November 18, 2013
Getting Started—For the Anxious Writer
by: Matthew Staton
In her book Bird by Bird, New York Times bestselling author Anne Lamott includes a story about the anxiety of the writing process:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (18-19)
Whether you’ve put off an assignment until the last minute like Lamott’s brother or just feel unsure about your writing, it’s very possible (and perfectly acceptable) to be overwhelmed by the “hugeness” of what you’re trying to accomplish. Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to the fact that there is nothing wrong with feeling anxious, whatever the reason—whether you’re writing your first essay or your fiftieth.I majored in English as an undergrad, and I’m currently about halfway through my first semester of graduate school. In that time, I’ve handed in more writing assignments than I can count; however, despite all my past experience, I almost always feel the same, familiar anxiety when I face the prospect of starting a new project.
Lamott describes perfectionism as the “voice of the oppressor” (28). The desire to do well in a class by writing a great paper can be counterproductive, especially if you’re like me and experience writing-based anxiety. Lamott’s suggestion about taking everything one step at a time—or “bird by bird”—sounds good, but it can be hard to follow when you’ve got a new assignment in front of you and you’re trying to figure out how to meet your professor’s expectations while still communicating your own ideas, thoughts, and beliefs. Trying to tackle everything at once is the worst possible thing to do when you’re already feeling anxious.
That being said, here are a couple tips that could help you mitigate your feelings of anxiety when you’re starting a paper:
Resist the temptation to immediately sit down at your computer, open Word, and try to write the whole paper in one go. If you’ve already been procrastinating a bit, the mounting pressure and approaching due date will probably make this seem like your only option; however, I’d counsel against it. There’s nothing as intimidating or draining as sitting and staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor. The pressure of filling a page can be overwhelming, especially if you’re not sure what you want to say. More often than not, when I go this route, I usually end up accomplishing very little. I start to feel hopeless, and having ready access to the internet makes it easy to get off-task.
One thing you can do to make the time you do spend in front of the computer more productive is to come to Word with some idea of what you want to write already written out. As a tutor in the University Writing Center, I know that some professors do still require their students to write an outline before they start the actual paper; however, many professors do not. Just because you’re not required to outline doesn’t mean you don’t need to make one. At this point in my academic career, I’m outlining more than ever. It’s not just because I’m writing longer, more complicated essays either. The truth of the matter is that having a writing game plan can translate into significantly greater confidence when you’re writing.
What this outline looks like is entirely up to you. I personally prefer handwritten outlines because writing them out on paper keeps me away from the computer, and not using Word actually helps me feel less pressure to write perfectly. Because I’ll be producing the “finished product” in Word, using that program too early in my writing process carries with it the feeling that whatever I type will be final. Outlining on paper frees me up to be as messy as I like. I recommend being as organized as you can be on your outline—make a chart or bulleted list, write in complete sentences where you can—but don’t feel like you have to hold yourself to a rigid form.
Here’s what the rough outline for a paper I wrote earlier this semester looked like:
One benefit of outlining a research-based essay before you sit down in front of a computer is that you can find the passages in your books that you want to use before you actually try to write the paper. Flipping through your resources for page numbers when you’re already deep in the composing process can be a frustrating ordeal, and it can slow you down. If you find the material that you want to use beforehand and include at least the page numbers on an outline, no matter how rough, you’ll be saving yourself time and anxiety in the long-run.
Ultimately, how much time you spend outlining is up to you. I sometimes get so involved with my outline, that I’ll continue handwriting the paper itself. You don’t need to handwrite your entire first draft, though. I just find that it helps me manage my anxiety.
Whether you’re outlining, writing, revising, editing, or waiting for a professor to return your graded paper, at all stages of the writing process, it’s important to manage your thoughts and feelings. Having a negativist, self-defeating attitude about your writing will hurt you the same way it will in your personal life. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a great writer, resist the temptation to indulge in self-deprecation. Don’t put yourself down in private or public. Nobody (not even you) will root for a whiner. One thing I’m working on in my academic and personal life is the amount of complaining that I do. Complaints will only drag you down—be they about the class, your professor, an assignment, the cost of tuition, the quality of food, or whatever—and the act of complaining breeds negative energy that you don’t need.
Instead of focusing on your worries, try to hype yourself up. The writing process, from beginning to end, depends on momentum. What you need to ask yourself is this: How can I best motivate myself to start writing and keep writing?
Is there a specific song or style of music that helps you psych yourself up? Are you a person who works best when you “treat yourself” incrementally? Or are you like me—Do you write best when you’re already feeling productive? I psych myself up and increase my confidence by taking care of some smaller tasks before I start writing. I’ll answer emails, balance my checkbook, or clean up a little around my apartment. When I start to get into that “can do” mindset, no matter how large or small the task, I find that the same feelings will carry over to other things that I do.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with this thought from Tal Ben-Shahar’s The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t put a lot of stock in self-help books, but I read Ben-Shahar’s book as an undergrad, and a lot of the things he had to say about anxiety and perfectionism resonated with me. Maybe you don’t identify yourself as a perfectionist—that’s perfectly fine. What The Pursuit of Perfect has to say about anxiety is still relevant.
Tal Ben-Shahar writes about the importance of acknowledging anxiety. The old story about standing in front of a mirror and telling yourself you’re not afraid is not the way to go. Instead, you’re better off identifying your feelings of inadequacy. The first step towards dealing with a personal issue is to acknowledge that the issue exists at all. When you can be honest about what makes you question yourself, you can start to figure out how to master it (42).
If writing makes you anxious or feel less-than-capable as a student, you owe it to yourself to find a way to control those feelings. If you feel that you’re the only one questioning yourself, I want you to know that you’re not alone. Over time, you’ll gain experience writing for your classes. Some level of skill and confidence comes with time and practice; however, it’s equally important to learn about your process and where you feel weakest.
Take things “bird by bird,” and next time you find yourself uncertain about what to do with a paper, try stepping away from the computer. Outline a bit, or just work with your mood: up your feeling of productivity or think about reducing negativity.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Print.
Ben-Shahar, Tal. Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfect and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.