Writing papers makes me anxious!

Originally Published: August 28, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I have terrible anxiety about writing papers. Because of this, I put them off, need to ask for extensions, and then have more anxiety about completing the assignment. In addition, when I start writing, I find it difficult to keep going, especially because I hit what may seem to others as small roadblocks, like uncertainty about citation format. I don’t experience nearly as much stress about other types of work (e.g., studying for and taking exams). What can I do to get over or at least cope reasonably with this fear?

Dear Reader,

Just thinking about writing anxiety made this answer more difficult to compose. You see, dear reader, “writing anxiety” and “writer’s block” are concerns for both students and professionals of all ages and academic levels. In fact, even the most seasoned writers experience anxiety or writer’s block now and then. The truth is, writing is a complex process that, with practice and patience, can be improved.

Fortunately, writing anxiety is typically a product of a writer’s habits, and habits can be changed! You’ve already made an important first step, though. You’ve identified a few things that don’t work for you — procrastination and obtaining deadline extensions provide you little or no relief. Now, the next step is to try out or adopt some new habits and drop the ones that aren’t working for you. Since you have already identified writing as a major source of anxiety, you may want to first visit your schools writing center. Columbia University students can make an appointment to speak to a consultant by calling or visiting the Writing Center website. Anyone can visit the writing center and many do — undergraduates, graduates, and even faculty and staff! Consultants can help with a variety of things including helping you develop and structure ideas, find research, connect thoughts, strengthen your understanding of grammar, and much more.

To help relieve the anxiety and fear you feel about writing papers, consider implementing any of the following suggestions:

  • Stay on top of your reading assignments and do your best to attend classes. You won’t have to cram or teach yourself course material before writing your papers.
  • Adhere to the guidelines set forth by your professor. S/he should make her/his expectations clear through oral explication, a syllabus, or grading rubric. If you’re not sure about the guidelines, seek clarification early.
  • Start writing even before you can envision your entire argument. Getting words down on paper may help you come up with the rest of your writing assignment. Try free writing or diagramming to inspire ideas.
  • Compose different parts of your paper in order of ease. You’re not required to write in sequential order, as long as the final product is well organized. Some find it helpful to start with the sections that come naturally and move toward the more challenging parts.
  • Avoid stopping and editing each sentence as you write. This will slow you down. Instead, consider writing your paper in several whole drafts, and take breaks between editing. Your very first draft should be low-pressure and exploratory.
  • Write your paper in several sittings rather than trying to crank it out in one marathon session. Attempting to write a paper in one sitting may overwhelm you, thereby distracting you from your task.
  • Pose original questions, theories, and criticisms. What is currently known about this subject, and what new information do you have to offer?
  • Don’t try to cover too much ground. Keep your argument specific and narrow in on what’s most important. Ambition is admirable, but attempting to cover too much material in too few pages may produce poor results.
  • Get feedback from others. Many schools offer writing support services. As mentioned above, if you’re a student at Columbia, you have access to the Writing Center, where writing tutors provide individualized advice, edits, and support.
  • Seek out additional support. Many colleges have an office of disability services that provides additional support to students.  Columbia students seeking accommodations or support services from the Disability Services are required to register with the office. If you’re a Columbia student interested in pursuing an evaluation for a learning disability, please contact Disability Services to set up an appointment for a consultation and/or referral.

Remember that writing anxiety is common — and you’re certainly not alone. If you continue to experience anxiety and need additional support, consider reaching out to a counselor or therapist. Columbia students can contact Counseling and Psychological Services on the Morningside Campus or Mental Health Services at the Medical Center Campus. Columbia students may also consider looking into the Stressbusters Links to Success — a comprehensive resource for students experiencing stress or anxiety.


August 8, 2013

Dear reader, I've had a similar problem ever since I was a child, where I felt paralysed the minute I tried to write any kind of subjective, extended response where there was sufficient room for...
Dear reader, I've had a similar problem ever since I was a child, where I felt paralysed the minute I tried to write any kind of subjective, extended response where there was sufficient room for individual licence and decision-making for me to be judged personally by the reader. On top of this problem, each time this happened it made me anxious not only about the writing itself but about my problem with writing so I conditioned myself into a vicious circle. I don't know if this is what you're experiencing, but if it is, I can tell you that asking for extensions is the worst thing you can do, even as a temporary solution, since all it will do is make you feel like whoever you owe the work to will expect more from you - at least with an inadequate deadline you can use time pressure as an excuse for handing in something that isn't perfect. Another thing which helps me is to plan essays extensively before I start writing them - you're always going to have some new thoughts while you're writing but if you start off with a vague idea and have to reorganise your entire argument every time you think of something else eventually it will all become too much for you to conceptualise. Having a strict process you adhere to whenever you write an essay (eg. knowing that you always have to first decide on what your answer to the question is, then plan your argument, then plan each point in your argument making notes of anything which needs to be supported by a quote from something else, then go back and find all the relevant quotes remembering to write down all the necessary citation information, then check that the entire plan contains everything you want to say, then start writing properly...) will also help to prevent you from being derailed by minor roadblocks like the citation formatting problem you cited since you'll know that these things will be addressed later on in your plan, haven't been forgotten and don't need you to panic over them.