Writing is scary for pretty much everyone. For example, I as I write this sentence, I can’t help but worry that…

  • My words are orphans; I am not there to clarify their meaning or defend their honor. They must speak without me.
  • Printed words stand as public monuments to my imperfection in this moment.
  • I can never be sure how my writing will be received. As far as I know, no writer has figured out the magic formula for how to always predict with accuracy how an audience will respond to the words on the page.
  • Writing can be easily compared. Once set down, my words can be instantly compared with every author that has come before.

The bulk of our students likely face these same fears, and a great many of them also likely face other fears, ranging from worries that they don’t measure up to their classmates, to anxiety over whether mistakes will lower their grades, to generalized fears born from previous bad experiences with writing papers for school.

Add up all of these fears and it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that writing is one of the scariest things we ask students to do in school.

This fear factor is why for writing teachers one of our most important jobs is to find ways to mitigate these fears as much as possible. While writing is never going to be completely safe, if students are deeply afraid of it, their writing growth will likley slow or even stop for the following reasons:

Fear Often Damages Effort

As teachers, we probably see lots of students whose fears act as restraints, holding them back from truly trying. Tom Newkirk argues that the reason for this is that all of us, including those students who will readily call themselves dumb, feel deep down that we are above average. In protection of this image we tend to steer a wide berth around situations where we could fail and threaten this narrative, and for many students writing is one of those situations. This results in them giving the most minimal effort possible because this is the only win-win from the perspective of protecting their egos: If they don’t put in their best effort and then do well anyhow, it acts as concrete testaments to them being above average. If they don’t do well though, they can scapegoat the effort and and quietly tell themselves that if they had actually worked hard, they could have done really well.

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” – –Shakespeare

Fear Impacts Clarity of Thought

In her book The Teaching Brain, Vanessa Rodriguez argues that “when a student’s working memory is constrained by negative emotion…he will not be able to think as clearly or remember as well.” One big reason for this is our brains in these situations go through what Daniel Goleman refers to as an “amygdala hijack,” where the brain’s fear sensor–the amygdala–detects enough danger to to trigger a flight-or-fight response. When this happens, pathways to the prefrontal cortex shut down as all neurological resources pour into our fight or flight response. This is maybe a good thing from a survival standpoint (in moments of great danger you tend to need sudden action more than deep reasoning), but from a writing and learning to write standpoint, it is a disaster.

Fear Can Lead to Outright Avoidance

For the students who struggle with or fear writing the most, their long or perceived long litanies of writing failures can lead to them withdrawing from writing in the classroom altogether. These students can produce nothing or next to nothing and miss new deadline after new deadline, even after we push, prod, nudge, cut deals, and dangle carrots and sticks in front of them. According to Paul Tough in Helping Children Succeed, many of them behave like this because…

“As students fall behind their peers academically…they feel less and less competent…And once student reach that point of detachment and disengagement, no collection of material incentives or punishments is going to motivate them, at least not in a deep way over the long term.”


For these students, a zero, a frank discussion with the teacher, or a call home would likely be unpleasant, but the pain of those things are still outweighed by embarrassment and shame they feel about their writing, so they delay, stick their heads in the sand, and wait for this storm to pass, even if it means they likely won’t pass themselves.

If fear causes all of these problems, what can we do about it?

There are a number of things that we can specifically do as writing teachers to make the writing students do less dangerous. They include…

Having More Touch Points

Touch points are interactions where we listen to students, learn about who they are, affirm their stories and identities, guide them, or just give them a genuine greeting. Increasing the quantity and quality of these touch points has been shown to make students more resilient, gritty, and less fearful.

As a writing teacher, we can do this through…

Giving Them Real Victories and Safe Harbors

Polished writing will always be scary. This is why we need to have a lot more writing to learn, where students have an opportunity to play in ungraded and un-assessed waters. We also need to design some assignments where students can get easy victories, as a positive narrative around writing will only develop if they succeed most of the time. This doesn’t mean we should water down our curriculum or expectations, but we need to find ways for students to rack up some victories. An example of this is this assignment, which asks students to push themselves in their word choice (an important topic) that is also a relatively easy win as the only major criteria is to take a step forward. The grit and confidence set up by this type of assignment sets the stage for students having the bravery to conquer harder assignments down the road.

Rebranding Failure

Students have largely learned by the time they get to us that mistakes are bad. Mistakes cost them points and lower their grades. That is why in our classes it is essential that we do some work to rebrand failure to be something more positive–a necessary way station on the path to learning. I wrote a whole post on that, but it is nicely summed up by this quote from Neil Gaiman that I start with on the first day each year: 

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.

Remembering They Are Afraid

Maybe the most important thing we can do diminish student fear of writing is just to remember that it is probably there. Always keeping in the back of our minds that what we are asking them to do is scary and likely uncomfortable is the best tool I’ve found to make sure that we are helping students move away from fear instead of nudging them further into it!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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