How To Write When You Think You Can’t


July 28, 2009   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

When you have to write something and you feel as if a family of butterflies has taken up residence in your stomach, you aren’t alone. Many people become anxious when they attempt to write. Some get panicky at the sight of the blank page and say they have a writing phobia.

No one is born with a writing gene. With a little work and effort, anyone can write. Here are some ways you can begin to build confidence about writing:

    • Forget the past
      Maybe you had a teacher who criticized every other word you wrote. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t have to affect you now. Let the criticisms go. 
  • Practice freewriting
    Three or four times a week, write about a subject for 10-15 minutes without going back to correct your mistakes or judging what you’ve written. If you can’t think of anything to write, write, “I can’t think of anything to write,” or, “I’m looking for something to write,” and continue writing. The act of writing, even if your words don’t make much sense, strengthens your writing “muscles,” just as lifting weights strengthens you physically. At first, you may produce a lot of gibberish, but in time, your writing will become more focused; you may discover subjects in your freewriting that are important to you and that you may want to write about in more detail. 
  • Experiment with clustering
    Let’s say you’ve been assigned a topic in school and you don’t know where to begin. Get a large sheet of paper and some colored pencils. Write your topic in the middle of the paper and draw a circle around it. With different colored pencils, draw lines from the circle, write words that are related to your topic, and circle them. Make your cluster colorful. Extend your cluster by adding words that are related to the words you wrote. Make your cluster as long or as short as you want to. 
  • Carry a small notebook with you.
    Notice the world around you. If something catches your attention, jot down a few words to describe it. These jottings don’t have to be profound or even well thought out. Simply write down a few of your impressions and try to appeal to more than one sense. For example, you see a flock of sea gulls at the beach. Your notebook entry might look like this: 

Sea gulls
high-pitched squawks
swoop down to beach for food
large wing span
flying in a cloudless sky

This activity makes it easy for you to transfer your thoughts to paper, a problem many would-be writers experience. If you’re so inclined, you might freewrite about the sea gulls later or make the subject into a poem.

  • Follow the three steps of The Writing Process
    In the long run, using The Writing Process will help you write more efficiently. Even if you’re writing a short e-mail (you could do the process in your head in this case), get in the habit of following these three steps:

      1. Plan your writing.
        What do you want to write about? Tailor your writing to your audience. What do you want them to do or think as a result of reading your writing? Obviously, you would use a different level of diction if you were writing for children than if you were writing to a group of cardiologists. Make a brief outline of your main points. 
  • Write your first draft.
    Unless you’re writing a short message (maybe that e-mail I just mentioned) you’re going to write and revise numerous drafts. Remember the old adage: “All writing is rewriting.” This article has gone through five revisions, and I’m not finished yet.
  • Proofread, edit, and revise
    Until now, you’ve planned and written without judging how you’re doing. Not judging is crucial in the first two steps of The Writing Process. During the third step, however, you must question what you’ve written. Put on your critical hat and leave it on until you’re satisfied with your document. Check your grammar, sentence structure, and content. Make certain you’ve done what you set out to do. Put your work away for a while–a few hours or more, if possible–then go over it one more time. This gives you a perspective you wouldn’t have if you worked continuously.
  • I’m convinced that most people have problems with writing because they try too hard, take it too seriously, or are afraid of being judged. Learn to play with words and get ideas by freewriting, clustering, and keeping a notebook. Practice using The Writing Process, but don’t write and edit at the same time. Only during the last step, should you edit mercilessly. 

Maybe writing will never become your favorite activity, but if you follow these tips, you’ll be able to produce a decent report, letter, essay, or story. Eventually, you may begin to look at writing as a powerful tool for communication. Just think: Your written words can help you express yourself, educate or inspire others, and make people laugh or cry. I think all that is worth the effort. Do you?

Written on 7/28/2009 by Mary Ann Gauthier. Mary Ann is a writer and an adjunct instructor of English at a private college. She teaches listening skills to her business communication students and is also working on a book about the therapeutic benefits of journaling. Photo Credit:
Rennett Stowe



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