How to Free Your Writing from Performance Anxiety (Even if You’re Not a Writer)

Ever get performance anxiety?performance anxiety

Here's what it feels like: You sit down to write and, you can't.

You might feel a sense of panic. A tightening in your gut. Nerves. You might get stuck on the first paragraph - or worse, the first sentence. Your mind might start whispering, "Not good enough," and you feel the urge to scrap everything.

It's a terrible feeling. And performance anxiety can crush your writing efforts.

Worse, it could absolutely destroy your business and bring it to its knees. Let performance anxiety get out of control, and you might stop blogging, never write another newsletter, feel nauseous each time you need to write a client email.

Take hope: I know people say they suffer from all kinds of writer issues, like the dreaded writer's block or the blank-page syndrome or yes, even performance anxiety. I also know these problems are all in your head. I'll even go so far as to say writer's block doesn't exist.

It's just you letting your mind take control.

But you have complete control over your mind.

Think of it this way: I write for a living. I have an entire writing course for business owners. I can't have a bad day. I can't stare at a blank page or indulge in writer's block or tell clients, "Sorry, I just wasn't inspired." I can't afford eccentricities so commonly associated with creative artist stereotypes.

I can't afford the luxury of performance anxiety. I have a job to do.

I bet you can't afford it either.

So here are some tips to help you smash performance anxiety and get on with your writing. Practice them well, and you'll soon be joyously sweeping through every writing task that hits your desk.

Practice Fake Deadlines

Pretending you have a strict deadline is a great way to train yourself to handle performance anxiety. Nothing bad happens if you miss it, and you can practice writing under pressure until you can handle the real deal.

Here's what happens when you fake a tight deadline:

You go into survival mode. You don't have time to procrastinate and avoid work. There's no time to wait around for your Muse. You need to get words on paper, come hell or high water.

So for every writing task you have to tackle, set a three-day deadline and follow these steps:

  • On day one, come up with an idea and create an outline.
  • On day two, write a crappy first draft.
  • On day three (that's deadline day), give your draft a good edit.

That's it; you're all done!

Okay, three days isn't really a high-pressure situation, but start there, and then begin shrinking the time-frame until you can write well and quickly when the heat's on.

When there's no other choice BUT to write, you'll find your brain simply accepts the situation and gets on with it. You'll never jam up again!

Practice Getting Practical

You can imagine fake deadlines all you like, but what happens when you suddenly have a piece you need to write quickly and you feel nerves kicking in?

You need to get practical. You need to get prepared. Most nerves come from lack of knowing what's ahead, but proper preparation before you write sweeps nerves away like blown dust.

Here are some handy tips:

  1. What's the purpose of this writing project? What are the guidelines? Write those specifics down, then read them over two or three times until you practically have them memorized. This sounds obvious, but when you feel panicked, stuck or rushed, it's easy to overlook important details.
  2. Figure out exactly how much time you have to complete the whole project, and then divvy up the work accordingly. Budget time for prewriting, drafting, revising and proofreading. Set a timer to stay on track and make sure you don't get jammed in any phase of the process.
  3. Create an outline. The more structure and guidance you give yourself, the better.)  Structure is key to writing well, and you won't waste a second wondering what to write or what comes next. You have an outline; you already know!
  4. Keep moving forward. Never let yourself obsess over getting a particular sentence or section "right". If you find yourself struggling, just write something crappy, and keep writing. You can always come back and rework the section later.
  5. Take breaks. Leave your work and come back to it with fresh eyes. Consider this a reminder to budget your time wisely, and give yourself a day or two between the writing and editing process. Your finished work will be much more polished than if you had written and edited it in one sitting.

Find Your REAL Motivation

motivatedHere's an insider tip: writing well requires strong motivation. You have to want to finish the work. You have to want the reward.

Think about this: Let's say I offer you $25 bucks to write an article in 30 minutes. Meh. You might do it, but that's not even enough money to take your kids to the movies. Not a very exciting deal, is it?

Now let's say I offered you $250 for the same 30-minute article.

Think you'd feel motivated to write?

We write much better when we want to finish, when we feel motivated to do the work, and when there's a reward that matters enough to us (financial or otherwise) at the end.

And we screw ourselves up with self-sabotage, procrastination and fear-obstacles when, deep down, we don't really care about finishing the work.

So if you have trouble writing, sit down and think about your motivations. Do you have any? What are they? Do those motivations matter enough to you? If not, which ones would?

You may find that you're not interested in that type of work (and so you can decide not to take more on), you don't like that client (and so you fire him and find a better one), you aren't excited by the project (and so you stick it on hold to pursue that project you've always wanted to start), or the money just isn't worth it (and so you ask for a raise, go work for someone else, or rework your rates).

Motivation matters to performance. Motivation has to outweigh inaction. Motivation means you want to win - and you want to finish the work ahead of you so you can reap the rewards.

Dig a Little Deeper

Let's say you start thinking about your motivation and maybe you dig a little deeper. You start asking yourself questions about what's really going on when you jam up and can't write.

And then suddenly you realize the truth is that you're scared. You're afraid of failure. Or embarrassment. Or criticism or success or lack of approval or green flying bananas. (Hey, it happens.)

Excellent! Now that you've uncovered that truth, take action. You know the problem - find ways to solve it! Look for methods and strategies that will help you boost your confidence so you can sweep away fears that hold you back.

Take a course. Find a mentor. Boost your skill level. Hire a shrink if you'd like.

Do whatever it takes to stop living in fear. Living in reality is a far nicer place, and it lets you accomplish your goals without stressing over every little imagined situation that could possibly go wrong (but almost never does).

Or just do it. Take a deep breath, realize you can handle whatever happens and finish the work. Publish it, send it to your client or post it to the web and be done with it.

You'll be just fine.

Take It Easy

balanceHere's one final tip before I wrap up: Don't make writing under pressure a habit. It's just a tool to help train your brain to perform on demand, stress-free.

But many people take it too far. They work hard to increase their speed and content-production ability, becoming mass producers that compromise value for output. Very little of their work is any good.

With a bit of time and attention, some of those writers could have produced much better material!and could have had much better results because of it.

So remember: Anyone can write, but writing well takes time. You can write under pressure in a pinch and get away with it every now and then if you have to, but quality always takes a hit.

Writing rushed never beats writing well.

And writing well is what gets results.

About the Author: James Chartrand

James Chartrand If you enjoyed the writing strategies in this article, you'll find plenty more in the Damn Fine Words program. Designed to teach business owners better writing skills for more results, it'll change the way you feel about writing - and bring you heaps of confidence too.

[Note from Ed: I've personally checked out this program and I think it's fantastic. That's why we're a proud affiliate for James. This means that we may get paid a commission if you end up enrolling in this program using the link above.]


  • Joseph Howarth

    The deep breathing and exercise are key. Anxiety comes from uncertainty for me, so I seek resolution as much as I can. I wish I could be better at letting go of the things that are out of my control. Browse around this site to know more tips on dealing with anxiety.

  • James, solid stuff as usual. Love the info about living in fear and "You'll be just fine." You're so dang sensible, you are.

  • Some sound advice here! I write for a living (scriptwriting and copywriting), and the bit that really works for me is <> Ann Lamott (Bird by Bird) calls it the 'shitty first draft' - same thing! People often don't realise that professional writers rewrite like crazy. That's what makes it good! Get the SFD out, quick and dirty, see what you've got, and then start the real writing - rewriting. Thanks for demystifying, Ed and James!

    • Unfortunately the computer doesn't like those arrows! Now how do I get in and rewrite? 😉

      • Anonymous

        Hmmm... not sure, Jules. No worries, though. I know what you meant!

    • Anonymous

      Amen to that!! My writing quality AND efficiently improved dramatically the day I stopped trying to create a killer draft the first time around. Now I trick myself into thinking that this is just a "fleshed out outline." And guess what? Very often it's actually about 50%+ there in just a few hours.

    • Guest

      I'm very good at the SFD.  I jam up at the rewrite.  Usually the SFD is so s-y, I don't know what to do to fix it because there are too many problems, I go into overwhelm, then throw the whole thing out and start over.  I then create another SFD and the same thing happens again.

      • You are so lucky, though, because you don't have inhibitions about starting. Your perfectionism is kicking in at the second rather than the first stage! And you aren't precious about starting again, which is great. Just stop before you throw out, forget writing, and concentrate on harvesting the good bits! James and Ed will have thoughts about this - what I do is use a highlighter to mark up the buried treasure (there may only be a sentence!), and see where it fits into the outline. Then I flesh out the other bits in the outline. Handle the structural edit and the words separately, not at the same time. And it will gradually come together, like a picture coming into focus. Everyone has a different process - it's a question of finding out what works for you! 

  • Wow, what a great article! It hits the nail, or several nails, on the head. Thanks Ed for sharing it.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the feedback, Slawomir! Glad you liked it. 😉

  • Nice info. Thanks so much! Do you have suggestions for my challenge? That is ... a large portion of my work includes newsletters for hospitals and physician groups. Sometimes a single issue involves interviewing 15 physicians--which of course means 15 transcriptions. I've tried subbing it out ... but find it eats into my margin. I've reduced the number of interview questions to the minimum but still find it takes too long. Suggestions? Thanks so much.

    • Anonymous

      Great question, Stephen! Couple of ideas:

      1) keep the interviewee on track with his answers. Some people tend to get carried away w/ their responses. Learn tactful ways to keep them focused on the question.

      2) Only transcribe the interviews that have a ton of meat to them. With the others, still record, but every time they say something really useful that you didn't have time to write fully, look at your recorder's timer and write down the time when they said this next to your note about it. For instance, you could write "great comment about where cardiac telemetry is heading [4:37]. Doing this allows you to go back and listen only to the passages that matter. It also keeps you from having to get it transcribed.

      Hope this helps! Good luck.

  • Thanks for this... the line (prompt, really) that jumped off the page was this one: What’s the purpose of this writing project?

    I love this kind of thinking. For me, finding the "So that…" of a project really helps put things in perspective. Of course, I've had to review and REDO my "So that…" on things over the years. I've even found that when I find one of them, I can even go further and ask what the "So that…" of the "So that…" is!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Another great question to ask is, "WHY?"  Why does this story matter? Why is this paragraph relevant? Why is this important to you? Why is this important to readers?

      As Simon Sinek says... start with why. 😉

    • Anonymous

      SO true, Jason! Thanks for that insight. Couldn't agree more.