Tag: anxiety

The Importance of Breaks in Academia

Charlie Ward, Writing Consultant

At times, it may feel as though education is all consuming. As a student, your life — and, ultimately, your identity — becomes entrenched by course readings and research projects. For me, balancing the mental load of helping writers with their projects — while also trying to do my own writing projects — becomes a bit too much around the middle of the semester. I love helping people, but I often forget to help myself. The pressure I feel to be the perfect consultant, the perfect student, the perfect child, and the perfect partner all become too much to handle; the pressures of academia make me sick with anxiety. I know it’s okay to cry — and hopefully that’s a lesson you’re learning, too — but you need other coping methods. Sometimes, you need to take a break.

It may also feel as though you don’t have much time for anything beyond academics; the idea of taking time for yourself may cause you guilt and anxiety. The relentless “culture of productivity,” or, the social climate that reinforces overworking yourself, may make it difficult for you to feel like you can take a break. But you can — and I’m here to tell you that.

Here are some tips that may help you:

Force yourself to take a break.

Realistically, this is step one: humans need time to breathe, time to create, and time to be comforted. It’s easier said than done, but don’t let “productivity culture” make you feel like you can’t take a few minutes to yourself. Don’t let peers dissuade you, either. Painting a still life, going for a walk, listening to your favorite album, or even just looking outside are great ways to readjust mentally.

I know I’m kind of preaching to the choir here, but this time to destress is crucial. If you’re a planner, plan your break; if you’re spontaneous, stop your work early one evening. Time to relax will prevent an inevitable breakdown, whether it be the result of an overloaded schedule or other excruciating factors. This break time has helped me through hard times — I promise everything will sort itself out.

Keep work and home separate.

I’m not referring to physical space here, but rather the workload between work and home. I usually do the majority of my work for the upcoming week during my weekends; however, I only allow myself to work from 9 am – 5 pm. By giving myself the evening to relax, I’m able to get up the next morning more motivated to work. Try to find an hour where you stop working: a huge weight will be lifted off your shoulders.

Try not to talk too much about work when not at work. I know this is seemingly impossible — I definitely fall into ruts where I talk about nothing but my work — but you need to find something else to talk about. You can talk about the weather, you can talk about the new Netflix special you just watched, or you can commiserate on how much you hate the month of January — it just needs to be something not related to work. It will help give your brain a break from the constant stresses of academia.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

There comes a time where we need a bit more than a break: things can become too much, things can become too loud, and things can become impossible to do on your own. When this happens, it’s more than okay to ask for help.

The cultural stigma against mental health can make it difficult to ask for help; these situations are exacerbated by feelings of guilt and anxiety, whether they be the result of academia or other factors. Conversations around the importance of breaks and community are extremely important in promoting self-advocacy.

I understand the hesitation towards taking a break, especially for students and people who just need to get stuff done. On the other hand, I also understand what it looks like when you don’t take a break: I’ve had semesters where I stopped showing up to classes, semesters where I’ve dropped classes, semesters where I failed classes. I was too scared to ask for help, and I had dug myself into a rut — productivity had clouded my ability to think clearly, and ultimately, I felt the only way I could cope with the stress was to stop being me for a while. This sounds dark, but I just want to emphasize the importance of making time for yourself.

In graduate school, I made a pact with myself to always take time if I need it. I made a pact that I would always take an hour or two to do whatever I want, even when my workload seems endless. I’m not here to tell you that I’ve been entirely without anxiety, but I’ve been able to stay above water — and that’s okay!

This semester, remember to take a break. It doesn’t matter whether it’s five minutes or five hours: take time to understand who you are and what makes you happy. Try to bottle up that happiness — whether it be memories of your pets or how the sun makes you feel — and look back on it in moments of stress. You can always change your assignments or your research, but don’t let them change you.

You Are Not a Unique Snowflake

katie-kKatie Kohls, Consultant

If you are interested at all with musical theatre and haven’t been living under a rock for the past year, you have probably heard of a little show called Hamilton. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music, lyrics, and book. This musical had taken the world by storm, and if it wasn’t about the Founding Fathers, many of the songs could be in the Top 40. Just go listen to “My Shot”, “Non-Stop”, or “Burn” and hear what I mean. The entire score is amazing. And Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, played Alexander Hamilton for the first year of its run on Broadway. And no role in the musical is limited by color or race; the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are as diverse as America today. Miranda is changing how we look at musicals, actors, and history.

Miranda also wrote the musical, In the Heights, and has composed the music for Disney’s new movie, Moana, to give a few of his other works. Basically, Miranda is a phenomenal person and writer, who has literally changed the world with his work. But on September 23, he reminded his Twitter followers that even writing geniuses have their rough patches.

Miranda’s Twitter is a place of beautiful positivity and updates on what he is doing with his time. His good morning and good night tweets are motivating and touching whether you know him or not. On September 23 though, he tweeted a ‘memory’ from three years’ prior (memories on social media remind you of popular posts that you posted on that day in previous years). This memory was a conversation Miranda had with his wife, Vanessa, about writing:


Miranda’s tweet says, “This conversation happened 3 years ago. Keep Writing. Get back to your piano” with a picture of the 2013 tweet which said:

Me: Sometimes the writing doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to.

Vanessa: I know.

Me: I have a hard time finding the balance between not beating myself up when it doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to, and not wasting time while I wait for it to happen.

Vanessa: Everyone has that problem all of the time.

Me: You mean these aren’t unique snowflake problems that happen to me because I am a unique snowflake?

Vanessa: No.

Me: Oh, good.

[End of Play.]

This tweet shows Miranda’s humor, but it also reminds us as writers and creative beings that we must keep going. Like Miranda said, the balance of not beating ourselves up and not wasting time is difficult. And we can take some small comfort in arguably one of the creative geniuses of our time has trouble writing sometimes. Who knew?!

But in all seriousness, we all struggle, but we all try to mask it. We don’t want to admit our weakness, and admit we just can’t sometimes. But if one of the greatest creative geniuses of our time is admitting that he struggles, shouldn’t we, the lowly uninfluential peasants, be okay with our struggles? I’m kidding about the peasants, but I am serious about being okay when we can’t write, can’t create. Our struggles to write aren’t because we are some special unique snowflakes with unique snowflake problems. I’m sorry, but in writing, you are not a unique snowflake but neither is Miranda.

So “What Comes Next?” Just because your problems are not unique, does not mean that your writing is not unique. So next time you are stuck or “Helpless” or have no clue how to begin again, “Take A Break” and “Wait For It” because you will “Blow Us All Away”. Soon your writing will be “Non-Stop”, and you should have confidence because “History Has Its Eyes On You”. And maybe you will make it to a point where some poor grad student fixes her writer’s block by incorporating your songs into her conclusion.


Feedback Isn’t a Snowflake: Handling Revision Anxiety

This weeDSCN3615k, consultant Karley Miller shares her strategies for navigating multiple (and sometimes conflicting) pieces of writing advice.

My last writing project took me a month to revise. I set a goal to have revisions completed in a week, used that week to think about getting started, then spent the next three weeks stressed about not having met my own self-imposed deadline. Did someone say writing is a process?

Since I sent my revised draft off to receive more feedback, I’ve had some time to think about the source of my revision anxiety. Feedback. It’s potentially the most important, and confusing, and anxiety-inducing thing (for me, at least, and maybe you too). So, feedback is important (you’re writing for an audience, right?). Not only is feedback from one person important, feedback from multiple people, if possible, is even more important. Feedback, especially from multiple people, can be confusing. Each person comes to a piece of writing from a totally unique perspective. No two people are completely alike—neither is their feedback. This isn’t to say that feedback exists, from each source, as its own special snowflake of insight, but the differences in opinion are large enough to create, like, anxiety frostbite if you spend too long scrutinizing them. Maybe that’s a stretch, but sifting through feedback in order to improve a draft can be stressful, which is why I want to share, with anyone who has been kind enough to read this far, my favorite new piece of writing advice (not claiming it as my own, rather it has probably existed since our ancestors scratched petroglyphs into cave walls, and only just now reached me): writing is much about learning when to listen and when not to.

This is not to say that revision anxiety is cured by seeking feedback from two different people and deciding, after reading their comments, that one person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It is to suggest, however, having a little faith in your own purpose. By the time you’ve received feedback from multiple people, you’ve spent hours turning your thoughts into words on a page. I don’t believe you can write a sentence without some idea of what you’re intending to communicate. This is where learning when to listen, and when not to, comes in. If you have a clear idea of your argument, or your story, or your sentence, for example, not every single word of feedback is going to help you better communicate that idea. For example, if I write, “Feedback isn’t a snowflake,” and you say, “This makes no sense,” I’m not going to change my idea (because I am, at this point, very wedded to the idea that feedback can be compared to a special snowflake but is not, exactly, one), but I might, in my blog, try very hard to explain it because your feedback let me know that I was unclear, and I, myself, am able to understand that this sentence is a stretch. If I can’t explain it, maybe I should cut it.

Moral of the story? All feedback should be taken into consideration, and applied only after you are sure making the change won’t alter your message. Unless, of course, feedback makes you reconsider your message (argument, etc.). In which case, good luck, and the Writing Center is here to give you even more feedback on a new and improved message. Although, as you can see, it’s a process for everyone (very seriously considering revising this blog about feedback/revision to exclude the snowflake comparison, although now I’m thinking the winter theme works nicely with the change of seasons).

Brainstorming: How to Avoid “Snowball” Writing


Kristin Hatten, Consultant

Learning to brainstorm is—in my humble opinion—one of the most important aspects of learning to write. This may seem obvious, but I think the further we progress into our writing careers, the more we tend to skip a good, solid brainstorming session. I, for one, am extremely guilty of this—especially since I started graduate school; I get overwhelmed with the project at hand, and, instead of proceeding calmly and strategically, I barrel forward into my paper, despite the fact that I know better. So, here, I want to outline some steps that I plan to walk myself through in order to avoid this “snowball-style” writing style, in hopes that they will be helpful to you as well!

First, freewrite! Freewriting is a great way to start a brainstorming session because you can do it however you want! Freewriting may consist of a rough outline, a chart, boxes with arrows pointing from one piece of information to another, or a typed or written page(s) of stream of consciousness commentary. Whatever it may be, it will only be helpful in getting you started on your paper.

Second, now that you have completed the freewriting stage, remove yourself a bit from the actual content of the project, and focus on the research methods that will be necessary. Here, list out some keywords you think may be useful to you during your process, and list any of the sources you may have already acquired. Also, poke around on the library’s online catalogue and make a list of possible sources from there. This will surely help you further organize your thoughts as well as help you flesh our your ideas. (Sometimes, depending on how deep you are into your project, this may be useful as step one!)

If you have trouble getting started with freewriting, try to talk out your ideas to a peer, a friend, a University Writing Center consultant (!!), or a professor. In some of the most effective brainstorming sessions I have had with clients, about 75% of the brainstorming session has consisted of the client talking through his/her ideas and me taking notes. In these instances, the client oftentimes realizes that his/her ideas were more organized and succinct than originally thought. So find a buddy and talk it out, y’all! It’ll help, I swear.

Finally, understand that brainstorming does not only happen before you write a paper. Allow yourself to brainstorm throughout your writing and research process. So, what does this look like? When you are reading and analyzing your research materials, respond directly to each source (right after you finish reading each) using your most effective freewriting method. Once you move into integrating these source materials and responses into your paper, it is to be expected that you may get stuck or need to re-organize your papers. These moments serve as yet another place where freewriting or reading and responding can come in handy.

In short, don’t panic! Sit down, get a cup of coffee, and write down what you know so you can figure out what you don’t know. Oh! And don’t forget, carry your brainstorming methods throughout the entire paper!

Doing More than Microwaving Alphabet Soup: Tips for Getting Better at Cooking and Writing

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

On one now infamous afternoon many years ago, I decided to make cupcakes from box of cake mix. Following the directions on the box, I dutifully mixed the ingredients on the box: egg, oil, water. Everything was thoroughly blended, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. I looked at the cupcake papers in the pan and looked at the mix, then the papers again, then the mix. I was pretty sure the mix was too liquid-y for the papers. I checked the box again; everything on the box was in the bowl.

Still unsure, I called my best friend who regularly baked. She reasonably asked if I had followed the directions on the box. As I picked it up to read the directions to her, I realized the problem—as you, dear reader, likely already have. The cake mix itself was still in the box. I was too embarrassed to even explain what happened to my friend. I just told her I had figured it out and got off the phone.

Ashly_Version_3That’s just the most re-told story of my kitchen fails. Few remember the many, many nights I messed up Hamburger Helper. Or the time I scalded a pot when I set hot chocolate mix on fire. But since those days, I’ve learned a few things and can successfully finish both edible and enjoyable meals. I credit a lot of my growth in the kitchen to being a little more relaxed about precisely following directions, trusting my intuition a little bit more, and being ok with taking risks. It may seem odd to have such a food-themed post on a blog about writing, but my approach to cooking is somewhat influenced by my approach to writing—a skill with which I have considerably more facility and comfort.

Following directions was the first hurdle I had to conquer in the kitchen. It was the source of many of kitchen fails I mentioned above. I was so concerned with doing exactly what I was supposed to do that I would get things mixed up. I wasn’t considering the finished product. A lot of times, this is what happens when writers focus more on grammar or mechanics than the message they are trying to send. Worrying about the writing instructions governing the placement of commas, of which there may be too many to count, can keep you from finishing your sentence, your paragraph, your whole piece. Or, as was the case in my early cooking adventures, you can end up putting in too much of something, too little, or putting it in the wrong place. This is not to say that writing “instructions” like punctuation or grammar aren’t important, but they should act as guides and finishing touches rather than the main focus of piece. After all, you want to eat (or read) the finished product, not the individual ingredients.

Another important part of cooking and writing is trusting your intuition. Ever been half way through cooking a meal only to realize that you’re missing one or two ingredients? Maybe you’re better at this whole cooking thing than I have been (and sometimes still am). At times like these, you might just have to wing it and make an educated guess about what to substitute or leave out. Those small tweaks help make what you’re making your own special version—the makings of secret recipes. It’s not much different in writing, but the tweaking is more in regard to style than flavor. Writing style, sometimes it’s called voice, is often lauded as the extra bit that makes a piece unique. Often movies or other popular media suggest that this aspect of writing is some kind of gift good writers are born with. Really though, developing voice and style is largely about trying out new spices and flavors in your writing until you find the one and the amount that works. This means, after you’ve got the big pieces of the message together, pay attention to the details—add a little bit of this or that until it balances to be just right.

Whether you’re anxious about cooking or writing, relaxing the attention on producing exactly what the instructions or the instructors call for can be the first step in actually developing your style. That means taking risks, but without those risks it’s nearly impossible to get better at something. Sure, you might include too much of one ingredient and your reader or eater might object. Next time you can include less, or you can try something else. And remember, those rules that seem so strict are really just guidelines to help you make your version of piece you’re aiming for.

Giving Thoughtful Feedback, or The Challenge of Being a Reader

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Last week, our director Bronwyn Williams wrote about the anxiety many writers feel when they share their work with others. In the Writing Center, consultants often hear about those anxieties. Part of our work is to help writers develop the confidence and positive self-perception that lessens those anxieties. Reading Bronwyn’s post made me think, though, about the other side of the situation: the pressure a reader can feel to offer insightful and productive feedback.

Ashly_Version_3Bronwyn mentioned that he was nervous to send his post to his assistant director, me. I was just as anxious to offer him feedback and suggestions. I mean, he is the director (both of the Writing Center and of my dissertation), and he has been writing successfully for years. While my nervousness is informed somewhat by those facts, it is more so the result of my belief that giving thoughtful feedback is a demonstration of respect—for the writer, the text, and the relationship between the writer and the reviewer.

As Bronwyn explained, writers often feel as though their work is a part of themselves. This is important for readers to remember because their feedback has the potential to shape the writer’s perception of his work and his self. Many of us are familiar with the overly critical grader that has marked up our writing to the point where we wonder why we bothered. This is one of the many places those writing anxieties come from. But many of us are also familiar with the feeling we get when a reader says, “This is good” or even “great” but doesn’t give any examples or mark any places on the text. It gives the feeling that the reader didn’t even bother to really read it. In this case, we may be left wondering, “How do you know? Did you even read it?”

This is why thoughtful feedback that is supported by examples from the piece is so important. It sends the message that the writing is important and valuable; it is worth the time of everyone involved in the creation of that piece. As a reader, I’m trying to discover the main goals of a piece of writing and how the content in the version I’m reading is supporting those goals. I consider as I’m reading what could be elaborated on or what might be missing in the writer’s effort to achieve those goals. Also, I want to be sure that I’m considering the writer’s anxieties—if the writer is unhappy with his piece, why might he be feeling that way? Sometimes those nervous feelings originate outside of the text, but sometimes a writer knows something isn’t quite working in the current draft but can’t identify or articulate the problem. I want to help the writer identify those places so he can revise them for the next draft.

It is my hope as a reader that these kinds of responses communicate to the writer that I appreciate the leap of faith he has taken in letting me read his work and that I take his work seriously. That can be a tall order for a reader sometimes, but it is the challenge that writing center consultants rise to every day they walk into work. As nervous as it may make us some days, those of us at the University Writing Center find it exciting and inspiring to be included in the crafting process of so many writers’ work, which some of our tutors have already discussed in previous posts.

While writing center consultants are always aiming for thoughtful feedback, it can sometimes be difficult to do in the 50 minute sessions we offer, especially with longer texts. There are some things clients can do to help consultants give that thoughtful feedback. The main thing is helping us become more familiar with their writing. Some ways to do this are to help us understand the context for the writing (the assignment, the class, etc), to tell us their goals for the piece, and to share their concerns. Also, we cannot stress enough the value of visiting the Writing Center multiple times. By doing this, as Brit Mandelo has discussed before, the client can find a consultant that he works best with, and they can develop a relationship that allows more time to focus on the writing in each session.

Ultimately, Bronwyn’s post and the process of giving him feedback made me think about the collaborative process between writers and readers. Often readers are anxious like the writer, even if those feelings develop for different reasons. In some ways, that anxiety is productive because it encourages the reader to be more invested and encourages the writer to be more open. Together these perspectives lead to better writing and better individual pieces.

Writing, Nerves, and Gaining a Sense of Being a “Writer”

Bronwyn Williams, Director

A student in a secondary school in a small town in England tells me that it gets harder to write when he knows there is a grade hanging over the assignment.

A graduate student at an English university, at work on her Ph.D., talks about how anxious she feels while waiting for a response on a dissertation chapter she has sent to her faculty director.

A faculty member, with many published books and journal articles, asks me to read a draft of a chapter for a new book she is writing, but admits that to do so makes her nervous.

??????????This semester I have been away from the University Writing Center, though issues of writing and supporting writers have not been very far from my mind. I am writing this from England where I am currently on a Fulbright Research Fellowship at the University of Sheffield. I’ve been visiting classrooms in colleges and secondary schools here, and talking with students and teachers about the challenges – and opportunities – they find in writing and reading. The fellowship has offered me the opportunity to spend the spring conducting research in a new setting, and the chance to meet and talk with new faculty and graduate student colleagues.

In all of these settings, one of the common things I have noticed about how people talk about reading and writing, is the anxiety that often emerges when it comes time for someone else to read what a writer has written. Regardless of how experienced, or how confident, these writers may be, there are always some circumstances that make them nervous about the way others are going to respond to their writing. Maybe the piece they are writing is going to count for a large part of a course grade. Or perhaps the writing is exploring new ideas or a new genre in the piece she is working on. Or maybe the writer has been told in the past that he is not a good writer and he has come to believe that judgment. For whatever reason, when we put our writing out for others to judge we understand that we are being judged on part of ourselves – our ideas, our identities. No wonder we feel nervous.

Visitors to the University Writing Center often talk to us about feeling similar anxieties. Some people feel they have to apologize for the quality of their writing before a session begins and we’ve even had a chance to read the draft. It’s no longer a surprise to me when I read the writing of someone who has told me that her writing isn’t very good, and find strengths in the writing which the student has begun to doubt are present. Then there are the writers who feel their struggles with writing are a confirmation of the negative judgments of past teachers, when, in fact, their problems are more about having to learn to write in a new genre or about unfamiliar content. At the Writing Center we are always honest about the issues a writer has to address to produce an effective piece of writing. Yet we are also honest about recognizing writing strengths that students may not believe they possess. One of the great pleasures of working in the Writing Center, is seeing our consultants not only help writers with their immediate concerns, but also give them a new perspective on their identities as writers

One of the insights that has become clearer to me through my research this spring is how important it is to have a self-perception of competence and agency in order to be a successful writer. While a set of skills is, of course, important, students – and faculty – who doubt those skills or question their power to demonstrate their abilities, often find themselves unable to complete writing projects successfully. Unfortunately, in our system of education where short-answer, high-stakes testing has become the dominant measure of competence, there is less and less room for thoughtful, nuanced writing, even at the university level. Part of what we provide at the Writing Center is a space where writers can receive honest, constructive response without high-stakes judgment. It is, in many ways, one of the purest learning environments on campus. In this learning space, we can often help writers both with their immediate writing projects, but also help them rethink their identities as competent, confident writers.

Does this mean that that we can make all of a writer’s anxieties disappear. No, I can’t promise that. (Full disclosure: I’m nervous in writing this and sending it off to my assistant director for her feedback and then publishing it online – and I’ve been writing professionally for more than thirty years. The nerves never completely go away.) What we can do, though, is offer strategies to help an individual handle new and unfamiliar writing situations effectively. And sometimes, in the course of offering these strategies, we also help students develop a more positive, and more productive, perception of themselves as “writers.”