From the Archives: Writing Through Fear -->

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From the Archives: Writing Through Fear

Happy Halloween, readers! Today seems like the perfect day to resurrect Hillary's post on working through writing fear, originaly published in 2013. 

I suppose fall is the perfect time to discuss fear. The leaves are falling, the nights are getting longer, and the kids are preparing ghoulish costumes and tricks for Halloween.

So here’s my scary story: A few weeks ago, I sat down at my computer to revise an essay draft for an upcoming deadline. This is old hat for me; it’s what I do in my personal life as a creative writer, and it’s what I do in my professional life as a Walden Writing Center instructor. As I was skimming through it, though, a feeling of dread settled in my stomach, I began to sweat, and my pulse raced. I was having full-on panic. About my writing. 

Tips from the Walden Writing Center on writing through fear

This had never happened to me before. Sure, I have been disappointed in my writing, frustrated that I couldn’t get an idea perfectly on paper, but not completely fear-stricken. I Xed out of the Word document and watched Orange Is the New Black on Netflix because I couldn’t look at the essay anymore. My mind was too clouded for anything productive to happen.

The experience got me thinking about the role that fear plays in the writing process. Sometimes fear can be a great motivator. It might make us read many more articles than are truly necessary, just so we feel prepared enough to articulate a concept. It might make us stay up into the wee hours to proofread an assignment. But sometimes fear can lead to paralysis. Perhaps your anxiety doesn’t manifest itself as panic at the computer; it could be that you worry about the assignment many days—or even weeks—before it is due.

Here are some tips to help: 

1. Interrogate your fear. 

Ask yourself why you are afraid. Is it because you fear failure, success, or judgment? Has it been a while since you’ve written academically, and so this new style of writing is mysterious to you?

2. Write through it. 

We all know the best way to work through a problem is to confront it. So sit at your desk, look at the screen, and write. You might not even write your assignment at first. Type anything—a reflection on your day, why writing gives you anxiety, your favorite foods. Sitting there and typing will help you become more comfortable with the prospect of more.

3. Give it a rest.

This was my approach. After realizing that I was having an adverse reaction, I called it quits for the day, which ultimately helped reset my brain.

4. Find comfort in ritual and reward. 

Getting comfortable with writing might involve establishing a ritual (a time of day, a place, a song, a warm-up activity, or even food or drink) to get yourself into the writing zone. If you accomplish a goal or write for a set amount of time, reward yourself.

5. Remember that knowledge is power. 

Sometimes the only way to assuage our fear is to know more. Perhaps you want to learn about the writing process to make it less intimidating. Check out the Writing Center’s website for tips and tutorials that will increase your confidence. You can also always ask your instructor questions about the assignment.

6. Break it down. 

If you feel overwhelmed about the amount of pages or the vastness of the assignment, break it up into small chunks. For example, write one little section of the paper at a time.

7. Buddy up. 

Maybe you just need someone with whom to share your fears—and your writing. Ask a classmate to be a study buddy. 

The writing centers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Richmond, as well as the news site Inside Higher Ed, also have helpful articles on writing anxiety.

Practice: For the next 10 minutes, think about your own writing fears. What writing tasks or assignments make you anxious? How do you, or how will you, work through them? Share your practice in the comments below this post, and don't forget to give feedback to fellow writers.


Hillary Wentworth
 is a writing instructor and the coordinator of undergraduate instruction. She has worked in the Walden Writing Center since 2010, and she enjoys roller-skating and solving crossword puzzles.

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  1. I know that feeling. As for me, the tip number six works better than any other.

    1. Thanks for sharing (and reading), Lily! Many writers find that strategy helpful--it can help make a project much more manageable.