Have you ever felt a rush of writing anxiety when trying to write your story? Do you often label this writer's block before letting it take over? Has writing anxiety made you feel like you're a poor writer, and then it tricked you into giving up?
Here are four common problems that feed writing anxiety and tips on how to overcome them.
Tons of writers, even professional writers, suffer from writing anxiety on a daily basis no matter their experiences with writing.
Whether you view this as resistance or low self-esteem, writing anxiety can prevent you from finishing that beautiful, unique story that only you can tell.
We've All Suffered From Writing Anxiety at Some Point
I'll admit writing anxiety has stalled a lot of my writing. The negative feelings are unwelcome, but sometimes impossible to ignore.
I can't count the number of stories I didn’t write to conclusion, or the half-formed novel ideas that I started and abandoned because I grew too anxious to continue writing.
I’ve abandoned ideas in the first sentence, the first chapter, the first ten thousand words. I have a book that’s sitting on my computer at sixty thousand or so words. It's filled with scene after scene, and all of them building to a brilliant climax I've never managed to jot down. Mainly because I've allowed writing anxiety to freeze me right before the finish line.
A lot of this anxiety comes from perfectionism—we, as writers, desperately long to deliver a perfect book.
I know I have. I've been flustered over my first drafts.
I've dreamed of that magic last page, but found myself unable to finish.
I used to tell myself things like, “I need to work out those rusty sentences weighing this version down before writing the final showdown,” or “Maybe I need to go back to the first act and fix that before I can write this.”
But it's not an uncommon problem.
The thought of delivering anything less than perfect to our beta readers (and eventually next readers) keeps us from either 1) not finishing our stories at all, or 2) too anxious to share our stories once they're complete.
I know this because I've done it.
Writing anxiety may be stopping you from making progress on your writing projects, but it's something we can overcome.
4 Sources of Writing Anxiety (And How to Overcome Them)
In recent years, I’ve recognized four major problems that cause my fear of writing—which has allowed me to discover and practice better habits that have proven successful at pushing me to finish my story.
There are many reasons for a writer to be afraid of finishing a story, especially those new to writing. But when we understand what's holding us back, we can become mindful and prevent fear from manipulating us in the writing process.
Let’s take a look at the four most common reasons we experience writing anxiety. Better yet, lets explore ways to overcome it.
Problem 1: The Story Is Too Long
It’s easy to feel like a story is so massive and complicated that you will never be able to do it justice.
Most ideas spark from a novel premise or a vision of a story's climax. This excites the writer, but then the hard work begins and writing anxiety sets in when trying to build the structure supporting that idea or leading up to that finale moment.
Big ideas can be very overwhelming, especially if you’re just starting to write.
Do we all dream of writing a franchise masterwork like the Harry Potter series? Of course! Who wouldn't get a thrill from mastering J.K. Rowling's writing process?
But complicated books, especially epic fantasy series, take years to plot out. This might be the direction you want to go—that's fine if it is! But if it's not, cut yourself a break.
If you're writing a book, especially your first, the goal should be to deliver a story readers will enjoy—and enjoy isn't synonymous for perfect.
Here's an important truth: if readers like your first book, they will come back for more expecting you to grow as a writer. Writing is a life-long learning process.
Hopefully when you understand this, you can give yourself a break. You can take that BIG idea and learn how to break it up into scenes that can make fiction (or nonfiction) writing easy.
In fact, the fourth step in Joe Bunting's How to Write a Novel article is to set smaller deadlines that build to your big deadline (of finishing a book).
You can apply this same mindset when planning or writing your BIG story idea. Start small, and then build to the ultimate climax.
Solution 1: Start Small
Think of a story idea and tell it in less than a thousand words. Try writing this in three paragraphs that outline the Beginning, Middle, and End in one to two sentences each. Maybe use your premise to kickstart the summarizing of each book part.
Quality doesn’t matter here—the goal is to tell an entire story, beginning to end, within the word limit.
Quality can come in later drafts, after you get used to the feeling of writing small, which might also do wonders for your writing confidence.
Problem 2: You Get Stuck in Story Structure
“Write a book” sounds easy, but when you delve into it, you realize there’s so much more to it.
Inciting incident? Climax? Hero's Journey? Characterization? There’s so much that goes into planning and writing a book, and stopping to think about just how much can easily give most writers moments of intense anxiety.
If you’re trying to tackle an impossible bestseller book checklist, you might come to a fierce halt, probably trapped in paralysis by analysis, obsessing over details that just don't matter on your first go.
It's enough to cause an anxiety epidemic that eventually tempts you to give up.
This is the exact reason my book stalled for eight years.
And while the faithful advice to keep going can grow weary—sometimes maybe even feel useless—the reality is that you can't edit anything that isn't written down.
Solution 2: Practice
This is simple in theory but difficult in principle. However, like anything, practice makes perfect, and the more stories you write, the more things you will realize becomes second nature.
You don't have to master story structure to use it to get a draft down, but a quick structure outline (even if it's only six sentences!) can help you write to the end. And the more you practice, the more comfortable you'll get with story structure.
6 Key Moments of Story Structure
There are six required moments in every story, scene, and act. They are:
- Exposition: Introducing the world and the characters.
- Inciting incident: There’s a problem.
- Rising Action/Progressive complications: The problem gets worse.
- Dilemma: The problem gets so bad that the character has no choice but to deal with it. Usually this happens off screen.
- Climax: The character makes their choice and the climax is the action that follows.
- Denouement: The problem is resolved (for now at least).
If you're unfamiliar with these terms, I recommend studying each of them, especially dilemma. Practicing these will be a huge aid to your writing process.
For your first few scenes, try plotting out each of these six moments, focusing especially on the dilemma.
Better yet, download our story structure worksheet to guide you through the story structure process, from crafting your initial idea through to writing the synopsis.
Messy drafts are the makings of good writers because they are time spent developing your craft.
To relieve yourself of perfectionist pressure, make that first book your “practice book,” or try writing a short story or novella before tackling a 90,000 word manuscript.
That practice book may be a complete mess, but if you stick to it, you will ingrain many of the skills needed to become a great writer. This will carry you far beyond one story. And you'll only get better at telling them!
Problem 3: Leaving Your Story Alone for Too Long
I used to believe that writing a book takes years.
It’s such a daunting project, after all. So big, so many details. But the more I wrote, the more I realized, it doesn’t have to take a decade to write.
Remember that advice about a fantasy series? J.R.R. Tolkien took decades to write the Lord of the Rings series, and for a good reason—he spent ages building Middle Earth and its history in addition to the actual stories.
Your initial story doesn’t have to be a project of this magnitude. You can spend years revising a book, but that first draft can come as quickly as you’d like.
And they'll probably only come quicker the more you write.
The first draft of my first book took three years. The first draft of my second took six weeks.
Plotter or pantser, discovering your writing process and what gets you to the last page will motivate you to write quicker.
Need a writing process that will keep you on track from the first page to the last? We've taken everything we've learned from helping thousands of writers finish their books and packed it all into The Write Plan planner. Plan your story and write your book with the planner designed just for writers.
Get The Write Plan planner here »
Solution 3: Write Fast
This is in the interest of both yourself and the book.
Deadlines are crucial in getting you to commit to finishing sections of a book within a set timeline, and establishing consequences for not meeting those deadlines will help.
Set yourself a deadline (or few) and stick to it. Better yet, join a writing community like the 100 Day Book program to keep you writing on track while also receiving peer and editor feedback.
Remember, quality in the first draft doesn’t matter. You don’t have to stick to a certain word count either.
The only thing you have to commit to is finishing your story. Nothing else matters until you have every part of your story written down.
And when you write fast to meet deadlines, I bet that you will also find what you’ve written is tighter and more interesting to read. This is because you didn’t allow yourself to lose your train of thought.
Sloppy writing can be fixed in future drafts, but if you don’t get your story out, those drafts will never happen.
You can finish your book in 100 days. And in 100 Day Book, you'll get the training, structure, deadlines, accountability, and community support you need to make it to “The End.” Join the next semester of 100 Day Book and write your book with us »
Problem 4: Thinking You're Not a Good Writer
Yes, you are. You just haven’t written enough yet.
This deadly mindset is probably the most common problem preventing burgeoning writers from finishing their book.
They think, “I'll never get published. I'm not as good as [INSERT AUTHOR ROLE MODEL HERE].”
Maybe you're not yet. But you have too many great stories to tell, and only you can tell them in your way.
So get going.
Solution 4: Don't Listen to the Voice of Doubt
Bad writing habits can sneak up on you in nasty ways, but this doubtful voice can easily be the most deceitful.
To overcome it, put a jar on your desk labeled “Writer Thoughts.” Every time this idea comes up, add a dollar. Every time it comes up and you believe it, add two dollars. Every time it comes up, you believe it, and you stop writing, add five dollars.
At the end of each month, use that money to donate to a charity you don't want to support.
Not a fan of working against the negative? Use this jar as an “Ice Cream Fund” and add to it every time you have a rush that makes you feel like a writer. Pin a note that reminds you about that feeling, and when you take the money out to treat yourself, make sure to tape these notes to your writer's desk to motivate your next session.
Finishing a story can seem scary, especially for those of us who go into writing with a mindset that all writing is easy and glamorous.
Writing is hard.
But you can do it.
The world needs your stories!
Don't Let Writing Anxiety Cause Writer's Block
A final thought on writing anxiety:
Sometimes writing anxiety sneaks up on writers by labeling itself as writer's block. This is an issue because it disguises itself as something we think is out of our control.
Lots of writers will stop writing for long chunks of time because they're waiting for that creative spark. I'm sure you've heard the advice before: you can't wait for inspiration to strike!
Personally, I like this quote from writer Mary Kay Andrews:
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. As long as your fingers can move over the keyboard, eventually it’ll segue into something.”
She's right, and this is a big reason why The Write Practice encourages writers to take fifteen minutes at the end of each post to share a prompt that will help writers PRACTICE writing. Now. This very second.
Remember, you can spend years mulling over the first draft of your book, but every moment you suspend on trying to make it perfect, you prevent yourself from delivering a finished manuscript that readers can review and critique.
And without a first draft, there will be no second.
There also won't be a second or third or forty-fifth book.
Do yourself a favor and embrace the problems causing your writing anxiety so you can consciously practice ways to overcome it.
If you need some extra help with this, I highly recommend checking out some of these great posts on The Write Practice:
- How to Overcome Writer’s Block While You Sleep
- 8 Bold Ways to Overcome Your Fear of Writing
- How to Overcome Writer's Burnout
- 10 Obstacles to Writing a Book and How to Conquer Them
- The Hardest Part of Writing Well
But before you do this, take a look at today's practice. Strike while the iron's hot, and even if it's not, keep going!
What’s the biggest problem contributing to your writing anxiety? Share in the comments below.
Set yourself some small writing deadlines for a story of “X” amount of words.
Establish your ending date (preferably something sooner than later). Take fifteen minutes to fill in four to five small deadlines that you'll complete along the way.
Jot down a little bit about what you'll include in each smaller deadline, either in bullet notes or sentences.
When you're done, share in the practice box below. Give feedback on your writing companion's posts—and keep coming back to update us all on how you're doing with meeting your benchmarks!
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J. D. Edwin is a daydreamer and writer of fiction both long and short, usually in soft sci-fi or urban fantasy. Sign up for her newsletter for free articles on the writer life and updates on her novel, find her on Facebook and Twitter (@JDEdwinAuthor), or read one of her many short stories on Short Fiction Break literary magazine.