Overcoming Writer’s Anxiety in Academic and Scientific Writing
Writer’s anxiety may not be the same thing as writer’s block, but it can have a similarly troubling effect and potentially disastrous results. The kind of anxiety I mean tends to arise when a scholarly or indeed any kind of author is faced with unexpectedly negative responses to a text that he or she has published or otherwise disseminated among readers. The readers may be known or unknown, and the criticism may come in a variety of different forms. A rejection from an acquisitions editor is a common trigger, as is a request for major revisions from a peer reviewer who makes it clear that a document is not of an appropriate standard or from a thesis supervisor who highlights the many problems with a drafted chapter. Colleagues or mentors can be a source of writer’s anxiety when they offer criticism or are simply lukewarm in their praise, especially when a particularly positive response is expected, and poor reviews, whether professional assessments by experts or unexplained one-star ratings by anonymous readers, can steal the wind from an author’s sails. In each case the feedback generates anxiety, causes the academic or scientist to question the validity of his or her writing and produces doubt about proceeding, either with the document that has been criticised or with the next writing project. Fortunately, there are practical ways to overcome this unproductive anxiety.
• Whatever the criticism may be, it is essential not to take it personally. Scholarly writing is a professional matter, frequently requires revisions to be successful and is likely to generate disagreement as well as agreement.
• Emotional responses to unexpected criticism are natural, but they should be given only so much time to reign before they are tucked aside to allow for serious and less subjective approaches that will be far more helpful.
• It is necessary to understand the criticism clearly and completely. It may be very difficult to gain much understanding if the criticism is a simple rating or less than coherent, but those are good reasons to dismiss it more quickly. When, however, revisions need to be made to earn publication or a degree, communicating with an acquisitions editor or thesis supervisor to clarify what is intended and required may be necessary.
• Adopting as objective a perspective as possible on one’s own writing is notoriously challenging, but it is essential in order to determine what should be done. If, for instance, a peer reviewer has requested changes prior to publication, only a scholarly and professional assessment of the criticism in relation to the manuscript will enable effective revisions.
• Keeping busy on the same kind of work, whether planning revisions or the next writing project, is an excellent strategy because it prevents the kind of brooding over the problematic criticism that only increases anxiety and self-doubt, and it also contributes to forward progress.
• Do be sure to reflect carefully on any major changes that appear necessary based on the criticism. Revising per the requests of acquisitions editors and peer reviewers is far from straightforward. Yes, adhering to guidelines and communicating in clear prose are necessities that may demand revisions, but changes to the research itself or the conclusions or recommendations based on it are matters that will require considerable thought. The base question is whether the changes will indeed improve the work or not.
• Persistence is essential to both advanced research and a successful scholarly career that includes active publishing, so do not give up. The worries born of anxiety and self-doubt are most quickly lent reality by neglecting to act in positive ways, so try to channel that anxiety into practical solutions. Keep an open mind, revise when necessary or beneficial, and learn from the experience.
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