What Writer Anxiety Looks Like

Photo credit: Vic

Photo credit: Vic

Some anxiety is normal for all writers. Knowing which is “normal,” or anxiety we can work with, and which is potentially crippling, is important. It helps us locate areas to work on.

Fear looks different for every writer and we all find our own “original” methods for placating that anxiety. In last week’s post, Writer Anxiety, we looked at the kinds of fears writers face.  But what does writer fear look like? Honestly examining your writer’s life for signs of anxiety that hold you back is key to moving forward.

I like to organize when I’m not ready to write, so I spent a bit of time organizing into categories what writer anxiety looks like in my world. For me there are three basic branches: preparing, distracting, and pretending.


Preparing can feel productive. It can feel as if we’re moving forward, but it isn’t writing.

Examples of avoiding writing through preparation:

  • You spend all your writing time doing research and developing back story but never progress to actual prose.
  • You tell yourself you’ll write after another writer conference or a coveted grant or fellowship.
  • You insist on having your writing space (or notes, research, etc.) perfectly organized before you can write.
  • You outline and plan your writing instead of writing.
  • You promise yourself you’ll write as soon as you get a new computer, keyboard, laptop, <fill in the blank>.

Distractions are the devil in the best of times, but for an anxious writer, distractions grow to fill our field of vision until they become obstacles to overcome. While part of us works to scale these mole hills, another part of us is secretly satisfied we have avoided words for another day.

Examples of avoiding writing through distraction:

  • You find too many other “urgent” things to do during writing time.
  • You “sacrifice” writing time for the perceived needs of others.
  • You continually seek the right environment or right circumstances before you’ll put a word down on paper.
  • You don’t maintain a regular writing practice or often miss scheduled time.
  • You’ve used the words “someday” and “write” in the same sentence.
  • You tell yourself there’s no point sitting down to write until X happens, or Y is resolved, or Z arrives because you just can’t give words your whole focus.

Pretending can also feel productive, but with a twist. We’ve written enough to gain entrance into the world of writers, but only just, and we go no further.

Examples of avoiding writing through pretending:

  • You work on writing or editing the same scene over and over instead of writing new material.
  • You abandon one writing project for another and do this over and over instead of finishing any.
  • You talk about writing instead of writing.
  • You attend writer’s group, conferences, and classes, often trotting out the same short story, instead of writing.

The best part about writer anxiety is that most writers go through it, so it’s not too difficult to find a friendly ear and a little commiseration. The worst part about writer anxiety is that so many people get stuck there.

Anxiety is not a bad thing by itself. Anxiety can clue us in that something is important or personal. It can indicate our story is going off track (or possibly that it should). The only bad anxiety is the one that keeps you from writing all together.

Next week: Some ideas for overcoming (or at least getting along with) fear.


Did anything in the above lists feel familiar?

Writer Anxiety

Things Writers FearWriters are brave people. We hang our hearts out on the line every time we show our work to someone, whether it’s a family member, an agent, or a reader. Working with and rising above fear is the dividing line writers who write and writers who plan to write.

Today we’ll look at some of the common fears writers face. Next week, we’ll look at the symptoms or the ways those fears present themselves. The more you know, and the more you understand you are not alone, the easier it will be to address and move beyond anxiety.

The fears we face:

Fear of failure: The anxiety of starting a new project without knowing if we will be successful in writing something decent and good hits us all.

Fear of starting: Facing the blank page is an anxious moment for many writers. Margaret Atwood said “Blank pages inspire me with terror.” Part of this is not knowing how to begin. Part of it is the realization that, as soon as we start writing, we have to face the fact that what we will probably never do justice to the story in our head.

Fear of judgment: We write from places deep inside and from our own emotional experiences. That leaves us feeling vulnerable when we let others read our work and our inner truths. It’s a fear of exposure.

Fear of silence: Nothing is worse for a writer than to hear “that’s nice” or worse . . . nothing. It’s hard to pour ourselves into the words on the page when we don’t know if the story will ever be read or appreciated.

Fear of comparison: So many times we fall into the trap of comparing our first drafts to the polished work of another writer and feel our skill and talent will never compare favorably.

Fear of the unknown: First time writers also cope with anxiety of the unknown. First stories involve feeling our way through the process for the first time. The first time we publish brings its own set of anxieties.

Fear of delivery: Once a story is written, edited, and polished, publishing writers face the moment of commitment to releasing their work out into the world. This can involve fear that the manuscript contains missed errors, that it might be judged wanting, that no one will read it, or that whatever hopes and dreams we have as authors and for the story may not (and probably won’t be, in most cases) realized. Another term for this is “fear of delivery.”

Fear of success: What if we have a breakout novel? What if we surpass our expectations? Then the pressure is really on.

Fear itself is not a bad thing. In fact, the more you fear a story or scene, the more it is likely to contain something powerful, something true. Writers live with anxiety. The writers who are actually writing have learned either to overcome that anxiety or have learned to use it.

Fear and anxiety are universal for writers and creatives. You are not alone. Talking about it helps. Having writer friends helps. Acknowledging the positive benefits of fear helps.


How have you overcome fear in order to write?