Confronting Writing Anxiety
by Lauren Cone, UR Writing Fellow
(printable version here)
Potential Situations Caused by Writing Anxiety—The Undesirable Results of Stress
Having some level of anxiety associated with writing is often a sign that you care about doing well. If this anxiety motivates you to devote thought and effort to your writing, your stress-induced attitude and mindset have a certain positive value.
In excessive quantities, however, stress can be a hindrance; herein lies the problem. If you suffer from writing anxiety, there are three typical ways in which you might act:
1. You might continually postpone working on your assignment and get a late start. If you procrastinate, you may not have enough time to think about and compose what you want to write. This procrastination adversely affects both the quality of your writing and your sense of control over the situation.
2. Sometimes you might become so nervous that you feel unable to write anything at all. This feeling is known as writer’s block, and it is akin to self-sabotage.
3. On the other end of the spectrum, you might devote too much time to worrying about how to make your paper perfect. In addition to causing you unnecessary stress, this approach can take away time from other important activities or assignments (Ryan 43).
None of these is the ideal way to write a paper you feel good about (nor the way to be a healthy, well-rounded college student). Thankfully, by assessing and adjusting your approach to writing, you can confront both the personal and practical causes of your anxiety.
Causes for Writing Anxiety—Knowing the Enemy and Knowing Yourself
First, it helps to identify the cause(s) of your anxiety. If you can locate the factors that affect your attitude about writing, you can take steps to confront them and put your situation in perspective.
Writing anxiety can result from a variety of social and academic factors. You may worry about your grade in a class, the deadline for a paper may be encroaching upon you, your parents may be pressuring you to excel, you may fear failure, you may be competitive by nature, you may be preoccupied with college life and social issues, or your professor may seem intimidating and relentless (Ryan 51-2, Sherwood 6).
Such circumstances are usual and understandable. They do, however, increase stress levels and become cumbersome distractions. The good news is that they do not have to dictate your state of mind or the paper you produce. If you suspect the source of your anxiety resembles one or more of the factors discussed above, try to locate and evaluate these triggers. Attempt to understand why certain aspects of attitude or lifestyle cause you anxiety; recognition begins the process of reevaluation and relief.
Begin by asking yourself questions that relate to:
- Being reasonable and fair (What are my expectations for myself? What are other’s expectations of me? Are these appropriate? Intimidating? Motivating?)
- Using realistic language (Would a less-than-perfect grade on one assignment literally ruin my academic record?)
- Living with balance and contentment (Is my anxiety a one-time occurrence or a common situation for me? Does the pursuit of doing something perfectly keep me from participating in things I enjoy? How do my lifestyle choices affect my academics—and vice versa?)
It may help to discuss your answers with a trusted friend, family member, professor, or counselor.
Where to Go from Here—Practical Steps to Unlock the Writer in You
Understanding the assignment well is a basic but significant part of feeling confident in your ability to begin writing.
- Read the assignment carefully. Circle the key terms. Ask your professor to clarify anything about which you are uncertain.
- If possible, arrange to meet with your professor during his/her office hours. Making this personal connection can be quite valuable. It can help you understand your professor’s expectations of you and of the assignment. Also, your taking the time to meet with him/her demonstrates that you treat the class and assignment with respect.
Brainstorming and organizing your ideas can be just as important as the writing of your actual paper. Some helpful resources include:
- “Getting Started” Putting your ideas down on paper (or a screen) is an important step to beginning your writing process. In this section of Writer’s Web, you will find links to several sites that propose low-pressure pre-writing strategies. Experiment with different types of pre-writing techniques discussed in this section and see what works well for you.
- "Building Writing Confidence" Writing Consultant G. M. Smith shares some techniques to make writing an easier experience.
- “Where to Start a Paper” Here, you can begin to explore the thoughts you have informally. As you respond to the questions on this web site, you will begin to make sense of the assignment. You might be surprised by how much you are ready and able to write.
- “How to Write an Outline” Writing Consultant Kathleen Lietzau explains the different types of outlines and the steps to take to make an effective outline. An outline lays out where you are headed before you get started, and this means that you are less likely to get lost along the way.
You can decrease the levels of stress and anxiety that accompany writing a paper by treating it as something that remains within your control.
- Manage your paper so it appears to be anything but a huge, formless undertaking. Break up the paper into segments (a good number is about three) based on the specific areas or arguments you will explore. Then, work on one piece at a time.
- Set goals, such as writing section “A” on Monday, and then reward yourself. Breaks and small rewards (buying a soda, calling a friend, watching a favorite television program, etc.) keep your mind from getting fatigued, and they reinforce your positive behavior.
- Resist the urge to edit as you go along. This interrupts any thought flow you have, and it often wastes time in the long run. Focus on getting out your ideas first. You can stop and review later.
- A meeting with a Writing Consultant can help make your paper more clear and coherent; you can discuss such issues as organization, support, and sentence structure. Click here to schedule an appointment.
Keep in mind that the University of Richmond offers a great, free resource: Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) . Academic concerns and stress are two of the biggest reasons why students meet with counselors. If you would like to make an appointment, visit the CAPS office at 201 Richmond Hall.
Ryan, Leigh. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.
Sherwood, Steve. “Humor and the Serious Tutor.” Writing Center Journal 13.2 (1993): 3-12. Print.
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Between the ages of 13 and 18, approximately 20% of American adolescents will deal with some form of mental illness. Under this umbrella falls anything from minor depression or anxiety all the way to potentially more serious conditions like pediatric schizophrenia or post traumatic stress disorder. For many, dealing with a mental health condition will negatively impact their high school career in some way, potentially impacting areas such as academic performance, school attendance, teacher relationships, and extracurricular involvement.
Given the prevalence of mental illness among teenagers, a significant number of high school seniors are faced with a difficult choice each year — do I reveal my condition on my college application?
There is no blanket answer that will guide every applicant. Ultimately, the decision to reveal your condition is an entirely personal one. However, if you do choose to discuss your condition with prospective colleges in an essay and/or interview, we recommend that you consider framing your experience in one of the following ways:
The overcoming obstacles angle
Overcoming challenges and citing evidence of personal growth can be a winning story arc. If a bout of depression sophomore year contributed toward failing grades but you received treatment and rebounded academically the following year, then revealing that journey may be extremely helpful to your admissions chances. Knowing that you faced a significant challenge in your life and successfully emerged from it speaks volumes about your resilience, maturity, and grit, traits that are greatly valued by admissions officers.
Weakness as strength
Another approach is highlighting the strength that you draw from what others call an “illness.” An associate of Abraham Lincoln said of our 16th president that the “melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” Yet, many historians feel that Lincoln’s lifelong depression sparked a great deal of his legendary wisdom, insight, and brilliant strategic thinking. Lincoln was hardly alone; many of the greatest, most creative minds throughout history were, at least in part, driven by mental conditions. Darwin, Michelangelo, and Einstein were all likely sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. If we were to list all of all the great writers, artists, comedians, actors, and directors who were influenced by depression and anxiety, this blog post would be longer than the 1017 page novel, Bleak House, penned by Charles Dickens, who was himself a lifelong sufferer of severe depression.
The semantic shift
Cautious applicants might consider simply substituting the term “medical condition” for “mental illness.” After all, depression, anxiety, and the like are treatable medical conditions in the same vein as mono, kidney surgery, or any other condition that might disrupt one’s educational experience. Simply stating that you were afflicted by a “serious medical condition” which caused a temporary academic decline and led to you quitting the school newspaper and the baseball team will suffice.
The case against revealing
It’s hard to predict how a given admissions officer will react to a disclosure of a mental condition. After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, colleges became highly attuned to the mental health status of applicants. Unfortunately, admissions officers less enlightened on the subject may, even subconsciously, attach a stigma to any mention of a mental condition, lumping your treated depression with more gravely serious and untreated disorders. The public’s perceptions and understanding of mental health has improved in the past decade, but misinformation persists, even among highly educated college officials.
College Transitions bottom line: If you are going to discuss your depression, anxiety, or other mental condition in your application do so in a strategic manner for the purpose of illuminating otherwise unexplained inconsistencies in your academic record. A well-conceived and well-delivered narrative about your struggles with mental illness can be beneficial to your admissions chances; a poorly crafted disclosure may have the opposite effect.