Fear of Writing

Edvardmunch-thescream-1163553-lWhen I was invited to speak to the Living Writer's Collective in Tennessee a couple of weeks ago, my topic was the Fear of Writing.   The subject was enthusiastically received, with several writers sheepishly admitting to me that they suffered from it (and Lord knows I've dealt with it off and on throughout my career), so I thought I'd adapt part of my talk here.

I've identified two broad arenas that your fears of writing might fall within:


This is when you fear sitting down and putting words on the page.  You might not think that you actually have this fear, because fear is a sneaky beast that masquerades as all kinds of other things.  Like suddenly needing, desperately needing, to do laundry.  Or mop the kitchen floor.  Or go grocery shopping.  Or do just about anything but get to the page in the time you've allotted to write.

The fear of the writing process can also pop up once you've actually gotten to the computer.  There you sit, facing that wonderful blank screen.  When you get tired of looking at the screen, you gaze out the window.  And then maybe you go grab yourself a cup of coffee and stare out the kitchen window for awhile.  I've got news for you–all this staring is not writing.

Or, has this ever happened to you?  You are writing along, lost in the process and suddenly your fingers come to a halt.  You've written something that's threatening to the old ego.  And now you're terrified.  All was fine one minute and then next, well, it's not.


Product fears gather around putting your work out in the world.  What if you're rejected?  What if people don't like your book when it's published?  What if you get a bad book review or your mother reads it and is shocked?  What if you wrote a thriller about a murdered and people think you have first-hand experience with crime?  The what ifs go on and on and on, and many of them are as silly as the last one I listed.  But here's the deal: fears are often silly.  But they take on enormous power despite this.

So what's a person to do?


Here's the bad news: the only way out is through.  Well, it may not be the only way out, but it's the best way out.  Yup, to get over your fear of writing, you must write.  And then put it out in the world, even when you don't want to.  In so many ways this is counter-intuitive and probably not at all what you want to hear.  Wouldn't it be just so much easier if there were an actual program you could take that conquered your fear of writing without you having to do any writing?  Well, that program is, you guessed it, writing.

Here are a couple ways to approach it that might help:

–Try freewriting.  This old favorite really does work.  If you do it correctly, it bypasses the conscious mind and taps you into something deeper, beyond fear.  The way to do it is this: pick a prompt (any prompt, it doesn't matter), set a timer for 20 minutes, and then write.  Write without stopping, even if you are writing the same word over and over again.  Keep the flow going–it is this that subverts the fear.  And don't worry about staying on topic, you probably won't.  When you're done, underline or highlight anything that you might find useful and use this as a starting point for another writing session.

–Chunk it down.  Many of us writers are big-picture people.  We look at a project and see the whole thing all at once.  This has many advantages, but a big disadvantage is that it can be overwhelming.   Remind yourself that you only need to look at your project in little bits.  Make a loose outline and take one line of it at a time and write to that.  Then take the next line, and then the next, until you have a rough draft for each item on the list.

–Take time for process time.  In a book called Around the Writer's Block, author Roseanne Barr talks about how important process time is to writers.  By this she means things like journaling, or morning pages.  It can be a conundrum: take precious writing time to journal or get right to the project at hand?  But studies have shown that taking time for process writing helps you beat writing resistance on a consistent basis.

–Approach it playfully.  Try some fun writing exercises every once in awhile.  Open a dictionary at random and fun your finger down the page.  Use the word you land on as a prompt.  Combine it with anothe word and make the start of a sentence and then use that.  Cut up old manuscripts into long strips, one line to a strip and put them in a box. Choose one and use as a prompt.

–Write something different.  I know I get stuck on thinking that I must work on my novel and only my novel.  But last fall at a workshop I tried my hand at Flash Fiction and loved it.  Writing that could be a quick warm-up to displace your fears.  So could writing Haiku.

–Remember to write and let everything else fall into place.  Because it will.  Your job is to put words on the page.  This is the best thing to remember when you feel that fear of putting your work out in the world, or of submitting it to editors or agents.  Your job is to write.  It's not to worry about what people are going to think of the final product.  At the heart of it all, you just need to write.

What about you? How do you banish your fear of writing?  Leave a comment!

**Today is the last day to get $50 off tuition for my Get Your Novel Written Now class.  Learn more here.

Photo of Munch's The Scream by Oddsock.

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8 Responses to Fear of Writing

  1. J.D. 01/31/2013 at 04:58 #

    Charlotte, you’re preaching to …. Well, I’m not the choir ’cause I got a big case of this. Yours is excellent advice. I’ve been waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike, something that would make me really sick and turn me into the constant writer. I’ll heed them all but I’m taking the last one to heart.

  2. Charlotte Dixon 01/31/2013 at 07:44 #

    J.D., thanks for your good words.  Sorry to hear you've been suffering with your writing lately.  I do think we all go through this at one time or another and it does kind of crack me up that the only solution is to write.  I have to say, I do find over and over and over again that if I allow myself to do it–just do the work–everything else does follow.  I can't explain why, but I've seen it happen repeatedly.  Thanks for commenting, as always!

  3. Zan Marie 01/31/2013 at 11:23 #

    Great post, Charlotte. I think we all overthing the process so often that we block ourselves and get scared.

  4. Charlotte Dixon 01/31/2013 at 11:30 #

    I do see many of us over thinking the process, that's for sure!  And that's about the worst thing a writer can do.  Thanks for commenting, Zan Marie.

  5. William Reynolds 01/31/2013 at 13:08 #

    Another trick that can really help — sneak up on that writing job. I can’t tell you how many times I felt utterly incapable of writing anything substantial, so I said to myself, “Well, I’ll just jot down some notes.” Then a couple of hours later I’d realize that “some notes” had morphed into a completed draft.

  6. Charlotte Dixon 01/31/2013 at 14:09 #

    That is a great one, William!  It goes along exactly with what a friend was just telling me in a Skype conversation about micro-activity.  For instance, if you wanted to start a regular exercise routine, start small.  So just getting out the door to walk around the block would count.  Eventually, you find yourself walking more, just like you end up writing!  Thanks for chiming in.

  7. Don 02/01/2013 at 06:32 #

    Certainly the fear of rejection, be it from a publisher, from the critics, or from your own readers is a major stumbling block. For me, the best way of handling it is by realizing that even if all of the above comes to past, well it’s not exactly the end of the world so why worry too much? In fact, worrying about such things only tends to make it a self fulfilled prophecy.

    All of your points are great ones, but the one that I identify the most is ‘chunking it down’. Being overwhelmed by the whole process can stop just about any one in their tracks, and when I come to think about it, fearing rejection is probably the biggest factor in overwhelming little old me.

  8. Charlotte Dixon 02/01/2013 at 07:01 #

    This is such a great perspective, Don–it truly isn't the end of the world if someone doesn't like your book.  My daughter calls it a "first-world concern," i.e., it's not a survival issue and thus not really worth worrying about.  I remind myself to chunk it down all the time and it really helps.

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