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.
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.
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.
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.