writing anxiety – one step at a time

I know a number of people who are too hard on themselves when it comes to, well, pretty much everything. Perfectionism has its place, and can produce fantastic results as long as it’s a drive forward and not an impediment to progress. The key is figuring out how to apply it sparingly.

Some perfectionists have anxiety around writing because it’s so very big. It’s overwhelming to know that there are probably 30 things that “need to be better” about one’s writing. When I was teaching high school, I attended a workshop that was designed to help us teach our students to be better writers. The English teachers who led the workshop advocated an organized, compartmentalized approach to improving writing skills. They suggested that we announce one or two criteria that we want to focus on for each assignment, make sure the students understand the expectations well, and grade only on those criteria. With each new assignment, the students are responsible for the previous criteria and one or two new ones. Of course, if they have a chance to get feedback on drafts and to rewrite, they should be held accountable for the totality of their work. This approach was meant more for quick daily assignments, essays on tests that they take in class, etc.

I think that a lot of adults who are inhibited by anxiety and perfectionism would do well to apply this strategy to their own writing. Instead of beating myself up over having so very many things I need  to improve about my writing, I choose two or three items I want to focus on until I feel I’ve really mastered them, and I give myself a break on everything else. I keep an eye on other issues, but I won’t get hung up trying to make everything perfect every time, and I won’t be upset if I revisit my work later and notice deficiencies in other areas. Right now, my action items are meaningful introductions, redundancies (I caught myself typing “I need to work to improve” above when “I need to improve” is much cleaner), and my use of words like “just” and “really” that try to creep into my academic writing after so much blogging. I keep a few items on deck that I do pay attention to and work on as I write, but I don’t get too upset if I notice I’m not where I’d like to be on those issues.

There are of course instances in which we need to try to make a piece of writing as perfect as possible. Academic papers, cover letters for job applications, college entrance essays, and submissions to serious publications are a few examples. I have different strategies for that kind of writing. In journaling, blog-writing and commenting, and essays on exams that I will not be able to edit thoroughly, I’ve found this to be a useful strategy for overcoming anxiety and for achieving steady improvement.

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2 responses to “writing anxiety – one step at a time

  1. Hey Adrienne,

    I don’t know if you remember me from Sara’s book club, but I also LOVE reading people’s blogs. I’m doing a grad program myself right now in rhetoric and composition, and I was wondering if you’d read anything by Peter Elbow. He wrote “Writing With Power” and “Writing Without Teachers”… he’s a lot in the vein of Natalie Goldberg, but also finds ways to incorporate this kind of freewriting and voice into more academic settings. He’s really interesting; you might like him a lot.

  2. Annie K?
    What does one do in a grad program in rhetoric and composition?

    I haven’t read Peter Elbow, but I just looked at a preview of Writing Without Teachers and it looks great. I love reading about writing, so thanks for the tip!

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