From the Archive: Writing Anxiety (Spring 2009)

By Christina Foran, former Writing Studio Staff (Spring 2009)

Its tell-tale symptoms include heaviness in the pit of the stomach, avoidance facilitated by excessive facebook checking, and a mind completely… blank. Diagnosis: writer’s block, more formally known as writing anxiety or apprehension. This distressing emotional state plagues students and professionals alike, regardless of their writing ability. By understanding the source of writing anxiety and utilizing problem-solving and coping strategies, writers can counteract the anxiety involved in the composition process.

Writing anxiety arises from a combination of cognitive, emotional, and physical responses. George Mandler, author of Mind and Body, explains that writing arouses emotion when a cognitively developed plan, like a prescribed writing process, is interrupted. This interruption stimulates the Automatic Nervous System and results in physical responses like tense muscles, increased heart rate, or sweaty palms. The brain, in turn, interprets this physical reaction “according to our past experiences or current situation” (McLeod 431).

Surprisingly, such anxiety-producing interruptions may be an inherent part of the writing process. Flower and Hayes found that before writers place words on a page, complex planning occurs (McLeod 431). Writers first encounter difficulty when putting those plans into action and then again when formulating their thoughts to fit the constraints of the printed word.

However inevitable interruptions may seem, they need not always result in writing anxiety. Some writers are able to harness this stimulation and convert it into excitement and motivation. Yet other writers are overwhelmed because they possess a limited “repertoire of plans,” adhere “to rigid writing rules,” expose their work to “premature editing,” and perpetuate negative beliefs about the writing process (McLeod 432).

Flower and Hayes identify the most common treatments for writing anxiety as either waiting for inspiration or following prescribed writing exercises (451). However, both these strategies place additional limitations on the writer and often result in writer’s block, the very debilitation that they were trying to cure.

Although waiting for inspiration seems like it could be the most satisfying strategy, it actually leaves the writer the most vulnerable. Relying on inspiration alone may create an external locus of control where the writer can play no active role in the success or failure of his or her work. Inspiration strikes, or it doesn’t. Flower and Hayes suggest that “many writing problems are thinking problems that inspiration is ill-adapted to solve” (451). In other words, writers can’t wait around until their brain synapses begin firing in synchrony; they need to use generative (brainstorming) strategies to activate cognitive connections.

On the other hand, prescribed measures often do not provide the agency that they claim to. These measures may include fill-in-the-blank outlining, textbook formulas, and other rigid writing rules (Flower & Hayes 452). Unlike inspiration, the prescription strategy seems more laborious and dry. Although such practices may prove helpful, they do not adequately facilitate the cognitive activity required to convert ideas into words because they reinforce a “linear writing process” that makes the constraints of the written word even more rigid. Instead, if writers adapt their strategies as their plans begin to change, the emotions associated with writing can become positive.

If we accept that the writing process perpetually presents the writer with a series of problems, then building a repertoire of problem-solving strategies is crucial. As opposed to strict, prescriptive formulas, problem-solving strategies activate higher-order thinking skills. While prescription may call for outlining, Flower and Hayes promote “treeing” ideas thematically so the gaps in information or reasoning can become apparent (456). Flower and Hayes suggest several strategies for generating, planning, and composing, which can be used flexibly at any point in the writing process.

Even more important than problem-solving strategies may be learning to cope with the emotions associated with writing anxiety. The work of Salovey and Haar suggests that merely altering one’s understanding of the writing process is not enough to be able to work through writing anxiety; writers must also examine their cognitive interpretation of their emotions.

In their study, Salovey and Haar used the work of Flower and Hayes to train two groups of students about the writing process, but to the second group they also provided counseling in the form of cognitive behavior therapy. The members of this combination-therapy group were taught to identify negative statements about their writing and reframe them as positive statements about themselves.

Although the combination group reported still experiencing negative emotions about writing, they composed higher quality writing than the training-only group (Salovey & Haar 523). The writers in the combination group learned to identify their anxieties and cope with them by interpreting their emotions positively, which in turn enabled them to choose a problem-solving strategy to help fulfill those positive expectations.

Both problem-solving and coping strategies spring from the idea that the writing process relies on interaction between writers and readers, rather than solitary effort. This interaction is available at campus writing centers. The problem-solving strategies of Flower and Hayes require the writer to think like a reader (458), and writing consultants introduce this perspective to those with whom they work. In some ways, the relationship between the writing consultant and the writer resembles the therapeutic relationship offered in counseling. Counselors help counselees identify negative thoughts and behaviors as well as empathize with them about the shared reality of their struggles.

Writing consultation, like counseling, relies on the power of words and communication to facilitate agency when it is made vulnerable by anxiety. This overlap between consulting and counseling uniquely positions writing centers to assist anxious writers through the tumultuous process of shaping ideas into their written form.

Works Cited

Flower, Linda S. and John R. Hayes. “Problem-Solving Strategies and the Writing Process.” College English. 39.4 (1977): 449-461.

McLeod, Susan. “Some Thoughts about Feelings: The Affective Domain and the Writing Process.” College Composition and Communication. 38.4 (1987): 426-435.

Salovey, Peter and Matthew D. Haar. “The Efficacy of Cognitive-Behavior Therapy and Writing Process Training for Alleviating Writing Anxiety.” Cognitive Therapy and Research. 14.5 (1990): 515-528.