I recently came across this article in the Journal of Second Language Writing: "Anguish and anxiety, stress and strain: Attending to writers’ stress in the dissertation process." In the article, one of the study's participants, Rania, is quoted as saying: "Whenever I am asked to write, I stress out because for some reason writing scares me...I keep delaying…then I write it in a very short time that usually lead to a poor written piece of writing. Then I grill myself for delaying it, and the process go on!" (Russell-Pinson & Harris, 2019, p. 66).
I find this quotation so striking because it speaks directly to what I have been seeing as the status quo of writing in university. I see this status quo as a cycle that looks something like this:
In my work at the Student Learning Commons, I hear students frequently say "I am bad at writing." Or "I am a bad writer." And I have begun to suspect that this negative self-talk both stems from and feeds writing anxiety. Allow me to explain:
Writing is hard. But, for some reason many of us in academic contexts have come to believe that writing is only hard for us. Perhaps it is because we are so regularly exposed to both incredibly high quality and incredibly challenging pieces of writing, but many of us in universities have come to believe that other people find writing easy. So, when writing doesn't come easily to us, we tell ourselves it is just us - that we are "bad" at writing.
And, I will also admit, that sometimes we are also given less than graceful feedback on our writing, which can reinforce for us that we are "bad writers."
The problem is, though, that telling ourselves that we are bad at something gives us very little motivation to a) do it, and b) improve at it. Speaking for myself, the worse I think I am at something, the more likely I am to put that thing off... sometimes indefinitely.
But, surely writing is one of the skills students in university are perfectly set up to work on and get better at. Whether they are "W" designated or not, so many courses ask students to write, and often to write a lot.
When you are experiencing high levels of writing anxiety and telling yourself that you are a bad writer, these courses can feel like they were designed to punish you, when, in reality, they were designed to help you work on a skill set that will serve you no matter where you find yourself after you graduate.
So, how do we put a stop to this negative cycle that seems to be happening for so many of us as writers? Here are just a few suggestions to get you started:
- Start thinking of yourself as a writer. Seriously. I recognize that taking on an identity label like "writer" can feel daunting. After all, aren't writers those people who publish bestselling novels? Yes, those people are writers, but they were writers LONG before they ever got anything into print. The essayist Thomas Mann once wrote “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” So, the struggle you are experiencing to write is precisely what makes you a writer! Besides, thinking of yourself as a writer (not a good writer or a bad writer, but simply a writer) is a powerful way to motivate you to keep working on your writing: to learn more about strategies for writing, to seek feedback on your writing, to keep leveling up on your writing skills. In the end, that's what all writers have to do!
- Show your writing to others! Writing anxiety is often accompanied by feelings of shame about our own writing. When we are ashamed of something, we are unlikely to want to show it off. However, receiving feedback is a central way that writers (all writers!) improve both their texts and their writing skills. Start off by sharing your work with someone you trust. You can even let them know what kind of feedback you are looking for and what kind of feedback won't be helpful. For example, "I'd love to get feedback on how well my argument holds together and builds in this paper. I know that there are still some rough spots in terms of sentence structure and grammar and will focus on those later, but that's not my focus for now." Of course, a Student Learning Commons consultation is an excellent place to seek this kind of feedback from an outside reader!
- Start writing earlier. Another by-product of writing anxiety is procrastination, and, of course, the less time we have to write, the less polished our ultimate piece of writing is going to be. A couple of suggestions to help you start writing earlier are:
- Use the Assignment Calculator right away when you get your assignments to help you break down your writing into smaller, more "doable" steps.
- Set yourself a false deadline and work to that date. That way, when you finish your draft, you will still have some "built in" time for revising and refining your work. You can even put that false deadline into the assignment calculator! It won't know the difference ;)
- Start off with timed free writing sessions. There are many versions of "free writing," an approach first suggested by Peter Elbow in the 1970s. Try this: set a timer for 10 minutes and write the entire time about your assignment: what do you already know, what do you need to find out, what has you feeling unsure? While the writing that you produce may not actually end up in your assignment, often this free writing approach can "unlock" you and help you get over the initial hurdle of "starting to write." You can even build timed free writing sessions into your regular schedule. Think of this as exercising your writing muscles!
- Join or create a writing group! It is amazing what a difference it can make to simply write around other people. There are many different kinds of writing groups including ones that meet virtually and in person. See, for example, the Shut Up and Write Tuesdays group. We in the Student Learning Commons are also experimenting with different ways to support writing groups. If you are interested in participating in a writing group and/or a writing lab, get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org). We would love to hear from you!
- Get support through SFU Health and Counselling, the Centre for Accessible Learning, the Student Learning Commons, and other support services like through the Indigenous Student Centre, Out On Campus, and the Women's Centre. We are all dedicated to your well-being and provide a variety of different supports that can help you in your academic work and beyond. Reach out to us!
If you have other suggestions for how you deal with writing anxiety, we would love to hear from you!
Take care of yourselves and happy writing!
- Julia Lane, Phd, Writing Services Associate in the Student Learning Commons
Writing status quo image credited by Julia Lane