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.)
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.
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.
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.