Different writers enjoy diverse parts of the writing process but all writers experience writing-related anxiety at some point in their writing lives. Whether you are worried you haven’t found that one bit of evidence that disproves your theory, or you feel like you can’t communicate your ideas well, or that, today, you simply have no ideas to communicate, it is a normal part of the writing process. Some days, writing will be slow. Often, these are the days when you are creating something exciting and complicated – relax and remember that you are doing something difficult and that can take time. Other days, you will simply feel tired and disheartened. Either way, here are a couple of techniques that can help you feel calmer about your writing:
Planning your day
It can be difficult to start your writing day, to dirty that clean white page with your unformed thoughts. This can cause anxiety, making it feel impossible to start. Planning carefully and setting goals for a writing day can help with these feelings. Think about how much writing time you have today (remember to allow long breaks and a good lunch) and then divide your day up between your tasks. Look at the overall plan for the piece you are working on a select a few sections to work on today. Write them separately so you aren’t distracted by the big picture. Be realistic. For example:
9.15-9.30am Set goals for the day. Do a quick writing warm up.
9.30-10.45 am Finish overview on chicken’s eating habits
11.15-12.45pm Write section on beaks
1.45-3.15pm Write section on grains
3.45-5.00pm Re-read today’s writing and do a quick edit then plan for your next writing session
Just having a structure to work to, and a plan for the day, can make the work seem more manageable. The more you plan like this, the more realistic you become, and the less you punish yourself for not achieving unrealistic goals.
Ask yourself some key questions using Who, What, Where, Why, When and What
Sometimes it can be useful to go back to basics. Anxiety can be caused by a fear of missing something important. Doing an exercise like this can help you marshal your thoughts. For example, this is one of mine for an article on drinking in Wuthering Heights:
Who is Hindley?
What is habitual drunkenness?
Where does the action take place?
Why is drinking important to this novel?
When is it set?
What does Emily’s attention to Domestic Medicine reveal about Hindley’s drinking?
It only took 10 minutes to write these questions and reflect on some possible answers but it helped me remember the key things I needed to include and helped me to remind myself why my research was important/useful/different.
If you aren’t sure how to do this, try using Brown’s 8 questions:
- Who are intended readers? (3-5 names)
- What did you do? (50 words)
- Why did you do it? (50 words)
- What happened? (50 words)
- What do results mean in theory? (50 words)
- What do results mean in practice? (50 words)
- What is the key benefit for readers (25 words)
- What remains unresolved? (no word limit)
Reflect positively on the work you have done so far by creating a reverse outline
This is particularly effective in the editing stages. Without editing your text (sit on your hands if necessary), read through your work so far and write a reverse outline. This means writing a couple of words, or a couple of sentences, beside each paragraph summing up what that paragraph does.
As well as being a reassuring exercise to remind you how much work you have already done, this ‘reverse outline’ can be a useful tool to see whether each paragraph is working and whether your overall argument is scanning properly. For example, this is the introduction to a comparative piece on Dickens and Eliot:
- Overview of Hard Times
- Overview of ‘Janet’s Rep’
- Divorce and publication dates
- Janet as new form of female alcoholic
- Add more signposting?
At a glance, I can see which bits are working, whether the reader is getting the information in the right order, and flag up which bits still need significant editing (final signposting in this case).
Make sure you rest regularly through the writing day and find things that help you to relax after a day of writing. It doesn’t matter whether that is a walk in the park, some sweating at the gym, a long bath, or something cheesy on Netflix, take the time you need to re-boot and get ready for tomorrow. But remember to reflect after a rest – did your ‘go to’ relaxation actually help you to relax? If not, try something new. I recommend yoga with Adriene (its free, you can do it anywhere, and its great for body and mind).
 My thanks to Louise Benson James for introducing me to this valuable technique.