Supporting the Anxious Writer
Many people tell me they or their children struggle with writing — and this struggle comes in many forms.
It can mean identifying as “bad at writing”.
It can mean staring at a blank page because “I don’t know what to write”.
It can mean overflowing with so many ideas that it’s hard to know where to start.
It can mean starting and stopping—and never finishing a piece—because we’re labouring over every word or phrase.
Today, I’ll focus on supporting the anxious writer.
Mistakes and struggle are to be expected when we’re inventing and creating—celebrated even because it means we’re working on something new and challenging.
For some people, writing is a source of joy, relaxation, and fun. However, there are lots of kids (and adults) who feel quite the opposite about writing: it causes them major anxiety. Fear, a lack of self-confidence, or past negative experiences with writing can often shut down a child's willingness to express themselves through writing. Ultimately, it makes for a writer who feels unsure of whether his or her ideas are worth putting to paper.
For writers who’ve reached school age—and beyond—I often see the fear of being “wrong”.
"I don't know what to write!"
Earlier this school year, we had a long drawn out moment of reckoning in our household as my son reached the first stage of his school career that involves writing—and struggled. Not for lack of ideas or phonics, or still developing fine motor skills. No, at the beginning of the year, he had very limited to no phonics knowledge because our school doesn’t teach it until K2 and I am perfectly on board with that. I don’t think kids need outside phonics class and know that a) the school will teach it, and b) when kids have been read to since they were wee babes, they will pick it up quickly when they’re ready.
So what was the problem? The “weekend journal” the class worked on every Monday. My husband and I scratched our heads. He otherwise loved drawing at home, playing all sorts of make-believe, and writing little notes or cards to us and his friends. So why the writers’ block?
I knew pointing out all of the above was not going to help me identify the source of his anxiety—much less relieve it—and that it was all a little too close to home for me. So, I left it with Dad to explore. The findings? “I don’t know what to write! I can’t remember what we did!”
Oh, the refrain heard by teachers the world over. This one was a slight variation, but I could see what was happening. At four years old, my child’s sense of time isn’t great. While he can remember the most minute facts and figures about dinosaurs, details about things we saw or did or talked about months or years ago, or specific lines from books that he loves, asking him what he did even this morning doesn’t yield very consistent results.
My son—a serious sort—wanted his journal to be accurate, but he simply couldn’t remember on Monday what he had done over the 72 hours since he had last seen his teacher. I doubt very much that the teacher would ever say that anything he wrote in his journal was “wrong” for being factually inaccurate, but as he understood the assignment, there was a right and a wrong way to do it—and he very much didn’t want to be wrong.
Supporting the Anxious Writer
As the child worries, so does his mother, and I hoped that his feelings about the weekend journal would not transfer to writing in general. So, I fell back on some of my tried and true strategies for working with anxious writers:
1. Move towards a growth mindset about writing. Rather than thinking about being “good at writing” or “bad at writing”, a growth mindset focuses on making progress and learning and growing as a writer.
People sometimes ask me why we call them “workshops” and not classes, and it’s a purposeful choice. A workshop is a place of work, where work is in progress, being tinkered with and crafted. In a writing workshop, every piece of writing is a work in progress, and us writers are apprentices honing our skills.
Like an inventor designing, building, testing and refining her prototypes, we experiment and explore. Sometimes we make amazing discoveries, and sometimes we need to assess and adjust. Mistakes and struggle are to be expected when we’re inventing and creating —celebrated even because it means we’re working on something new and challenging.
2. Make it fun. Children learn best through play, and learning to write is no different. After all, what is writing but playing with language, with the choice and arrangement of words on a page, to see how it can make someone laugh or cry, change his mind or her actions, or even just pause for a moment and think.
We spend a lot of time thinking about ways to make writing workshops as fun as possible. For all students, but especially those who are anxious or reluctant, I recommend starting with creative writing—with topics that stretch the imagination and get kids excited about writing, where there is no “wrong”, and where there is a wide degree of choice and freedom even within a given topic.
Our primary focus is on validating their ideas, helping children express what they’ve imagined, and igniting their personal interests. Once students see that writing can be personally relevant and lots of fun, their anxiety about the subject tends to decrease. They’re more willing to write, and with more engagement and practice, they move towards greater familiarity and, eventually, comfort with the act of writing.
3. Focus on the ideas first, not the mechanics. When a child proudly brings his or her writing to share with you and the first thing you do is point out a spelling mistake you've spotted, the moment of connection is immediately broken, even if your intention was to help.
The same is true when students get their writing back from a teacher and find themselves confronted with a paper full of red ink. It tells them their reader cares more about spelling and punctuation than what they have to say. It tells them writing is about getting marks and grades, rather than communicating their ideas.
This can result in a child who has no shortage of ideas, but writes only the most simple words that he's sure he can spell; a child how's never lost their imagination but has no motivation to write. After all, if no one seems to listen to what you have to say, you stop speaking up. If no one is interested in reading what you write, what's the point of writing?
4. Offer pre-writing support. A blank page is intimidating, but we can ease some of the pressure by helping our writers prepare before they write. For my son, Dad now chats with him every Monday morning about what we did over the weekend. Obvious, perhaps, but "rehearsing" what to write is a key pre-writing strategy.
For developing writers, drawing and verbally sharing are a great one-two combo for exploring and refining their ideas. As writers get older, we use graphic organizers and other planning sheets to help students brainstorm, plan and think through their ideas to prepare before they write, but often, we also have students share with a classmate or with the class their big idea or some details they are particularly excited to write about. This rehearsing helps solidify (and sometimes prioritise) the ideas in the writer's mind, making get started that much easier.
5. Model being a writer. Anxious students often have great ideas, yet are disheartened by their self-perceived limitations or what they think writing “should” look like. It’s for this reason that our teachers spend a lot of time writing with students and showing students the “how” of writing—not just techniques and skills, but also the thought process, the decisions, the changes, the mess! (Yes, the creative process is messy sometimes, and that’s okay!)
Beyond techniques and strategies, however, kids need to see us writing. This is not to say that every parent or teacher needs to have a novel in the works. But in the same way that children benefit from reading with parents and seeing their parents read, children benefit from writing with adults and seeing adults writing.
Whether it’s a shopping list, an email, a Christmas card to family, or a personal journal you write in only for yourself, seeing you engaging in real life writing shows children the true value and purpose of writing, and shows anxious writers that writing takes careful thought and work for all of us.
When children are given a positive environment, the skills they need to feel confident about their writing, and plenty of opportunity to practise, it’s only a matter of time before they start expressing themselves freely—without the anxiety!