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
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.