writing anxiety – your writing is terrible sometimes and that’s okay

I used to have a lot of anxiety around writing. When I had a writing assignment for school I’d get so anxious that I’d put it off until the last hour or so before class, then sit down and in a fury just write the paper straight through, beginning to end. I think it had to do with fear of trying and failing—if I actually worked hard on something and didn’t do it right, that would crush me. But if I dashed it off at the last minute and just hoped for the best, I had an excuse ready for myself if it were less than stellar.

Eventually I realized I was doing myself a disservice by producing below my real ability level. I started to be able to be proud of my own work, to look at something I’d created and feel good about the actual product and not just the grade attached to it.

Thinking about the way I had learned to approach art helped too. When I was younger, I had similar anxiety around art until I learned, by studying bodies of work by famous artists, that it’s okay if 9 out of 10 things I drew were utter crap. It’s all a learning process, and it’s ridiculous to think that everything that drifts out of my hand is going to be meaningful and new and beautiful. If I could fill sketchbooks with junk and look back through them and shrug it off, why couldn’t I do this with writing?

For a lot of people writing is not just a specific skill, like painting with watercolors, or throwing a football, or singing, about which one can say, “Oh, I just never learned how to do that,” or “I tried but I’m just not good at it—oh well.” Rather, writing seems like a window directly into a person’s mind. We think we can look at someone’s writing and tell how intelligent they are, what kind of education they’ve had, and how successful they might be in life. Unlike a face-to-face conversation, in writing we can’t read the other person’s reaction and clarify as we go.

It’s unnerving to put a snapshot of your mind out there for others’ judgment. We probably all know someone who gives unwelcome grammar advice in a mocking tone or cuts down others’ writing not for their ideas but for the “errors” in the way they present them. This post, Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar, from a blog called (appropriately for our topic today) Shitty First Drafts, does a great job of addressing this behavior. The author says, “I equate it to going around at a party criticizing everyone’s food and drink selection. No one likes that guy. We edge away from him and talk about him behind his back. Like food selections at parties, speech patterns are both a function of personal taste and what’s available to us. Not only is grammar correcting just plain rude, it’s soaked in classism, regional chauvinism, and privilege.”

Writing is a skill, just like skiing or playing the trombone, and it takes practice. Practice usually looks ugly. We trip and fall down the mountain, we hit a flat note and can’t take it back. It should be just as excusable to do this in writing as it is in any other human endeavor.

I should say here that Natalie Goldberg’s work, particularly Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, has had by far the largest positive influence on my writing process, and that she is emphatic that we must embrace the fact that most of what we make is going to be somewhere between mediocre and terrible. She suggests keeping all of your writing practice in its original form in a journal or notebook (as opposed to using loose-leaf paper, for instance) as a reminder of this fact. Rather than erasing parts and fixing them, she advocates keeping it all and just starting over if you want to rework an idea.

Now, rather than crushing anxiety, I just have a little jolt of dread when I think about putting my writing out in the world.  I can brush that aside though, and just put it out there anyway.

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6 responses to “writing anxiety – your writing is terrible sometimes and that’s okay

  1. Writing anxiety amassing for an assignment due in about 2 days. Strangely, I feel as if I would just start writing, I would enjoy the creation, but trying to form it into something appropriate for class feels too difficult. My ideas have shifted and if I could just pick at where my brain was about 4 weeks ago, I’d have a much more manageable task.

    Thank you for reminding me that at the end of the day, I can just write and write and write and document wherever my thoughts are at any given moment. All masterpieces have a journey.

    Cheers to the anxieties! <3

    • Matthew, I’m so grateful you took the time to add your thoughts! Funny how sometimes it’s hard to get started, but other times it’s easy to begin a writing project and difficult to finish it. I was just talking to a friend who has the latter problem; maybe he’ll chime in as well.

      I’ve developed a habit of making good notes as I move through the research/pondering phase of writing. Sometimes a quick jot will turn into a whole paragraph that I can insert without much alteration into the final piece. Lately these notes have added up to just about enough material (or way too much) to meet the page/word requirement, and all I have to do is put them in the right order and figure out the right transitions to tie it all together.
      I can totally identify with being in a different frame of mind than weeks ago when you started. Sometimes I look back at the notes and realize I’d been working on an entirely different topic than I’d meant to, or I end up in such a different place that I have to abandon a lot of the early research because it just doesn’t fit anymore. But I think having that room to wander is ultimately really helpful.

      Let me know how it all turned out for you? Good luck!

    • Fiindng this post. It’s just a big piece of luck for me.

    • We will never get tired of praying for our president E B Koroma for his remarkable work he is doing for mama salone.Mr president God will always guide you the right path,the path upon he has bestowed his blessings like Jesus,Abraham,Moses,Mohamed not of those who have gone astray like Maada bio the killer, the rapist , the wife beater and the big big tiff man

  2. Adrienne,

    Found your blog through a series of random events. I very much enjoyed your thoughts on the word “tongue,” and I’ve been craving another linguistics fix since (care to remedy this?). When I read this post, however, I decided to get in on the discussion. Writing is so incredibly important, and I think it’s slipping through the collective fingers of our generation. I’m sure that sounds unnecessarily melodramatic, but it’s shocking to me how little emphasis is placed on writing well. I completely agree that sometimes writing is going to be bad. Sometimes I hate my writing, can’t believe I’ve wasted my time thinking it, let alone writing it down. And yes, we all need practice. I tend to judge myself on the most recent thing I’ve written, rather than a collective body of work, which can be utterly painful.

    I’m not sure I agree with the idea that correcting grammar is such a bad idea. Unwelcome criticism is of course never the best thing, but it’s also true that our standards for good writing have sunk to pathetic lows (totally subjective, I realize, but still, some of the books on the bestseller list are just plain badly written). Writing is not intrinsically good. It’s the product of community, desire and education. The rules are important. Now, rules change, language is constantly evolving, but it’s important to understand and use the rules in an intelligent, informed way.

    • Hi Alyssa! I’ve been reading your blog too since Mark Mann linked to it recently, and I’m honored that you’ve read mine and have decided to offer your perspective. Your kind and calming presence really shows in your writing. I’ve been thinking about tone and voice a lot lately and that was one of the first things that struck me about your blog- the consistency and clarity of voice.

      I’m sure I’ll post frequently about language/linguistics, since it kicks around in my brain more than any other topic. I’m glad you enjoyed the tongue post.

      As for language rules…it’s a tricky topic for me because I spend so much of my time studying Latin, a language that has, at its core, a very fixed, logical structure that is absolutely crucial to grasp in order to be able to gain meaning from texts. This is why Latin teachers end up being the ones to fill in the gaps (or correct the misinformation) that English teachers have left in their students’ minds. No offense to English teachers! You all have a hard job. It’s the fault of the education system and where our cultural priorities are more than anything else. Plus, English is basically a big ole mess. I love English, but it’s hard to navigate. Rules are supposed to help with that navigation, not keep the language from evolving, which is what a lot of people who are concerned with grammar and usage rules seem to want to do.

      I agree with you, Alyssa, that the general ability to express oneself well (i.e. with clarity/fluency, as the author of that link says) seems to be on the decline. I think focusing on rules can actually contribute to this problem. As with standardized testing, I think we’ve gone too far towards strict, easily measureable standards in writing and have sacrificed clarity and nuance, which is what the rules were intended for in the first place. As you said, “it’s important to understand and use the rules in an intelligent, informed way.”

      As for correcting other people’s grammar (and actually, I tend to notice issues with usage more often than grammar), I just don’t do it anymore unless they have explicitly told me they want the help. Too many people have serious anxiety around such things and I’d rather not risk making someone feel like crap. I’ve learned that the hard way.

      For me it’s similar to commenting negatively on someone’s appearance. I would never say, “You know, that color really doesn’t work with your skin tone” or “That dress went out several seasons ago,” unless a friend had given me a blanket plea for such help or if I had been asked a specific question. Chances are slim that anyone would ask me for advice with regards to fashion, but there are a number of people who have indicated that they appreciate when I point out language issues, so I am happy to offer what help I can in that area.

      Here’s my blanket plea to anyone who reads this: I would appreciate any advice you have with regards to my writing! If it’s a severe take-down, maybe save my pride and do it in an email, but if it’s a question of using a specific word correctly or some such, I’d welcome it in a comment so we can hash it out as a group.

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