Writing papers makes me anxious!

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, 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. Fortunately, writing is a complex process that, with practice and patience, may be improved. Read on for some strategies for overcoming the roadblock you’re experiencing.

Writing anxiety comes in multiple forms such as an inability to form an idea, a physical struggle to manifest words on the paper, or a fear of not meeting expectations that hinders your progress. The four main causes of writer’s block include psychological, motivational, cognitive, and behavioral reasons. Psychological causes often include mood or stressors that affect cognitive processing. Motivation-related blocks often arise from a fear of failure. Similarly, those categorized as cognitive causes stem from perfectionism and obsession with details, much like you described in your uncertainty when formatting citations. Lastly, the most common cause of writing anxiety is behavioral changes such as procrastination. Procrastination may lead to a domino effect in which more work doesn’t get done and the pile-up becomes overwhelming. Writer’s block is different for everyone not only in its cause but also in its manifestation and how long it lasts. For some, it may occur for a few minutes and for others it may take decades to overcome, but it’s good to know that it’s possible.

It’s worth noting that more and more research has been dedicated to understanding the psychology behind writer’s block in order to help conquer it. Multiple studies have concluded that writer’s block is most effectively combated by giving the brain a break. This period of time is called the incubation period and could include activities such as going on a walk, playing a word game, or getting a full night’s sleep. When done for an appropriate amount of time, these mental breaks could help writers to think more creatively and find inspiration. Fortunately, writing anxiety is typically a product of a writer’s habits, and habits are changeable! You’ve already made a great first step by identifying 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. To help relieve the anxiety and fear you feel about writing papers, implementing any of the following strategies may be useful:

  • Stay on top of your reading assignments and do your best to attend classes — that way you won’t have to cram or teach yourself course material before writing your papers.
  • Prior to writing, brainstorm ideas. Create a chart or write down topics of interest to refer back to while writing.
  • Follow the guidelines your professor talked about in class or included in a syllabus or grading rubric. If you’re not sure about the guidelines, ask for clarification early.
  • Start writing even before you 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 whatever order feels easy. 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. Remind yourself that the first draft is 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.
  • Avoid distractions by turning off your internet and cellphone or writing a draft by hand.
  • Get feedback from others. Many schools offer writing support services such as helping you develop and structure ideas, find research, connect thoughts, strengthen your understanding of grammar, and much more.
  • Seek out additional support. If you’re wondering if your writing block is related to a learning disability, you can check to see if your school as an office of disability services that provides support to students. 

You can also reach out to instructors or a tutor to help implement these strategies for combating writing anxiety. Remember that writing anxiety is common — and you’re certainly not alone. However, if you continue to experience these feelings and need additional support, you might find it helpful to reach out to a mental health professional.

Last updated Jun 24, 2022
Originally published Aug 28, 2014