Four Steps to Writing Courage

in Articles from our Newsletter

“A writer’s fear is nothing to be afraid of.”
— Ralph Keyes

“While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.”
— Henry C. Link

Are you anxious about writing?

Writing is scary. This fact is rarely acknowledged. Each academic thinks, therefore, that they’re alone in feeling fear and anxiety as they sit down to write. This leads them to be ashamed of their anxiety about putting words on paper.

Some people are so anxious that they don’t even let themselves think about writing. They go for days without even looking at their dissertation or manuscript, convincing themselves they don’t have time. Actually, they’re just too scared.

In his book The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes shares quotes from the most accomplished writers, about their fears of writing. E .B. White wrote, for example, “I admire anyone who has the guts to write anything at all.” And Wendell Berry noted, “I am discomforted by the knowledge that I don’t know how to write the books that I have not yet written.”

Among the most frequently “confessed” fears I hear from graduate students, postdocs and faculty alike are:

  • My writing…                
    • Is completely off-base
    • Has no substance                            
    • Is trite or foolish
    • Is of no interest to anyone
    • Isn’t scientifically valid
  • I’m not capable of doing what I said I would. 
  • People will read my writing and think less of me.

What kind of fears do you have? Do these fears keep you from writing?

How to Write Despite Your Fears

  1. Don’t put your writing off. Try as you might, you won’t eliminate the fear. Keyes suggests using the fear to sharpen your work, keep you alert, and give yourself the energy and motivation to write.        
  2. Remove the pressure and expectation that the first draft will look “beautiful.” Allow yourself to make a mess. Once you have your thoughts laid out where you can see them, you can go back and assess what you want to keep, what you need to polish, and what needs to go in the trash. 
  3. As you revise your work, think of your reader as someone who is supportive and encouraging. 
  4. Discuss your work with colleagues in its early phases and/or share relatively early drafts of your work. Don’t forget that early drafts can be shared with non-academics, who can spot organizational problems and lack of clarity. The longer and tighter you hold on to your writing, the more you have at stake and the more disastrous it feels if someone suggests substantial revisions. 

So if you are fearful while writing, rest assured that this is something all writers experience.  Accept it as normal – have courage – and keep writing!


I hope this article gets you thinking about how writing fears may hamper your progress. Interacting with others about the process of writing is an important way to normalize your fears. I’ll be able to tell you soon about some exciting developments in the Academic Writing Club that will make it even easier and more fun to do just that! 


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