Several readers responded to my recent blog about not liking to write but liking to have written. To overcome writer’s block, I force myself to sit still and write for a block of time. I have become a voluntary prisoner again today, at least until I finish this blog post.
I have recently become aware of how the fear of writing shapes our reluctance to write. An engineer (a former Navy commander) in one of my classes years ago revealed his genuine fear of writing technical material. He’s actually a fine writer, but he was terrified of technical writing. He’s not alone: I’ve experienced students with this fear in many of my classes.
For example, years ago I taught firefighter candidates for the St. Paul Fire Department. As a settlement in an anti-discrimination lawsuit, the department had to test candidates in grammar, math, and physical fitness. I taught for a college that had the contract to run classes to help prepare potential candidates for the test.
So there in my classroom were superbly fit, husky, brave potential firefighters (both men and women) who were showing all the physical symptoms of fear and withdrawal: lack of eye contact, high-alert reflexes, and shallow breathing. When I realized what was going on, I stopped and addressed the issue.
“So, folks, let me get this straight. You are willing to go into burning buildings to rescue your fellow humans, right? Bless you for that! I would be so thankful to see you at the door if my home were burning! And here you are in my grammar and punctuation class, and you’re afraid of, what? A comma? A semicolon? Folks, these are not dangerous weapons. C’mon, let’s learn how to use these punctuation marks to pass the test and prepare you to write better.” Their laughter broke the spell of fear and made them relax and learn better.
I think most writers confront some level of fear in every writing assignment: “What if I can’t communicate this essential information? Will I make mistakes in grammar? Will my writing look foolish? What if no one reads what I wrote?” These and other fears can paralyze writers, especially since most of us received negative feedback (in red ink, no less) on our writing in school. No wonder we waste our time on avoidance activities when forced to write.
As I confront my own abundant fears, I am reminded of Eleanor Roosevelt’s wonderful quote: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”
Tactics to overcome writer’s block
Here are some specific tactics that might help you overcome your fear when confronted with a specific writing task:
Visualize your audience, then focus on what they need: Writing to help your reader will mitigate your own fears and insecurities. Make the writing all about them, not you.
Ask others what they think must be communicated to the audience: Two (or more) heads are often better than your one fearful head.
Practice chaining yourself to your desk (figuratively, of course) until you produce a specific writing product, then reward yourself for that small piece of progress. Repeat. Add to the mix your favorite instrumental music, but avoid being distracted by words in vocal music). Right now, I’ve got Krishna Das resonating through my headset. I can’t understand a word of this mystic Hindu music, but the beat and the voices inspire me.
Seek feedback on your document from positive people and remember that their comments are intended to improve your writing so that you can help your audience. Again, focusing on readers minimizes that endless loop of insecurity about your writing skills.
Fear leads to procrastination and avoidance, which leads to last-minute writing and poor-quality documents, which circles you back to fear. Instead, step right through your fear of writing and use the techniques we’ve discussed. Then, write on!
*F.E.A.R.: False Evidence Appearing Real (source unknown)