How Anxiety Brings Out Our Best Writing

writing anxiety

This is not a guide to dealing with anxiety.

It’s not an article on why anxiety is evil.

I’m not going to tell you why we should feel good all the time.

This article is about the various anxieties I’ve felt as a freelance writer and how I’ve negotiated them.

It’s about how these anxieties often produce better material as a result.

There are three types of anxiety I most commonly have as a freelancer:

The Nebulous Expectations Anxiety

Writing projects paid for by clients — blog posts, web articles, e-books, anything — involves varying degrees of ambiguity. We learn the difference between abstract and concrete in school, and at some point, many of my clients decided they despise anything concrete.

Instead, they want:

  • Good writing
  • Solid information
  • Something the reader will like

Sometimes their various instructions flatly contradict one another. If I simply email them, and they clarify expectations — no problem. That happens a lot of the time.

But sometimes, the answers they give can be more abstract, and for short projects it may — rightly or wrongly — feel impractical to spend more time asking questions than writing the article.

This anxiety is usually great for me because it causes me to really think through the project. Sometimes my goal is not to deliver certain facets of the piece the way the client may want it, but in a way that just makes sense.

Most of the time, this suffices. The other times are irritating, and those clients are all in my rearview mirror. Sometimes it’s best to learn to avoid them rather than deal with the irritation.

The Audience Anxiety

I once read the essay, We Write In the Dark. The author could’ve been describing a freelance web writer.

No matter how well-intentioned my clients are, they often don’t really know much about their intended audience. It’s a concept that’s hard to articulate.

Thus, we again get into the abstract: The article is for people who want to learn about … computer security (and you can insert almost any noun here).

When I do have a sense of the intended audience — usually from seeing the website for which the article is intended, or at least from getting an idea of what a reader would want to gain from the information — I often get a different anxiety.

Sometimes the client will explain what he or she would like the audience to take away:

  • Timely information
  • Solid analysis
  • Something that will make them come back for more.

Then they give me guidelines:

  • Keep it simple
  • Don’t quote any relevant information because we don’t want readers going to competing information sources
  • Use only small words

Often these guidelines make it very hard to provide those virtues.

What I mean is, it often feels like the only way to please the client is to write something that is unlikely to get shared or to make an impact or to, objectively, stand up to other articles on similar topics. What the client says is a great article upon reading will, once published, underwhelm him or her in terms of that dread matrix, ROI.

Dealing with this anxiety often means taking risks. I usually write for an audience that can understand intelligent information on the subject and that can follow an idea from step to step.

I think many readers are better at this than most clients give them credit for. If a client wants to dumb the piece down by editing it, fine.

Information Anxiety

Sometimes when researching articles, I have a hard time finding relevant information (see the above restriction of trying not to let the reader know there are other entities on Earth dealing with any of the same information). Often what I find is from lightweight sources or is outdated.

This anxiety usually drives me to do something that is at the heart of good research: get creative. If I’m looking for information on, say, guerilla marketing for companies in beverage industries, and I’ve run out of good stuff, I’m going to have to develop a new strategy.

What is it I’m trying to say, exactly? If information I’ve found is leaving me flat, perhaps I have to make my points via a different angle.

If sources on marketing are running dry, maybe I should turn to the field of psychology for what it has to say on consumer reactions to marketing. Perhaps I can find a professor to email for original comments.

In a certain sense, plenty of readily available research can be a death-knell to a truly fresh article.

I believe anxiety creates good writing. Can a great piece come without anxiety? Perhaps.

But a lot of the best things I’ve written have involved a lot of angst.

(Photo by Holly Lay /  CC BY)

Jeff Maehre is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. His fiction has appeared in Story, The Northwest Review, Cutbank, and Phoebe; he often blogs and writes other copy about social media.


No Comments yet, be the first!

Add a Comment