You’ve probably heard the claim that more people are afraid of public speaking than death.
What about writing in public?
I’ve yet to meet anyone who prefers death over a blank screen. But there are a lot of people out there who find writing for others just as scary as speaking in front of an audience.
I’ve taught students who freeze when presented with an essay topic. I’ve worked with colleagues who have agonised over the tone of their emails before hitting ‘send’. And of course there have been days when I’ve avoided my own computer.
What is it about writing that terrifies people?
It all comes down to this: writing is more permanent than speaking.
When we speak, small mistakes like mispronouncing words are quickly forgotten. There is momentary embarrassment, but meetings and presentations don’t last forever.
When we write, our words remain exposed in an email, an essay, a book or a blog post. Wherever we’ve shared them.
We’re vulnerable longer. And sometimes that takes as much courage as standing up in front of a live audience.
Some of us fear rejection. Others doubt their creativity. And some worry about making mistakes and losing face.
So, what can we do about it?
Fear of public writing is the same as fear of public speaking. Take away the ‘public’ bit and it’s much less frightening.
Before we can write for an audience, we need to get comfortable with writing for ourselves. There are many ways we can do this. One that always works for me is freewriting.
What is freewriting?
With freewriting, the idea is that you write quickly and continuously on any topic without worrying about the quality of your words. There are very few rules. They usually look something like this:
• Choose a topic or writing prompt.
• Set a timer for 10–15 minutes.
• Write without stopping until your timer goes off.
• If you don’t know what to write, write anything that comes into your head until more ideas come.
It’s a powerful strategy with a long list of benefits. The biggest one is that it helps writers push through fear.
Freewriting is not a new technique. In an age where we have an app for everything, it’s often overlooked because of its simplicity.
But if we stop and think about the writing process, we all face the same dilemma. It doesn’t matter whether we’re typing on a MacBook Pro or scribbling in a leather-bound journal. To overcome our fears, we have to start writing.
Here are three ways freewriting can help:
1. Fighting perfectionism
A lot of people find writing difficult because they try to do everything at once. They put pressure on themselves to produce prize-winning prose as soon as they hit the keyboard.
It doesn’t work like that for anyone — not even Nobel Prize winners. Canadian winner Alice Munro described her writing process in an interview with the Virginia Quarterly Review. She would send her books off to her publisher and then ask for them back because she wanted to do more rewriting.
Freewriting forces writers to separate writing and editing.
As English Professor Peter Elbow says:
When you’re freewriting, you don’t have time to judge your writing. You’ve got to keep your hand moving. If you run out of ideas on your topic, write whatever comes into your mind. How you’re feeling. What you can see in the room. Anything.
The same goes for concerns about grammar or spelling. Don’t stop and reach for a dictionary. No one’s watching yet.
2. Generating and clarifying ideas
Take time to make sense of your ideas before sharing them with others.
I sometimes get my students to freewrite about an essay topic before they start on the essay. I ask them to write down everything they know about the topic without evaluating their ideas. Some of them find this less intimidating than writing a plan as they don’t have to worry about organising their ideas yet.
Freewriting takes away some of their fear of the blank page by showing them that they do have ideas. They won’t be able use all their thoughts, but that’s part of the brainstorming process. They can’t rate their ideas until they have some. Once they’ve done this, they find it much easier to build on these ideas and start planning their essays.
You can do this for any piece of writing you’re working on.
Freewriting advocate Mark Levy describes this as emptying your brain. He advises his readers to:
You’ll find that some of your best ideas come when you don’t self-censor.
But you can only do that if you write for yourself before you start writing for other people.
3. Exploring fears
You can also use freewriting to make sense of your writing fears. Set a timer and write about what’s worrying you. Imagine you’re having a conversation with yourself. Keep digging deeper. Break your thoughts down further. Ask yourself more questions until you get to the bottom of your fears.
What scares me the most about writing for other people?
I’m worried about their reaction.
I’m afraid they’ll reject my writing.
Why does this worry me?
I’m afraid they’ll think less of me.
Who are ‘they’? Why do their opinions matter to me?
You get the idea.
Don’t hold back. This exercise is for your eyes only. The more honest you are, the more you’ll get out of it.
Identifying and analysing your fears won’t make them disappear. But they will lose some of their power.
We write in public for the same reasons we speak in public.
If we want to make an impact, we have to share our thoughts with others.
Whether it’s an essay for a teacher or a business proposal for a client, writing for an audience makes us vulnerable.
But if we allow ourselves to practise in private first, writing in public becomes a little less scary.