especially the exploratory purpose (which I have discussed previously)—you can appreciate your own efforts more, and possibly feel less anxiety. 

A writer with whom I work recently expressed regret that they hadn’t gotten any writing done, and also said that they had made some notes about what they were going to work on once they did start writing.  Thinking about the need to add material to a finished draft, they felt that they didn’t work on writing and were saddened by it (adding a potential emotional barrier). But from the perspective of developing a piece of writing, and from the perspective of developing a writing practice, they did real work, and they should celebrate that effort and the progress they made.

Writing is not just communication

There are at least three good reasons to write that are not focused on communicating: to build skill, to remember, and to learn/work out ideas. There may be purposes that don’t fit into these three basic categories—some people might write for the pleasure of the activity, for example—but on the whole, most purposes for writing can be fit into these three categories, learning, memory, and communication. (If you’re one of those people who have fun writing, keep doing what you’re doing!)

Recognizing these different purposes can help writers develop a more effective writing practice and healthier relationship with writing.  While I have expressed these ideas in a few places in the past, I have not made them a focus of any single essay.

For many writers, especially those struggling to write, it’s particularly important to remember the second purpose—writing to learn/develop ideas—and not to focus on the third—writing to communicate.  Focusing on communication can distract from trying to work out ideas, and can also trigger a lot of anxiety, because writing for communication involves the possibility of rejection.

Writing to build skill

Like any skill, the ability to write can be developed through practice. And basically the only way to build the skill is to write. But there are many different ways to build writing skill because writing is a skill of many dimensions that includes the ability to develop ideas, the ability to find good words, the ability to write flowing sentences and coherent paragraphs, and the ability to sequence the presentation of ideas and examples. All of these skills develop when you engage in almost any challenging writing task. (Writing something easy—a shopping list, a text to a friend to set a time to meet—won’t do much to develop your skill as a writer.)

From the skill-building perspective, we can see much of what you write as helping you become a better writer, and thus helping indirectly with your most pressing projects, even if not helping directly. That time you spend writing your novel doesn’t directly help you finish your scholarly monograph (dissertation or book), and may contribute to avoiding the monograph, but it does help you write better, and thus provides indirect support.

The idea of building skill can be an avoidance tool—“I’ll start my real writing once I’ve gotten better at writing in general”—which is obviously not desirable.  But if you have a lot of anxiety about writing, then working on a skill-building task—free writing, notes about what you’re writing, etc.—might be better than simply avoiding all writing entirely.  Even the social media thread to which you contributed might help build some skill. If you are trying to reduce anxiety, viewing these activities as skill-building exercises can help reduce negative emotions that follow: the lament, “I wasted the whole day on social media,” can become, “at least I was able to write something and build a little skill.” If you put effort into arguing for something on social media, you are developing writing skill with structure and presentation of arguments. That skill can then be used writing in other contexts, too.  

Again, I want to emphasize that, of course, it would probably be best to work on your top-priority project, but if you are struggling due to anxiety, don’t overlook the value that comes from practicing other sorts of writing. If you are struggling due to anxiety, you can get a small emotional boost from thinking about how different tasks do contribute to your writing skill, and thus indirectly to your most important writing projects. Don’t turn your hours of social media writing into an extra emotional burden; instead remind yourself that it’s another form of writing and presenting arguments, and if you can do social media, you can also do your other writing.

Writing to remember

Writing is obviously useful as an aid to memory.  If you’re writing to remember, however, it’s not so much about communicating all of an idea—though you could say you are communicating to your future self—it’s more about creating an anchor for your memory.  But I’m not very much interested in this dimension of writing as part of a writing practice. Writing for memory can help development of writing skill, but when I’m interested in “writing,” I’m really concerned with not just the process of putting words on the page so much as I am in the process of creating things worth reading at least in part because of their originality. And I don’t really have a lot to say beyond observing that it can be helpful to take notes to remember ideas. (Maybe I’ll give this issue some more consideration in another post.)

Writing to learn and develop ideas

This is a kind of writing that I really want to emphasize (I have touched on it repeatedly in this series). Writing can be a tool to develop ideas about both the intellectual foundations and the presentation of your arguments. Many writers struggle because they think they have to work all the ideas out before they start writing. One common block is to say “I can’t start writing; I still have x sources to read,” as if writing were only done to record what has already been learned. But writing leads to learning, too.

Writing forces reflection and reconsideration.  When you have an idea in your head, it’s easy for that idea to remain unexamined, even unconscious.  When you try to write the idea down, however, the attempt to find words and the reflection forced by seeing those words on the page both bring into consciousness aspects that were more easily taken for granted. In this process, it is common to find problems that were previously unobserved.  

To use writing in this way requires a different perspective on writing than writing for communication.  In this exploratory kind of writing, the idea is to get something on the page as quickly as possible, in order to get a sense of how the whole package works. It is to provide quick reflection on plans.  Because it is not meant for others, it doesn’t need the polish that would be required of a draft that someone else might read. It can be notes, fragments, single words, lists, diagrams—anything that helps you figure out what you’re trying to say.  Strictly speaking, it’s not writing if it’s not words, but as a tool for exploring ideas, writing can be almost anything you put down on a page.

Writing for idea development is analogous to: 

  • a student using scratch paper on a mathematics exam to work out ideas
  • a musician’s experimentation with phrasing and dynamics while working through a new piece of music
  • a composer’s playing through melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic variations of a musical idea
  • an athlete experimenting with new skills during practice
  • a painter making study sketches, prior to work on a canvas
  • an architect making study sketches prior to committing to a design

Conclusion

There are a lot of activities that will help you develop a productive writing practice and finish important writing projects, and many of them do not involve working on a draft that you will ultimately share with others. As part of building a healthy writing practice, it’s valuable to recognize these less obvious contributions.  If you’re struggling with anxiety and self-criticism, it’s particularly important to recognize this value. Instead of berating yourself for the limits of what you did (“I worked on an artistic shopping list, not my book!”), look for the value of your efforts not just with respect to your current project, but as helping you develop as a writer, and perhaps most importantly, helping you develop a better emotional relationship with writing.  

Writing successfully means doing all sorts of writing that does not directly contribute to the production of a draft that gets shared with others. Most importantly, in my view, is using writing as a tool to explore ideas. People engaged in all skilled practices benefit from exercises that develop skill or explore possibilities. Writing is a skilled practice, too. The exercises that you do—writing experiments, writing not directly related to your main project—can help you develop healthier writing practice.  And the healthier your writing practice, the more productive you will be.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 12: Celebrate your successes, don’t focus on your failures

Over the past several months, I have been trying to post to my blog at least once a week. In the past week or so, however, I have failed to do so, as I have not been satisfied with what I have written. To stave off my own writing anxieties, I am focusing on the writing that I have accomplished, rather than on the goals I have not. As a writer who struggles with anxiety, I know from experience how helpful it is to focus on my (limited) successes, rather than on my failures. If you suffer from writing-related anxiety, there’s a good chance that you, too, can benefit from focusing on the things that you have done, not the things that you haven’t.

Often, accomplishments have two faces: one face smiles on what we accomplish, while the other frowns on our failures. Frequently writers tell me that they have not accomplished what they planned or they have not achieved their goals, and while doing so, they push any accomplishments into the background. This creates an anxiety-inducing image that exaggerates problems and minimizes successes. If you commonly take such a view, and lose sight of you progress (however small), try to cultivate a focus on the successes, however small, to help boost emotion and motivation.

If you have writer’s block—i.e., if, due to anxiety, you’re struggling to write——the question is how to engage with writing with less anxiety, allowing you to use your efforts more effectively. Making an effort to focus on success can help.[ In one light, a piece of writing can be a success, while in another, a failure. So, for example, my blog has not had a new post this past week (a failure), but I have developed some ideas that could become posts (a success). Or, for example, your dissertation can be completed and accepted (a success), while at the same time you recognize numerous shortcomings (failures). Or your book can be published (a success), but not get good reviews (a failure). If you’re struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, it’s valuable to focus on the success, however limited, more than on the shortcomings.]

Success and failure of practice

The success of a writer need not be measured in terms of the words on a page; it can also be measured in terms of the experience of writing.  Throughout my series on dealing with writer’s block, I have emphasized the value of approaching writing as a practice and trying to develop a good practice, at least in part because thinking about the practice allows a focus on something other than the stuff that other people can reject. Anxiety about how your readers will respond can be sidestepped, for example, by thinking “I’m just writing notes for myself to organize my thoughts.”

With respect to this question of looking for and focusing on successes, it can be worth remembering that some successes are successes of practice.  A good practice session—where you work hard, where you learn new things—can be a success, even if you end it thinking “I have to throw away most of what I just wrote.”  From the perspective of producing a work to share with others—a final draft—it’s very frustrating to write for a while and then throw most of that writing away. But from the perspective of building a writing practice, that time spent is something of a success: not only does it meet the goal of practicing diligently and productively, it also sets you up for future success by helping you learn what doesn’t work. 

If you’re struggling to write, focusing on the practice, and the successes in practice can help avoid anxiety.  In the long run, there will be plenty of forces drawing your attention to external goals like publication. To meet those demands, it really helps if you can, in the short run, close off those voices and focus on developing your own healthy voice to guide your practice. If you are struggling with writer’s block—if you’re getting little done due to anxiety—focusing on the approaching due date on your project raises anxiety and the emotional barrier to writing. The work may be due in x weeks, but does focusing on that due date help? What can help is focusing on your practice, and especially on the small gains as steps to building that practice, even if those steps seem small in comparison to what you hope to accomplish.

Standards of evaluation: the half-full/half-empty glass

Partly, this post arose from a writer struggling with severe anxiety who said to me, “I only wrote for seven minutes, not fifteen.” This writer has demonstrated the ability to break through anxiety to finish projects, but at other times is nearly paralyzed with anxiety. This comment came after they had previously planned to spend 15 minutes writing immediately before our meeting, but, to their chagrin, only wrote seven.

From one perspective, it’s obvious that they did not accomplish what they set out to do.  But from another perspective—the perspective of someone who has been struggling to write—seven minutes of writing that produce a sentence is a much better outcome than complete avoidance. The question is whether to evaluate that effort with respect to (a) the hoped-for goal (in which case it is too little), or (b) with respect to recent practice (in which case the seven minutes is an improvement).

Half-full glass
Half-full glass (By Derek Jensen (Tysto) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=454125)

Consider the famous glass half full/half empty. From the perspective of the person dying of thirst, that half glass is precious—even a single mouthful would be precious. The parched person might want more, but what would be most on their minds—at least for a moment—is the appreciation for the little water they did get.  The writer struggling to write is not at death’s door, perhaps, so writing a little doesn’t give quite as much reward as a sip of water to the parched. But compared to nothing, writing a little is a huge change.

The writer who has not been writing due to anxiety has an empty glass. If they manage to get even a drop of water into it (i.e., working productively for a few minutes), that drop should be celebrated, at least for a moment. It should be celebrated not only for the drop of writing that adds to what you had, but also for demonstrating that you can create those drops of water.

Choosing a focus

The case of the half-full/half-empty glass is typically used to distinguish the optimist from the pessimist—the one sees it as (partly) full, and the other as (partly) empty.  In that view, the character of the person leads to their perspective. 

But this is also a matter of conscious choice: do I focus on the things that I do have (the water in the glass), or on the things that I don’t (the unfilled portion of the glass)? Even the pessimist can make a conscious choice to focus on the positive.  The seven-minute work session might not be what you hoped for, but it is something real. Focusing on those small successes as successes can trigger other emotions than anxiety.

There is a connection between expressing gratitude and mental health, and focusing on the good thing that you have is a form of gratitude. Taking time to appreciate and recognize the value in your efforts can shift your emotional state and reduce anxiety. 

If you’re struggling to make progress, appreciate the progress that you do make, rather than berating yourself for all that you have not done.

Realism

One could argue that it’s unreasonable to entirely focus on small victories when a larger defeat is taking place. When your deadline is looming, celebrating that seven-minute work session may feel crazy because you need more than seven minutes to hit the deadline. But context matters, and realistic plans matter. That seven-minute work session might be the best you have to offer on that day, and demanding more might lead to more harm than good. Knowing the best course of action is difficult.

Pressuring yourself to work harder and push through anxiety might help you meet a short-term goal, but it might also contribute to additional long-term anxiety. If your modus operandi for finishing projects is to get into a frenzy of furious writing at the last minute, that can create an uncomfortable experience that contributes to future anxiety. Lots of people have found themselves making desperate progress immediately before a deadline.

But lots of people have also missed deadlines entirely because of their anxiety. Plenty of people have simply failed to turn in any work when it was due because writing-related anxiety had become so severe. You have to be realistic: how much can you accomplish? And at what cost? What is going to help you work productively? What will maximize your productivity in the short run? And what will maximize your productivity in the long run? Maybe celebrating minor successes today doesn’t lead to finishing your current project on time, but does contribute to finishing more projects on time in the future. And maybe pushing yourself through an ordeal of last-minute writing does help you finish your current project, but also contributes to writing-related anxiety in the future.

Success and completion

Perfectionism delays many writers. They say, “not good enough.” In the short run, being able to celebrate successes could come in the form of saying “I’ve done enough on that section,” which allows you to move on no matter its condition, rather than getting stuck doubting your work and trying to revise. 

Don’t shame yourself

If you are struggling with writing-related anxiety, don’t shame yourself for what you haven’t done; it won’t help reduce your anxiety, but may increase it.

Too often, in too many cases, writers find reasons to tell themselves they are not good enough and they shouldn’t be proud. Thinking that you aren’t good enough is likely to induce anxiety, so it can trigger a negative feedback loop. 

Conclusion

If you’re struggling with anxiety that impedes writing, it’s important to focus on the kind of thing that will reduce anxiety (small successes, supportive audiences) and keep yourself from thinking about the things that trigger more anxiety (hostile audiences, heavy workloads).  If your long-term goal is to write productively, it’s crucial to give yourself positive reinforcement by celebrating even the small successes.

If you’re trying to build a healthy practice and make progress on writing projects, don’t compare yourself to what you want to be when everything is working well (or where you were at your most productive in the past), compare yourself to where you were yesterday or to your worst days. If you didn’t write yesterday, then every minute that you write today is a small victory worth celebrating. Every small victory lets you say, “I accomplished that small thing (and it wasn’t even that painful/I survived it!). I can do it again or more, today.” Each small victory lays a foundation for future growth. Value your accomplishments to help provide motivation to move forward. 

Tips for dealing with writer’s block: Summary

Back in October, I started writing a series of tips for dealing with writer’s block.  In this post, I want to summarize what I’ve done so far.  For the prospective reader, I offer this summary as an attempt to capture the big ideas in a brief and clear form. For myself, as a matter of both intellectual exploration and writing practice, the attempt to write a summary will help me clarify and refine my message. Additionally, it might suggest new tips that could be added to the list.

What is writer’s block?

In this series of posts, I have been looking at writer’s block, generally speaking, as any sort of emotional/intellectual barrier that prevents a previously successful writer from writing. Writer’s block is the experience of a writer making time to write but, for emotional and/or intellectual reasons, being unable to write productively in the time allotted.

 I use the term emotional/intellectual to highlight that these barriers are not primarily physiological in nature (acknowledging the interconnection between emotion/intellect and physiology). Physical injury or disease that prevent writing are not writer’s blocks, even if they are barriers to writing. When writing triggers significant anxiety, depression, or despair—emotional states that interfere with writing—that complex of responses is what I am considering “writer’s block” in these posts.  There may be a physiological element—emotions have physiological manifestations—but what I hope my tips for dealing with writer’s block to address are intellectual and emotional triggers—ideas that leads to emotional responses.

In this definition, I use the term “successful” in a generous sense to encompasses almost any perception of writing success. People who get writer’s block have written before, and believed in their ability as a writer to accept new writing challenges.  The grad student stuck on a dissertation and the junior faculty struggling to publish have both had significant previous success, at least as measured by both their choice to pursue an academic degree or career, and their ability to advance to the point they have reached. A graduate student who has advanced to candidacy has decided to pursue a thesis or dissertation, at least partly based on previous success writing course papers, not to mention administrative correspondence, including, perhaps, fellowship or grant applications. Such past successes are not to be dismissed as irrelevant for being less than current challenges, but rather ought to be viewed as the natural steps leading up to those current challenges.

These past successes are important in clarifying that writer’s block is not lack of self-discipline. I’ve read plenty of advice that dismisses the idea of writer’s block and says, basically, “work harder.” But, in my view, you can’t get writer’s block unless you have demonstrable, evident self-discipline. Yes, there are lazy people in this world who need to be pushed harder, but there are people who have regularly demonstrated self-discipline over many years—who has written, who has met departmental requirements, who has taught courses, who may be doubling with another career, not to mention familial responsibilities, etc.—and then get stuck on a writing project. I have worked with many such people. While it’s true that “try harder” is a viable approach, it’s an unsubtle, ungentle response. Instead, I look for causes that the self-discipline that prevails in most of a person’s life has stopped working when it’s time to write. The tips that I offer are based in developing an effective perspective on the process of writing.

Causes of writer’s block

There are any number of different ideas that can trigger anxiety. There is fear of rejection. There is disillusionment with the project. There is dislike (or even fear) of writing. And there are also ideas about writing that can interfere with productivity and thereby create anxiety, for example, perfectionism in any of its many guises. 

Obvious and hidden writer’s block

Sometimes writer’s block is obvious—you stare at the blank screen. Other times it is less so: you make a new outline, do some reading or start again from scratch. In both cases, it takes an adjustment of perspective to throw off the delaying concerns.

First and second tips: Understand the process of writing and identify writing blocks

I argued that understanding the causes of writer’s block was important in relieving it.  There are many different ideas that can contribute to writing blocks, and the better you can distinguish those ideas and identify which are affecting you, the better you can deal with those that are significant and ignore those that are worth ignoring.

Third tip: Develop a healthy and positive practice of writing 

If you develop a better relationship with writing, many of the emotional blocks will fall away.  Indeed, one emotional block that some experience is the idea that writing itself is a painful activity.  It’s true that writing is difficult and often frustrating, but it is also true that, with practice, you can learn to like writing.

Fourth tip: Write for learning, not for communication (especially in the early stages of a project) 

The fear of rejection offers a significant obstacle for many. While some fear of rejection is not unreasonable, there is a lot of writing that can be done outside the draft that you send to someone. Writing is a tool for learning as well as for communication. Sometimes you want to write for learning—to develop your ideas. Sometimes you write for communication. Separating these two kinds of writing can reduce some of the fear of rejection.

Fifth and sixth tips: Principles for a healthy practice 

The third tip focused on the importance of believing that writing could be a positive and healthy practice.  The fifth and sixth followed up on that idea by suggesting a few principles around which to build a healthy practice, most particularly focusing on finding the right motivations and applying the right amount of persistence and self-discipline. A healthy practice grows out of work that pursues a passion while also keeping the work in balance with other commitments. The sixth tip specifically looked at situations in which “try harder” is not always the best advice for writers facing writer’s blocks.

Seventh tip: Accept (or even embrace) uncertainty 

focused on dealing with uncertainty. To some extent, the advice was a little too close to “it’s unavoidable; deal with it.”  But when it comes to dealing with uncertainty, it is important to recognize that logical certainty is elusive.  People who act certain may be emotionally certain, but they are not logically certain (at least not in any empirical study).

Eighth tip: Experiment in writing  

If you don’t have certainty, what do you have?  One thing a writer has is a chance to revise and rewrite.  There is plenty of opportunity to put something down on the page just to see how it looks. It’s a good learning experience and the results can be eliminated if not promising. The willingness to experiment and rewrite reduces the emotional stakes during the process: you needn’t worry about pleasing others. Experimentation gives space for exploring and developing your own ideas and your own voice.

Ninth tip: Imagine writing to a friendly audience  

A lot of writers get hung up thinking about the negative responses their work has received in the past. While it is important to learn from the negative feedback you receive, that’s not the most motivating perspective, and doesn’t provide great insight into how to reach the people who would be most interested in your work.  Writing to convince a hostile audience is a very different thing than writing for a friendly audience, both in terms of emotions while writing and in terms of what you put on the page.  Write for a friendly audience.

Tenth tip: Believe in your own intelligence and ability 

If you don’t believe you’re smart enough to do the work, then it’s really hard to move forward. You’ll get blocked by doubt at every decision. But if you’re trying to write, chances are good that you already have the intelligence you need. There are two sides of this argument. One side is that academic work doesn’t require vast brilliance—most scholars are not Einstein-level brilliant, they’re just reasonably smart people, and most scholarship is just careful development of previous work done in the field.  The other side is that people who have advanced in academia to graduate school or beyond usually have sufficient intelligence to do the work or they wouldn’t have advanced. (In a related essay, I discussed the basics of analysis and why it’s something that almost everyone can do with a little attention and care.)

Eleventh tip: You have something worth saying

This is the most recent in the series to date. Writers can come to doubt that they have something worth saying.  There are several potential dimensions to this (another one of which—the sense that one’s subject matter is worthless or pointless or at least would only appeal to a tiny audience—might be worth future discussion). In this tip, I discuss the problem of having too many things to say. Lots of writers have experienced a blankness as they face the page.  But realistically, most people have a lot to say—often writers have so many different things to say that when they try to write, the different ideas compete and interfere, and it feels like they have nothing worth saying because they’re trying to say too many things at once.

Conclusion

At one point, I was calling this series “Tips for anxious writers.” Although I have shifted to calling this “Tips for dealing with writer’s block,” the general purpose and scope have remained the same, as I defined writer’s block as largely consisting of anxiety or other emotions that interfere with the writing process.  Over the years, combining my own internal dialogue as I struggle to write with comments from other writers also struggling to write, I identified many different ideas that have a negative impact on the writing process and that despite some elements of truth, lead writers astray.

Writing is hard and often frustrating, but that doesn’t mean it’s an ordeal or lacking its pleasures and rewards.  Like many other difficult endeavors, writing can be personally and professionally rewarding if you approach it right.  This series of tips aimed at replacing ideas that interfere with ideas that help. The approaches suggested do not eliminate work or even frustration, but they can improve your relationship with writing and reduce writing-related anxieties and doubts.

Dealing with writers block, tip 11: You have something worth saying

Some writers cry in despair, “I have nothing to say.” I have worked with more than one writer experiencing this distress. This doubt is a close relative of the doubt about whether or not you are intelligent (which I discussed in my previous tip for dealing with writer’s block), and is accurate about as often (which is to say, almost never).  If you are even considering writing as part of your career, it’s almost certain that you have something to say—so much to say, indeed, that if you’re like many writers who think they have nothing to say, you probably have problems managing all your different ideas.

A writer once told me that she experienced a traffic jam of ideas, and I think that’s a vivid description of something that I have experienced, and a metaphor that resonates with other writers, as well. You can only write one idea at a time, and if you have lots of ideas, they will compete for attention, with each blocking the way of others. To deal with the traffic jam of ideas, sort: first, separate out all the different ideas, then choose which are most worth the effort.

The many ideas in your head get caught as the highway of imagination narrows down to the bottleneck of words on the page.

You have something to say

Is it possible that you have nothing to say? It seems unlikely. Do you never speak to your friends and family? Do you have no ideas about subjects that interest you? Nothing to say about that movie you watched, that meal you ate, that book you read? Everyone has something to say. As a scholar, of course, you’re not engaging in casual conversation, so you might say that you have nothing to say that is scholarly. But you probably have something to say about that article you read or that lecture you saw.  You probably have a lot of things to say about that article or book, though you may not want to discuss them all (for example, if the editor at the journal just said your article needs to mention Dr. X, you probably don’t want to say “Dr. X is a clown and their book is trash,” even if you think it).

Reasons not to speak

There are plenty of reasons not to speak that have nothing to do with what could be said. Courtesy and politics are significant considerations (that deserve their own discussion, but not here).There is the difficult question about what is worth saying (writing). There are, after all, people who say things that are not worth saying, and who wants to be one of them? (Ironically, people with the self-critical eye that prevents writing trash often also struggle with writing anxiety and related writing blocks, whereas it is the person with no self-critical filter and high self-opinion that blithely produces volumes of polished and banal work.) 

In this post, I want to focus on the specific problem of having too many things to say, which can lead to the sense of having nothing to say. 

Often, “I have nothing to say,” actually means something like “every time I try to write, what comes out is banal, trite, and not worth writing.”  That is something very different from having nothing to say.  There can be a number of causes of thinking that everything you write is banal or worthless. I want to focus on one very common contributor to this experience: the problem of having too many things to say.

When you have many things to say, there are two intertwined problems: the first is that it is hard to write well and clearly, so a first draft of a great idea can sound banal. The second problems is that it can be difficult to sort out the most valuable statements from those of less value, especially when the writing is rough.

The long-term solution to these problems is to develop your voice, and to write enough different things that you can feel like you’ve at least touched on some of the many things that will interest you (and, yes, I will take it for granted that many things interest you; if not, there may be better advice than I offer here). In the short term, the place to start is with writing exercises that can help sort out the banal from the nuggets of value.

Exercises to sort things out

Exercises help separate the experience of writing from the product that can be criticized. An exercise is an exploration: it doesn’t matter whether the thing you write during the exercise is valuable; the value lies in the exploration or experimentation. As with all forms of exploration or experimentation, the results are inconsistent: sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. But in the process of experimentation or exploration, you learn and often develop new insights. A writing exercise can simultaneously produce bad writing and a good idea. Exercises develop both your reasoning and your ability to express ideas: even if the result is a lousy piece of writing, in the process of creation and self-criticism, you gain insight into what went wrong, and what you could do differently.

Writing exercises can also help sort the good ideas from the bad. If you’re telling yourself you have nothing worth saying, then write some of that valueless stuff down.  You might find a nugget of value among the dross. A place to start is writing exercises, in which it’s OK to write poorly, because the exercise is to learn.

Exercise 1: Say (write) anything

If you’re feeling stuck writing, feeling like you don’t have anything worth writing, it’s important to start by giving yourself the opportunity to write stuff that’s not worth writing. Write in a context where you don’t need to say anything coherent, much less impressive or profound. Write nonsense. Write “I have nothing to write about” a few times until you feel like writing something else (like “this is boring”). Begin putting ideas into words on the page with the focus on developing a practice, not on producing a great result.

Start by clearing away some of the thoughts that are stopping you from writing. If you sit staring at the page telling yourself, “I have nothing worth saying,” it’s going to make it hard to say anything else. Put that on the page. Does that lead anywhere? If you’re worried you’re not smart enough, write that down, and look for something else to write. If you’re worried that some single person will criticize or mock you, write that down. 

Don’t just write about obstacles, though. What other ideas are intruding? Write about things you want or need. Write about the weather. Write about your friends. Write about anything at all, but write. Put words on the page. You can write sentences or phrases if you want, but don’t worry about making sentences or phrases. It’s an exercise for the sake of practice, like a musician playing scales or a tennis player returning shots from a machine. What you write doesn’t really matter, just that you write. First, get the words and ideas flowing. The more you practice, the more consistently you will be able to write. Free writing is a useful tool, but it’s not really where you want to stop, just like musicians want to move past playing scales.

Exercise 2: Focus on your work

Once you’ve started putting words on the page, start focusing a bit. Try to write about your project or your work.  You’re still trying to get a flow of ideas—still trying to break the traffic jam, not yet trying to produce a solid draft—so give yourself space to write about the project from all dimensions, including writing about both your hopes and your fears.

Start by writing about the project generally: what is it? What is the subject? What is the context in which you work?  Just getting a start here is likely to bring up both hopes and fears. 

Exercise 3: Remember your foundations

Projects don’t spring out of nothing.Write down what your early hopes for your project were. How did you get to this project? What inspired you to get here? Focus your attention on the positive motivations that guided you here (if problems come up, write about those, too—see below—but try to focus on the hopes). Writing about your hopes for your project can give an emotional boost.  Remember: this is an exercise to get ideas moving and to remind yourself of all the things that interest you, and that you would say if your audience were a younger version of yourself.

Exercise 4: What are the problems?

This is an area that can be emotionally fraught—it is, indeed the very core of writing blocks. People who have trouble writing for work still do fine writing emails to friends, for example.  If there are significant doubts interfering with your writing, you need to deal with them.

If you have concerns, make a list: what are all the things that are already wrong with your project? And what are the things that could go wrong?  Approach this exercise with caution: it takes some emotional strength to list potentially negative aspects of your work or doubts about it. But it can be valuable to make such a list, too. Firstly, having written down a problem, it may seem unreasonable or unlikely. Secondly, if a problem does seem reasonable or likely, you can start to think about ways to address it, which is more proactive and can give an emotional boost. Thirdly, sometimes writing something down to be addressed later can help clear it from the front of your mind, allowing your focus to shift elsewhere (hopefully to something more productive). 

You want to get the negative ideas out of the way, somehow, so other ideas can flow. Some negative ideas can be included in scholarly work (reflective discussions of limitations and problems with research are common), so there might be something there worth writing. But get the negative ideas on the page and out of the traffic jam of ideas. 

Exercise 5: Consider your interlocutors

If you’re a scholar or researcher, you’ve come to where you are at least partly through reading scholars in your field.  Think about the ways in which you relate to the work of others in your field.  What works are similar? In what ways similar? What were the positive influences—the works whose ideas you’ve incorporated? In what ways is your work similar, and in what ways different? What would you say to the authors of those works if speaking with them?  Are there any significant negative influences—works that seemed wrong to you and that you wanted to correct? In what ways is your work similar or different? What would you say to those authors?

Remember that these are exercises and explorations. Feel free to write “You’re so brilliant, I want to get it on with you,” to authors you respect and “you’re an idiot,” to those you don’t. (It’s an exercise where grammar and spelling don’t matter, so “Dr. X, your a moron,” works, too.)

Exercise 6: Imagine your futures

What are the different projects in which you could engage?  Instead of thinking about how you can get all your ideas into one project—“My book/dissertation needs to cover everything I’ve worked on these last five years!”—think about how many different projects could be made. Could you write an article about your methodological choices and what you’ve learned? Could you write multiple articles about different aspects of your project?  If you’re doubting the value of your work, this may seem unlikely, but it’s common for scholars to start envisioning a short work that expands as they look at it more closely, and this expansion is one of the causes of the traffic jam of ideas.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of writing that could go into these preceding exercises, but if you’re feeling blocked and feeling pressure to produce, what have you got to lose? (OK, actually, you could spend your time on a fruitless endeavor, but if you’re not having success writing, doesn’t it make sense to at least give these exercises a chance?) The more you work through them, the greater your chance of finding something of interest.  

Of course, you can’t be too critical of yourself: you have to take the chance of being wrong. Write ideas until you find something that does seem worth working on, then work on that idea. Explore and experiment. Think about what other scholars have done and how you might do something different but built on their precedent. Remember: it does not need to be earth shaking innovation to be worthwhile.  There is a lot of value in doing simple work—both to build your own skills and to provide foundations on which you and other scholars can build.

Develop your voice; develop your ideas. Explore, experiment, and produce a lot of stuff. Then look for the few most valuable nuggets.

Everyone has something to say. Scholars generally have many worthwhile things to say, but they also have some things that probably aren’t worth saying. They have to sort out those many different things so that ideas don’t interfere with each other, and so that the best ideas can be developed enough that their value can be recognized.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 10: You are smart enough

One common source of doubt for scholar is the general lament, “I’m not smart enough,” or the corresponding question, “am I smart enough?” This is one version of the common problem known as “imposter syndrome” (a different version is to say “I don’t work hard enough”).  If you doubt you have the intelligence to do your work, then you’ll anticipate failure, which can certainly trigger anxiety. But chances are that you do have enough or more than enough intelligence.  A rational eye towards the actual standards of academia is useful when doubts about your intelligence step in and interfere with writing.  I cannot prove that you—unknown reader—are smart enough, but a lot of people who are smart enough (at least as judged by their careers) have also doubted themselves, it is possible, even likely, that you might be another.

What does it mean to be smart, anyway?

To know whether you are “smart enough,” it helps to know what it means to “be smart” and to have some sense of how to quantify or measure “smart,” but “smart” is hard to define, and hard to measure.  Any number of standardized tests have been developed for measuring intelligence. But is a score on a test an accurate measure of usable intelligence? 

Universities are placing less and less emphasis on standardized tests in their admissions, which suggests that they don’t think tests offer valuable insight into ability.  Of course, universities have historically used such tests, so if you happen to be in academia, you probably scored high enough on the test to satisfy the admissions committee, which is an indication that, at least according to the test, you are smart enough.

I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole of trying to define “smart” or “smart enough,” but, if you’re worrying that you’re not smart enough, it is worth thinking about “smart” critically: What makes someone smart? Ability to do logic puzzles? Large vocabulary? Good memory? What about “emotional intelligence” or kinds of intelligence? There are probably many different things that the average person would consider “smart.” So, whatever “being smart enough” means, it’s a complex multidimensional thing.  

Pragmatic measures

Instead of asking whether you’re smart enough, ask whether you can achieve the goals you set for yourself, and what you would need to accomplish those goals. If you take this pragmatic perspective, it doesn’t really matter how much innate talent or “smartness” you have, what matters is what you do with your abilities.

Pragmatic measures are relevant because they give you empirical evidence regarding your ability to meet successive challenges and grow. Each step you take provides some evidence about how you can deal with the next step.  If you did well in undergraduate studies, you have evidence that you could do well in graduate studies, and you can ask what more you might need for that next step.  If you have done well in graduate studies, you have evidence that you can write a graduate thesis, and you can ask what more do you need to take the next step. If you have written a graduate thesis, you have evidence that you can get published, and you can ask what more you need to do.

The evidence you gather at each step is not conclusive—success at one level of competence doesn’t guarantee success at the next, a high school athletic star won’t necessarily be a university athletic star—but it is suggestive.  Universities are pretty good at identifying students who have the ability to finish degrees (even in the case of doctoral students, who only receive a degree about 50% of the time: of the students who don’t finish, many could have finished if not for life circumstances).

Believe in the empirical evidence of your past successes, rather than in your doubts about moving to the next level. And trust the skills that got you where are.

Intelligence and self-confidence

In many ways, success in academia is as much dependent on self-confidence than on any innate “intelligence.” The arrogant fool pushes ahead, blind to their own failings and the weaknesses in their own work. They produce and share work, and then proclaim its greatness. And others accept that claim. Meanwhile, the insightful, discriminating and self-doubting scholar keeps working trying to eliminate problems, rather than sharing it. As a result, no one can find it interesting because no one knows it exists. The arrogant fool can end up publishing many times when the careful scholar is still working on a single piece.

Ideally, a scholar balances the discerning self-doubt/self-criticism needed to maintain quality with the self-confidence to share work despite imperfections. It’s easier to maintain that balance if you remember the inevitable uncertainty in research and the crucial role that confidence plays in proceeding despite uncertainty. As I have argued elsewhere, research, at best, offers strong and convincing evidence; it does not offer certainty. To proceed in the face of these uncertainties, a scholar needs confidence. Your confidence can be supported by remembering that uncertainty springs up in research no matter how smart you are. Heisenberg was plenty smart, but he’s still known for his uncertainty principle.  Accepting the uncertainty in research can support the confidence to discuss the limits of your work: if you expect to experience limits, and you know other scholars in your field also struggle with limits, it’s much easier to discuss and examine those limits as product of the difficulties of research rather than a reflection of any lack of intelligence.

Writing and the critical eye

There are a lot of people who, when trying to write, think “I’m not smart enough for this,” but who, when they’re reading, think “this work could be better; the author(s) ought to have considered XYZ,” or, when they’re talking with colleagues/peers in informal settings, feel confident enough to criticize the work or the theories of others.  This is, I think, partly the product of the general ability to criticize: when someone presents their work to you, you have a chance to find problems with it. This is useful when reading other people’s work—the ability to criticize is a crucial tool for finding the proverbial “gap in the literature,” to which scholars respond.  However, when you write, suddenly it’s your own words and ideas that are on the page ready to be criticized. Too often, writers take that opportunity to criticize themselves into paralysis.

You know your own work better and in greater detail than you know the work of others, and when you’re writing about your own work, there is no rhetorical device that can head off your own criticisms.  This perspective makes your own work look weak, and in the moment of writing it’s likely that you’re focused on your own work, not on the weaknesses of other people’s work (despite the fact that the motivating force behind most research is some sort of weakness or “gap” in previously published literature).

What abilities do you need to be a scholar?

Good research and scholarship do not require brilliance. Mostly, scholarship requires careful attention to detail, reasonable ability to discriminate, a decent memory, and a little imagination. You can’t be an idiot to be a scholar, but you don’t have to be a genius.  

Scholarship mostly depends on doing careful conscientious work. It doesn’t take great intelligence to identify a “gap in the literature”—i.e., an unanswered question—it just takes enough intelligence to understand publications in the field, along with the persistence to read a bunch of them. Questions abound: lots of scholarship leaves questions that could be asked in the future, sometimes formalized as “suggestions for future research.”  

Once you’ve identified something to study, it might take some imagination to figure out how to make a research study out of an idea, but mostly what’s needed is attention to detail to flesh out the research plan and enough confidence to accept imperfect plans. 

Good analysis of data can be difficult, but often it merely requires following a prescribed method. It’s worth keeping in mind, too, that a lot of good analysis happens implicitly: if you think something is important, that’s analysis; if you think there’s a problem, that’s analysis.  Insights that seem dreadfully obvious to you are not necessarily obvious to others.

There are many moments in the scholarly process where imagination is valuable—coming up with interesting questions, novel hypotheses or methods, or insightful analyses of data—but a lot of scholarship requires only careful pursuit of questions and methods for answering questions. Focus, discrimination, persistence, and careful attention are absolutely required for research, but once-in-a-generation brilliance is not.

Conclusion

Doubting your own intelligence can trigger anxiety, but asking whether you’re smart enough is the wrong question to ask.  Ask what you can do with the abilities you have. Focus on the abilities you have used in the past, and try to expand them a little at a time. If you have ever had success in academics, those successes suggest that you have enough intelligence to continue moving forward. Look for ways to build on past successes and trust the abilities that got you there.  Your limits may keep you from pursuing certain projects, but it’s most likely that the limits you face will be practical, not intellectual.

Note

Although I’m convinced that this is a subject worth discussing, I’m not very happy with this essay I’ve written. Nonetheless, I’m sharing it with you in part because I want to demonstrate my willingness to proceed in the face of doubt.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 9: Write for a friendly audience

A lot of writers get stuck because they’re imagining a hostile audience as they write. They remember the worst feedback they ever received, or imagine even worse.  The anticipation of cruel, harshly critical feedback had brought many a writer to a grinding halt. If you are such a writer, focus your attention and your efforts towards writing what a friendly audience would want. 

 Many writers start with some motivating idea to express, but the thought of a hostile, unhelpful response triggers defensive concerns (“how do I respond to that criticism?”) instead of positive ones (“how do I explain the part that I find interesting or important?”), which can trigger anxiety. But not all audiences are harshly critical. If you imagine writing to a friendly and interested audience, you might be able to reduce anxiety.

Real and imagined audiences

You don’t necessarily get to choose your audience.  Often—especially if you’re a student—you’re forced to write for someone who has already demonstrated a harsh, unsupportive response to your work.  Many writers get stuck writing in response to a critical professor or hostile reviewer. If you already struggle with anxiety, anticipating a harsh response can trigger overwhelming anxiety.

You don’t have to focus on writing for your real audience, however. Instead, you can imagine an audience that will appreciate and benefit from your work. It takes some effort to focus on an imagined positive audience if you have the habit of imagining a hostile response, but it gets easier with practice, as you develop a clearer sense of your ideal positive audience by repeatedly returning to the same idea.

Speaking personally, I know that my writing about writing and writing blocks (like this essay) simply isn’t relevant to a lot of people, most of whom would simply ignore it (while not exactly hostile, this is hardly encouraging). Other people, I imagine, would criticize or mock it as poorly reasoned or poorly executed or somehow detached from reality. I could imagine these people mocking me, as well as criticizing my own work. Sometimes, my mind wanders while writing and slips to people who have rejected or criticized my work, which does make it harder to keep moving.

But, instead of thinking of the people who wouldn’t want or like my work, I imagine people who might like it and who might benefit from it, starting with myself. I’m not sure I always like my writing, but I do benefit from the ideas I try to share. I have a lot of writing anxiety, and a lot of my ability to write depends on my approach, as I try to describe in my writing. I try to share these ideas because they helped me in the past and continue to help me in the present. To some extent, then, the audience I imagine is myself, or, more precisely, the part of me who would benefit and appreciate the ideas (not the part of me that would harshly criticize the weaknesses in my writing or reasoning). Additionally, I can imagine people I’ve helped—people who were stuck for years, overwhelmed with anxiety, and thinking of giving up, but who benefitted from the same ideas I’m trying to capture in my writing, and were able to complete their work and move on to new projects.

Imagining a positive audience

If I think about people I have helped (or about helping myself), it gives me focus and motivation: motivation because it feels good to help people who are struggling and even suffering because of writing-related anxiety, and focus because I try to imagine what I could say that would help (or remember what I said previously that did helped someone).

Most people aren’t writing to help people in the same direct way that I’m trying to help writers struggling with anxiety, but there are other ways of helping.  If you’re a scholar, there’s a good chance that there may be a small group of other scholars who would benefit from your work—people interested in similar subjects whose research might be able to build on yours. Many scholars feel dismay that their work is separate from the everyday concerns of most people, and that their audience is only the handful of scholars who do similar work. But that small group of people—people who share your interests and with whom you can cooperate with and help in their work—are a good audience to imagine. Perhaps you’re not helping a vast number, but if you really help a few, isn’t that a worthy effort? (Doubt about the value in studying something understood by only a few is itself a cause of anxiety for many writers. A full discussion is outside the scope of this essay, but my short answer is that the value of a subject is not measured by the number of people who study it or care about it.)  

It takes some optimism to believe that someone might appreciate esoteric research, but it’s not an unreasonable hope.  Hoping for an audience of millions may be unrealistic for most scholars, but hoping for a small and enthusiastic audience is entirely within the realm of possibility. Who are people who might be interested in your work? If you’re having trouble imagining a positive audience, think about the authors of work that you like and respect.  If you are relying heavily on the work of another scholar, there is a good chance that they will be both interested and a bit flattered. One way to find some motivation and focus is to imagine that you are writing to the author of something that influenced you in a positive way, and think about how they would appreciate your expansion of their work. (It’s an exercise of imagination, so you can imagine them being nice people just as well as you can imagine them being cruel.)

Exercise 1

Who would be interested or even excited to read your work?

  • What authors have you read who might be interested in your work? Does your work cite them? Why would they like your work/what would they like about it?
  • In the abstract, what are the characteristics of someone who might like your work? What ideas are important to them? What scholars are important to them?

Write for the audience you want

Writing for the audience you want allows you to focus on the issues that seem most important to you, and if you want to be a writer or scholar, you need to learn to trust that intuition of what is important. Writers, after all, are valued for showing us new things (or at least presenting old things in new lights), and your best and only source for new, original perspectives is your own insight.  When you are writing for an supportive and interested audience, your attention is more likely to go to the stuff that you care about most.  

Exercise 2

Consider what it’s like to talk about your research to a friendly peer: if you’re emotionally comfortable with someone, you can express your enthusiasms and pet theories.  Those enthusiasms and pet theories are what you want to get down on the page. Imagine that you’re getting a friendly peer to help you with some part of the project: what would they need to know?

  • What do you care most about your project? What do you hope to accomplish?
  • What literature would they need to know to work on your project? Why do they need that?
  • What methods would they need to know? Why? 
  • What data sources would they need? Why?

When should you write for a hostile audience?

Whenever possible, focus on writing for the audience you want. If you’re looking for publication, imagine your work going to a journal or publisher who is interested in material like yours.  There are probably several options. It’s worth looking into such options, because knowing your audience provides guidance into how to shape your work. But why anticipate sending your publication to someone who wouldn’t be interested? Don’t let self-doubt creep in by imagining a hostile response: publishers and journals want material to publish, and are happy to receive material that they like. While writing, you can focus on asking yourself what they would find interesting and compelling, and imagine that they would be interested in the same or similar concerns as you.

If you’re writing for publication, why ever think about what a hostile audience might say?  They’re not the people to whom your work will be sold.  Admittedly, if enough people read your work, some of them will probably be hostile—large groups are like that. But if  lot of people are seeing your work, some will also be friendly and interested, and they’re the ones to write for.

There are times, however, where you have a commitment to or investment in a project and a hostile audience needs to be taken into consideration. Graduate students are the most likely to face this problem because they don’t really have the option of submitting to a different audience.  In such cases, although you need to take the hostile audience into account, you want to do so as late in the process as possible.  Your first draft can be written to the audience you want, and then, once that progress has been made, revisions can attempt to accommodate the hostile audience. Aalthough you can’t avoid the hostile audience for ever, you certainly should ignore it if anxiety about a harsh response is stopping you from writing. 

Conclusion

There are hostile people in the world, and no matter what you do, there’s a good chance that someone will complain. But don’t write for such people. It’s emotionally exhausting to imagine all the possible attacks that could be directed at you and to write trying to defend against complaints. Writing in that context becomes distracted from the main points and bogged down in detail. Yes, of course it’s good to consider weaknesses in your work and to try to eliminate them. And yes, it’s difficult to draw the line between reasonable self-criticism and a paralyzing focus on potential complaints. But if you’re struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, then you don’t want spend your time thinking about people who will give you a hard time. Think about a friendly audience and about ways in which they might appreciate your work.