Dealing with writing-related anxiety

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

10.45-11.15am            Break

11.15-12.45pm            Write section on beaks

12.45-1.45pm              Lunch

1.45-3.15pm                Write section on grains

3.15-3.45pm                Break

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:

  1. Who are intended readers? (3-5 names)
  2. What did you do? (50 words)
  3. Why did you do it? (50 words)
  4. What happened? (50 words)
  5. What do results mean in theory? (50 words)
  6. What do results mean in practice? (50 words)
  7. What is the key benefit for readers (25 words)
  8. 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.[1] 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:

Introduction

  1. Teaser
  2. Overview of Hard Times
  3. Overview of ‘Janet’s Rep’
  4. Divorce and publication dates
  5. Janet as new form of female alcoholic
  6. Add more signposting?
  7. Conclusion

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).

Rest properly

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).

Happy writing!

[1] My thanks to Louise Benson James for introducing me to this valuable technique.

 

What does success look like to you?

Last year I attended Bristol Clear’s first residential – ‘making the most of your first post doc.’ A topic that was explored was ‘What is success?’ and it’s been something that has been on my mind ever since.

Free Solo

I recently watched a film ‘Free Solo’, about a man, Alex Honnold, a mountain climber. He is no ordinary climber as he sometimes climbs ‘free solo’ or in other words – without any equipment. No ropes, no harnesses. Just him, his hands and the mountain.

The film followed Alex as he prepared to climb El Capitan, a 3,000ft high granite wall in Yosemite National park ‘free solo’. Some of the shots were enough to make my legs turn to jelly while I was just sitting in my cinema seat! He would be the first person in the world to do this and *Spoiler* he succeeds.

But I came out of the cinema asking myself – “Why would anyone do that!?”

What’s the driving force?

What stuck with me after the film was something Alex said “Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cosy.” Alex was comparing his idea on the ‘point of life’ to his girlfriend’s who couldn’t for the life of her understand why anyone would put themselves in such danger… she wanted to live a long and happy life, spending her time with the people she loves.

It made me think – these are two people with very different definitions of what a successful life looks like, but really what it comes down to is their core values.

Core Values

At the Residential last year, I learnt that we all have core values. These are core beliefs which we each hold and they are fundamental to who we are. They are individual to each of us and they drive our behaviour and what decisions we make.

Values drive how you see success

When we are living in line with our values we are likely to feel a sense of things being ‘right’, however, if you’re behaving in a way that goes against your values, this is likely to cause you inner turmoil and you may feel like you’re swimming against the tide.

Taking Alex Honnald as an example, he dropped out of college and spent years living in a van as a self-proclaimed ‘dirtbag’, while he honed his climbing skills in the mountains. For some people – this could look like a life of failure (no job, no house, no relationship, no income – the traditional things our society expects of us). But for Alex, he was living the dream. He was living a life of success – or his definition of it.

For Alex, it is clear he is not driven by material objects, wealth or status. The values which drive him to climb with no ropes may be something like ‘performance’, ‘achievement’ or ‘challenge’. He probably also has values like ‘adventure’ which is why he feels most alive when climbing and being able to travel around the world in his van to climb ever-more-dangerous rock faces.

His girlfriend Sanni, on the other hand, didn’t need to be ‘the best’ at something. Instead, she only needed to spend time with those she loved, building those relationships, to feel content and happy and successful.

Live in line with your values

So if we want to live more successful lives, perhaps instead of asking ourselves what success “should” look like, we should be asking, what does success look like to ME personally?

  • Are you an Alex or are you a Sanni? Or are you somewhere in the middle?
  • If you’re in the middle, what are the things that you will/won’t compromise?
  • Are your values the same as they always were? Or have they changed?

Then, the interesting question is whether the success that we target really matches our values?

  • If not, then can success and values be brought back into line?
  • What are the consequences of doing that?
  • What are the consequences of not doing that?

I’m not saying that there’s a ‘right’ way to think about this. But there will be a balance that is right for you, to achieve success in the areas that you want to.

So have a think, discover your values, and then think about what changes you may need to make to find your very own version of success.

The importance of mentoring

About a year ago I took on a new role in the Bristol Clear Team. The team has been built around Claire and Mike’s vision for a mentoring scheme for our research staff. This was part of my new role, to help build, manage and grow the scheme. Now, mentoring was a new concept to me and I’ve not had much to do with it before, but a year into my new role, here is what I’ve come to learn about mentoring and why it is so important.

You have the power

What I’ve come to realise is that no one can tell you what to do, what path to take in life, how to achieve a goal or fix a problem. (No matter how much you may want someone to tell you those things! – that would be so much easier, right?) But sadly no one can do that for you. Only you have the answers about what is right for you. However, once you grasp that concept, that can make you powerful. Just think of that… you have the power to do whatever you want and make your life however you want it to be…

Face the fear

But along with this powerful realisation, comes the fear. The realisation that where you are now and where you want to be is totally down to you – that can be a pretty scary thought.

But that is why mentoring can be so vital.

A mentor’s importance

A mentor is someone impartial, a non-judgmental person who you can bounce your ideas off. Ask a question that you may not dare to voice to your colleagues. Perhaps speak out loud your ambition of that dream job that feels totally out of reach at the moment or that crazy idea that you’ve kept to yourself because it’s just too ‘out there’.

A mentor is someone who can act as a sounding board for those ideas.

They can help you to work out the answer to that question.

They could help you think about the steps you need to take to get that dream job and work out goals you may need to put in place to make it achievable.

They can challenge you about how to make that ‘crazy idea’ a reality, which may perhaps lead to a lightbulb moment.

No one does it alone

Mentoring is about taking responsibility for your choices. Being bold enough to face your dreams, ambitions and fear. Working out what you want, what your options are and taking action to bring what you want to fruition. But, most importantly, knowing that you don’t have to do it alone.

So, what I’m saying is – we all need a little help sometimes, whether that be in the form a supporting guide, a push outside our comfort zone, or someone to set you a challenge. A mentor can be all these things and more.

Come to think of it…. I think I need to find myself a mentor!

Get involved

Find out more about The Bristol Clear Mentoring Scheme.

If you are Research Staff, and in Science, Engineering, Arts or Social Sciences and Law (Life and Health… coming soon), you can sign up for the March-Sept mentoring cycle now.

Other mentoring events coming up:

Academic Journeys Event – Friday 22 February, 14:00 – 16:00

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