Risky Business: The Writing Process

The students in my writing class are about to take their final exam.

This is a foundational class, meant to provide students with the basic tools they will need to successfully complete written assignments for the remainder of their academic careers. They are predictably anxious.

The questions I expect to hear before the exam begins will likely follow a familiar pattern. My students will want me to tell them what to write. I’ll give them a topic, but they’ll press me for specifics. One may even ask me: how should I begin?

How to begin?

After working with students as both an instructor and as a writing coach, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the most difficult part of the writing for most students is simply getting started. This shouldn’t be surprising. It aligns with my own experience, and I’ve been writing in various capacities for years. It’s also a sentiment echoed by some of the most successful writers in the world: the uncertainty, the intimidation, the risk of beginning.

So why so much fear about putting pen to paper? Or about those first few taps on the keyboard?

Fear of Failure

Based on my own experience, I think there are two answers to the question of why it can be difficult and stressful to begin writing anything. The first is quite simply a fear of failure. What if my opening line leads nowhere? Or even worse, what if it sets a trajectory for my essay that, if followed, will produce something boring, clumsy, or downright horrible?

On a personal note, this fear of failure is compounded by a fear of not investing my time wisely. I’ve been guilty of putting off an assignment because I was not confident that it would yield a perfect, effective, engaging piece of writing. Or perhaps I did not have a clear endgame in sight and so was afraid that I would just write myself in circles until the end of time.

Fear of Being Vulnerable

The second reason I think so many writers have trouble beginning the writing process is that it requires us to be vulnerable. I think this is especially true for the students in my class, who are still getting their sea legs, as it were, when it comes to showing their own personalities and staking out their claims in the world. In addition, they may not have had the time to learn how to avoid common pitfalls or had enough positive feedback to boost their confidence. No one likes to take an uncalculated risk, and that’s exactly what writing demands.

The fear of vulnerability affects me as well. This is especially true when it comes to writing fiction. I’m currently working on a novel and the fear that it will be awful is sometimes a serious obstacle to progress. It’s more than just fear that my book won’t be grand, it’s that it will be a reflection of me and my creative circuit. That’s terrifying.

But it’s good to have these problems. It means I’m still identifying with the same issues as my students.

Fear and vulnerability. Yes, writing is indeed a risky business. Let me keep that in mind as we begin this final exam.

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