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Writing Anxiety: Turn Angst Into Productivity

writing anxietyWhen I accepted my first ghostwriting project, I spent three or four days in a haze of anticipation and glee. Someone wanted me to write their manuscript. Holy crap, how lucky was I?

After that initial exuberance wore off, however, anxiety took the place of excitement. No longer was I thinking about the big paycheck or the sense of accomplishment; instead, I was wondering what the hell I was going to do when my client realized I was a big fat fraud.

I wasn’t a fraud, of course, but my imagination ran wild with images of shoddy literary craftsmanship and angry e-mails filled with hard-slung criticism. Taking on the responsibility of someone else’s manuscript is a heady experience, and one fraught with writing anxiety.

Now that I am embarking upon the next step in my career, I find myself at anxiety’s doorstep once again. The old fears come back, the mind-numbing insecurity that threatens to derail my future success with geometric precision. I could very easily succumb to the angst and shelve my project indefinitely.

When the butterflies in your stomach turn to gigantic birds of prey, how do you push forward? Writing anxiety is not an uncommon occurrence, and in fact I am writing this article in response to a great number of anxiety-ridden blog posts published by acquaintances over the last few weeks. So how do you get control of your anxiety so productivity and creativity can shine through?

You’ve Succeeded Before

Writing anxiety is often the result of poor output. Maybe you’ve been trying to write the Great American Novel and everything you put on paper sounds like it was written by a fifth grader. It happens to the best of us.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you are incapable of excellent prose. Somewhere, some time in the past, you have produced a work of literary art in which you’ve taken pride.

One of the fastest ways to reduce writing anxiety is to pull out a previous manuscript and read it over. Marvel at the word choice, the sentence structure, the descriptive cadence. This might be the best way to restore your confidence and remind yourself why you write.

Whenever I’m feeling low, I read some of the books I’ve ghosted for clients over the years. Some of these scripts showcase my best work, and I always feel an adrenaline rush after skimming them. They remind me that I do have talent, and they often spark ideas.

If this isn’t a reason to save your work, regardless of whether or not you publish it, I don’t know what is. If you don’t have any previous manuscripts to which you can refer, put a Post-It note beside your computer reminding yourself to SAVE YOUR WORK. This way, when the doldrums hit again, you’ll have ammunition.

Cutting the Umbilical Cord

Writing a book or novel (and sometimes even something as simple as a blog post) is a work of art, and writers become attached to their words—sometimes in an unhealthy way.

In 2002, my first novel was published. It didn’t even have my name on it because I’d written it for a client, but it was still my work and I was emotionally invested in it. Consequently, I refused to read any of the reviews that came out until six months later.

Much like a mother-child relationship, this attachment begins long before your manuscript makes it to book store shelves. From the moment you put fingers to keyboard, you develop a relationship with your manuscript—one that ebbs and flows with your output.

Just like a mother, there are times when you will want to ring your manuscript’s neck, and others when you feel like cuddling it to sleep. You’ll experience anger, resentment, frustration, joy, pride, protectiveness and elation, sometimes all at the same time.

What would happen if a mother refused to give birth? Devoted all of her energy to the baby inside her, forsaking even contact with her other children? There is a reason why mothers are supposed to give birth, raise their children, then send them off into the world.

So cut the umbilical cord. Rather than focusing all of your energy on your current WIP, take a breather for a few days and work on another project. Give the manuscript a chance to cool and you might see your writing anxiety evaporate within hours.

The same goes for a completed manuscript. Many writers jump directly into the editing process, furiously injecting commas, splicing sentences and reworking awkward phrasing. This is a mistake. The manuscript is too fresh on your mind, too close to your heart. Stick it in a drawer and wait a couple weeks before you try to edit.

Of course, the “cooling-off” period is directly proportional to the length of your manuscript. For an article, a few hours will do; if your project is book-length, give it at least a week.

Changing Direction

Do you pre-write? Create an outline? Formulate the plot or direction of your manuscript from the get-go? Many writers prefer this organized approach to writing, but it can create anxiety.

Think of it this way: You’re taking a vacation in another state, and you decide to drive. You pick up a key map at the grocery store, identify the fastest route, and mark your path with highlighter in preparation for the trip.

You set out on the road, but when you turn from one highway onto another you discover the road is closed. Or maybe there is a ten-car pile-up across three lanes, or perhaps a herd of turkeys is crossing the road and taking forever. Regardless, your meticulously planned route has been thwarted.

Some people would sit in traffic for six hours waiting for the blockage to clear, while others would simply flip a U-Turn in the median and seek out another path. To cure writing anxiety, you need to be the latter.

It doesn’t matter how carefully you plan your manuscript; you might reach a point where the course you plotted simply doesn’t work anymore. You can either try to force it in the direction you chose at the outset, or you can roll with the punches and plot a new route.

I never pre-write or outline simply because I don’t want to formulate a specific plot in advance. I want to see where the characters will take me, how the mystery unfolds. I allow the book itself to guide me rather than the other way around. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pre-write, but be willing to change direction when needed.

In many cases, this will lift the blockage and melt your writing anxiety immediately. You’ll have fresh material in mind and a brand new outlook on your manuscript.

Finding Motivation

I always find it easier to sit down and write when a cause is weighing on my mind. Be it politics, social activism, consumer rights or any other issue, if I’m passionate about the subject matter the words just flow.

Your writing anxiety might be the result of apathy. Do you really care about your WIP? Are you invested in it? You might be suffering from a blockage because you just don’t care.

Regardless of whether you write fiction or non-fiction, passion is necessary. If you don’t care about the subject matter or if the plot of your novel doesn’t incite fervor, it is doubtful you will ever finish the piece. More important, the finished product will not be half as good as it could have been if you were motivated.

This doesn’t mean that everything you write should contain your perspective on a hot-button issue. You don’t have to write about abortion or gun control or the environment each time you sit down at the computer. However, you should find a reason to write any manuscript you start.

I won’t divulge many details about the novel I am currently writing, but I will say that it deals with violence against women. This is an issue I take seriously, and I feel that while the novel will be entertaining, it will also enlighten a few souls to a very real threat.

Maybe you are passionate about gardening or cars or dogs. Work those things into your writing to eliminate anxiety.

Location, Location, Location

Many people claim to work well under pressure, but I know few writers whose best work is accomplished when pressed for time. If you are constantly placing yourself in a negative frame of mind when writing, anxiety will surely follow.

The experts advise you to squeeze in writing whenever your schedule will allow—on the train, in the doctor’s waiting room, during your thirty-minute lunch break. While this might seem like sound advice for the aspiring author, it can actually work against you.

Location might be essential to real estate and retail, but it is just as important for writers. If you force yourself to work in less-than-ideal circumstances, anxiety is likely to follow.

Create an atmosphere conducive to writing. This will be different for every writer, so you might need to experiment. For example, I work best when working to 80s metal. Others might prefer classical music, country tunes or silence.

Make sure you are sitting in a comfortable chair with both back and arm support. Keep a legal pad or other notebook handy for jotting notes and use a word processing program with which you are comfortable. If you tend to get thirsty, keep a bottle of water or a cup of coffee on the desktop so you don’t have to break for a visit to the kitchen.

It is also a good idea to head off any interruptions that might disrupt the flow of your work. I put my cellular phone on silent, turn off the ringer on my house phone and disable my e-mail program. There is nothing I can do about knocks on the door, but people rarely visit without first checking by phone.

Since I live with my husband and no one else, I don’t have to worry about family interruptions. However, if you have children, friends or other relatives living in your home, let them know what “writing time” means to you. Ask them to hold all non-emergency questions or issues until you are finished.

Everyone’s Got an Opinion

Sometimes writing anxiety is born of external stimuli beyond your control. Sharing your work with others is always a gamble since appreciation of art is subjective. What one person adores another will hate, and vice versa.

Perhaps a dear friend has offered terse criticism of your WIP, or maybe you’ve received that unhelpful suggestion to “keep your day job”. Of course, the opposite approach can also stimulate writing anxiety. Maybe someone has lavished praise on your work and you now feel intimidated by your own potential.

If you are feeling the pressure from external forces, you’ll need to make a decision. Some writers despise the idea of letting anyone read their work until it is finished (myself included), while others thrive on continual feedback. Know, however, that if you open yourself to praise and criticism, you shall receive.

Consider the source. Have you solicited feedback from your best friend or from an experienced acquisitions editor? Does the critic have a degree in English literature or experience in editing? Many times, unhelpful criticism comes from uneducated parties, and you have to be willing to let it roll off your back.

Dealing with Deadlines

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve experienced intense writing anxiety because of an impending deadline. As a ghostwriter, my clients contracted me to produce within a specified period of time, and writing—like other forms of art—cannot always be rushed.

If you are facing a deadline, look at the bright side: You already have a publisher! Someone has decided you produce written works of sufficient quality to warrant a contract. This means you are capable of writing a masterpiece, regardless of how long it takes.

If you truly believe that you writing anxiety will cause you to miss a deadline, advise the client immediately. Whether it’s a ghostwriting client, the editor of a magazine or your literary agent, call them up and explain the situation. The sooner you do this, the better.

Most people are willing to work with writers on deadlines—within reason. Try to give as close an estimate as possible for when the script will be finished, then rearrange your mental processes to reflect the new deadline.

If an adjustment is not possible, try breaking up the manuscript into managable pieces to cure writing anxiety. Sit down at the computer and tell yourself you will accomplish as much as possible in one hour, then set a timer to mark your deadline.

Alternatively, you can set word-count minimums for each day until the deadline. Rather than looking at it as one big manuscript, approach it from the perspective of smaller chunks. This often reduces writing anxiety and makes the writing process easier.

Of course, some deadlines are not quite so easy to diagnose. The self-imposed deadline, for example, is particularly formidable. If you are setting your own expectations too high, you are prepping yourself for failure.

Some writers like to set word-count or time-limited deadlines for themselves on a daily basis, but I find this method counter-productive. It produces writing anxiety in abundance and often leads to depression.

Instead, give yourself the gift of time. Decide that you will work at your own pace and let the manuscript guide you down the path toward completion.

Getting Excited

Writing is supposed to be an enjoyable activity, something to which you look forward every day. If writing anxiety is dampening your passion for the art, it’s time to find ways to get excited.

For example, let’s say you want to write a mystery novel. Seems like a good idea. You’ve got a mystery all figured out, know your characters by heart. The only problem is that you can’t seem to get started.

Rather than trying to think of the perfect way to begin your mystery novel, jump ahead to the first exciting scene. Maybe you’re excited about describing the murder or the theft of the jewels—go with it! There is no rule that says you must begin at the beginning.

Once you’ve written a few of the exciting scenes, you can go back and fill in the rest. Get something down on paper of which you can be proud, then let the rest fall into place.

This is also an excellent strategy for keeping your material fresh. You might find that you never have to write any “boring parts” once you get a few exciting scenes down on paper.

Getting Educated

Two years ago, I ghosted a novel for a client based on a screenplay he’d written. I had the script in front of me and I originally thought it would be the easiest project I’d ever undertaken. After all, with the screenplay, most of the work had been done for me.

Wrong answer, Sam.

It turned out to be the most challenging project because, even with the screenplay, the plot was terribly confusing. It dealt with industrial espionage, a genre with which I had absolutely no experience, and without the requisite knowledge the manuscript was impossible to complete.

And so, rather than bathing in writing anxiety and trying to fudge the parts I didn’t understand, I hit the library. Three days later, I pulled my out out of the stacks and got back to work with not a trace of anxiety.

Research is a writer’s chain mail, and you will never feel confident in your work unless you succumb to the magnetic pull of books and trade journals and magazine articles. I’ll cover a how-to on research at a later date, so watch out for that article.

Finding the Cause

In the above paragraphs, I’ve given you lots of different ideas about what might be causing your writing anxiety. Your issue could be one of them or a combination. Whatever the case, you won’t make any progress unless you identify the sources of your writing anxiety.

What makes you want to chew your nails and grind your teeth? What is it about writing that quickens your pulse and respiration? Think about this carefully for a few days before making a determination.

Once you’ve identified the cause, fixing it is usually easy. You can target the cause of writing anxiety directly rather than troubleshooting randomly.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tessie O. Rios permalink
    January 26, 2017 8:47 am

    Your articles are interesting and insightful. I have begun writing a non fiction novel but the memories are so painful that I find myself crying with each paragraph i write. I read your articles on ghostwriters and now wondering if I should take that route. Somehow working with a ghostwriter may help me accomplish this goal of completing my book. Thank you.

  2. January 14, 2018 8:23 pm

    I’ve found for me the anxiety can get pretty fierce. I fight it by taking breaks and walks often, writing regardless of how I feel, and ignoring criticism.


  1. anxiety « Sam Tamlyn

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