How to Keep On Writing Even When You’re Scared Witless

    keep on writing - keyboard and mouse

    I’ve got to keep on writing.

    It’s 7 a.m., and I’m in trouble.

    I’ve got a guest post due for a popular blog in a few hours . . .  A new writing client expects an outline of a marketing piece first thing tomorrow . . . The pitch I submitted to a local magazine was a hit, and now the editor wants the article for the next issue.

    You’d think such a sizzling stack of opportunities would have me salivating all over myself.

    Instead, I’m scared witless. My heart pounds, my stomach lurches, and fear has me pinned to the mat.

    If you’ve been writing for more than 7.5 seconds, chances are you’ve spent some face-time with fear too.

    Maybe you’ve experienced:

    • Fear of failure.
    • Fear of writer’s block.
    • Fear of rejection.
    • Fear of success.
    • Fear of criticism.
    • Fear of financial ruin.


    With a list like that cheering us on, it’s a wonder we ever string more than two sentences together.

    Still, the show must go on, and just as actors learn to work with stage fright, we writers must carry on with page fright.

    For me, carrying on means experimenting with self-coaching techniques to find the ones that let my creativity flow despite an ever-present fear-factor. Through testing, tweaking, and combining these methods, I’ve created a simple process to help myself and other writers move from paralyzed to productive.

    Here’s how it works:

    1. Recognize fear. Fear is a shape shifter. Although it’s easy to spot when it’s smacking us around in a full-frontal assault, sometimes it’s masked in behaviors like mindless eating or dawdling in the face of deadlines. These forms of fear may seem harmless, but they undermine our work and health and need to be seen for what they are.
    2. Return to reality. When I’m in the midst of a major fear-fest, my body is present, but my mind drifts to faraway lands where rejection lurks under every lamp post. To shrink fear and get back to reality where I can get some work done, I breathe deeply and slowly, touch objects in my physical environment, and stretch to release tension from my body.
    3. Stop struggling. Just like a snare tightens around a frightened, struggling rabbit, fear’s claws sink in deeper when we resist it. Fear is an instinctive, as well as a conditioned, response to the risk that’s part of living a creative life. When I remember that, I save my energy for writing instead of squandering it in an eternal wrestling match.
    4. Listen. Even though I don’t applaud its arrival, fear often delivers important messages. I’ve learned to sit quietly for a moment and ask myself what I’m really afraid of. This helps bring insecurities, triggers, and potential dangers to the surface where they can be addressed as needed.
    5. Recommit. Writing is a choice. We have the option to let our blogs sit dormant, turn down writing jobs, and break contracts. When we’re scared, we forget there’s a whole world of ways to be creative and make a living, and that we chose this one. Consciously recommitting to our work, if that’s truly what we wish to do, restores our sense of power.
    6. Get in the flow. Practicing the previous steps puts fear into perspective; moving into the creative process helps keep it there. The key is to work quickly, staying immersed in the writing process, without judging the work. For me, this means writing ‘fat and fast’ rough drafts without thought to sentence structure or punctuation. As my fingers move across the keys, words appear on the screen, and momentum builds. If my project is in later stages, I’ll work in quick sweeps, making easy changes without getting bogged down in the pursuit of perfection. My work will need fine tuning soon, but right now, it’s all about building up that momentum.
    7. Take a breather. I’ve learned the hard way that fear sneaks up on me when I let my batteries run low. Even though taking breaks is the last thing my creative spirit wants to do when it’s on a roll, I step away for a few minutes here and there to refresh and recharge.
    8. Sculpt and polish. Words like ‘revise’ and ‘edit’ make me twitchy, so I use softer language like ‘sculpt’ or ‘whittle’ to describe the home stretch activities. At this stage doubts can pop up fast, and doubts are to fear what gasoline is to a flame . . . . Whooosh! If you feel that big fiery rush of fear come over you as you polish your work, acknowledge it, take some deep breaths, and keep working if you’re able. If not, repeat the above steps as needed to complete your project.

    I’d love to tell you that practicing this process will eliminate your writing fears forever, but that’s not true. Odds are, fear will be waiting at your desk in some form the next time you start a new project, work with a new editor, or shift writing gears. Perhaps, it’s already there.

    That’s okay though. We’re all fraidy-cat writers sometimes, and there’s no shame in that. No, the only real shame would be if we let our fears hold us back from experiencing the wild adventure of this writing life.

    Your turn: How do you deal with your writing fears?

    About the Author:
    Jean Berg-Sarauer is a writer and blogger living in beautiful northwestern Wisconsin.

    About the author

      Jean Berg-Sarauer

    • When fear of writing shows up, I have a simple way of dealing with it. I take a timer to my desk and set it for 5 minutes. That’s all. And I sit and make myself work for that 5 minutes. When the time is up, I set it again – for 5 minutes and work that block. I do this as often as necessary until the inner resistance dissolves and I’m able to get on with my work. It’s never failed me yet.

      • Nathan, that’s a fabulous idea. Five minutes is nothing to be scared of, right? You can bet I’ll be giving this a go myself!

    • Qrystal says:

      How do I deal with my writing fears? I usually just mindlessly dawdle.

      That is to say, your first point about recognizing fear is well received. I’m working on a thesis in physics, and I think I am in denial of my fear a lot of the time. It’s not that I’m afraid of the subject matter or the math, because I am actually quite passionate about that. I think I’m just afraid of failure (is that all?!), and that clashes with the fact that my dawdling seems to guarantee failure, and that brings on a “La la la, not listening, not thinking about it, back to meandering…”

      Deep breaths, right? Stop struggling. Return to reality. Take a breather by playing a bit of guitar (it is most important here to resist the draw of the internet’s procrastinational black hole). Recommit by reminding myself of the love for the subject.

      I get in the flow by starting with the ridiculously simple task of just rereading the section leading up to where I left off. I let myself polish a few bits if I am inspired to do so, but only in passing, as a way to build momentum. Eventually, I end up moving forward in a very natural way. But sometimes I forget how well this process works, and I get lost in dawdling, not even realizing there’s some mystery fear distracting me.

      So, what I’m saying is that your tips here are fantastic, and I appreciate how you’ve collected them together. It’s a good read, especially right before I get into writing for the day! 🙂

      • Qrystal, your fear-inspired ‘dawdling’ sounds just like what I do when I have a big writing project due. The rereading and polishing technique you use to get into the flow sounds brilliant to me, by the way.

        Good luck with your thesis!

    • I find myself battling with my inner demons often when I am writing. I think it’s important to have a passion for your subject matter — and that passion is what helps fuel me to overcome my fears. I write about medical advocacy and how to navigate through the medical system. I enjoy writing these postings, but I remind myself that each time I sit at the keyboard, I have a passion for that topic.

      • Hi Beth. I’m so glad you’re able to connect with that passion so that fear doesn’t keep you from doing your important work. And it truly is important!

    • Good stuff, thanks.

      How do I deal with writing fears? Put on music that inspires me to write. If need be, surrender until tomorrow.

      • Thank you, Moses. I need to try working with music again. Thanks for that reminder!

    • Farnoosh says:

      Jean, Jean, there you are again – I am assuming that is not you in this photo because it’s entirely different from that other gorgeous photo of you! (Just teasing, I do like this photo so very much, is that not strange?) – I have never been that scared of writing because to be honest, I never thought many people read what I write…..I had to beg my husband to make time to read it (he eventually would) and few of my friends dare step into the blogging world (it seems like this strange land of oz to them, don’t ask!) – so generally, my writing “career” has been calm but picking titles and subjects has been challenging because I want to keep the theme intact for prolificliving. But now that you put fear into my head…..well! 😉
      Great, great article and you are one of my fave writers in blogosphere, Jean!

      • Hi Farnoosh. What? That doesn’t look like me up above? I am a woman of many appearances and great mystery! Sometimes the greatest mystery of all is how I get anything written between fear and my inner-critic. Maybe from now on I should just tell them to talk to each other because I have work to do. I can completely relate to the family and friends not understanding blogging, by the way. I get some strange looks when I explain it to them. Then again, I tend to draw those kinds of looks anyway . . .

    • Karen says:

      Hi Jean, it’s so nice to see you here, giving us this excellent advice. You’re spot on, especially when you say that we have a choice to write or not. No one is forcing us to sit down and share our writing. I also appreciate the advice you gave when you say “I’ve learned to sit quietly for a moment and ask myself what I’m really afraid of”. When we change our focus to why we are fearful, we can understand where it’s coming from.

      Thanks for sharing this,

      • Thanks Karen. Remembering that I choose my own circumstances is a bit painful sometimes, but it’s a major step in recommitting, making adjustments, and making better choices down the road.

    • Francoise says:

      Hi Jean,

      thanks for these great reminders. It is incredible how we all think that fear is something we alone live through and such a relief when you recognize that we all have our fears – as different as they might be.

      Recognizing fear as well as recommiting to our goals are the points I feel as being the most important, maybe because I would often simply dismiss the fear instead of using it to perform better

      and as usual: fun and good to read !

      • Hi Francoise. I used to think I was alone in my writing fears and really thought there was something wrong with me. As you pointed out, there’s great relief that comes in knowing others share those feelings. Thanks for reading!

    • Jean,

      Wow, you are doing so many things! amazing, I am so happy for you.
      I like this article on what to do when you have so many things on your plate, great suggestions, I like take the breather as we tend to forget under the stress.!

      • Hi Preeti. Thanks for stopping in. Yes, life is full and busy for both of us. You do a wonderful job of blogging and caring for your family, and I love reading about your challenges to yourself and your discoveries. We do forget to just relax and take a breath sometimes. It seems so basic, yet the basics are the first things to go out the window when we get overwhelmed.

    • Katie says:

      Jean, another great post by a gifted writer. I love the subject because no matter how long we’ve been writing, we get hit with fear. I use the fact that I’ve gotten through it before to get me through it. Chocolate helps too.

      • Thanks, Katie. Takes one to know one 🙂 When I read your comment I was reminded of how often fear has shown up as we’ve made our way on this unfamiliar blogging path. Thank goodness we’ve learned to work with it and not run from it or we would have missed out on so much! And the best is yet to come for all of us fraidy-cats 🙂

        • Farnoosh says:

          I am getting my chocolate before I respond intelligently to this post ;)!

    • Kat Eden says:

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the idea of getting back in the flow. Just this morning I faffed around for 45 minutes because all the things I HAVE to write today just seem too overwhelming and I didn’t know where to start. Sometimes it really is a matter of just opening the file and writing a word, another word, and so on. Thanks for the reminder.

      • Hi Kat. Thanks for stopping in. Isn’t it something how that sense of overwhelm will push us further away from the work we need to do? Lately I’ve been putting every project other than the one I’m working on out of sight. It does seem to keep the overwhelm from being so easily triggered, which keeps me from going into ‘spitless’ mode.

    • Great article Jean. I can certainly relate. I got really fearful this weekend as I was doing a lot of writing and literally hit a brick wall. It was very frustrating and a bit scary. I thought “What if this starts to happen all the time?”. But before I got too into my own hole, I got up, took some deep breaths and ran outside into the fresh air and nature. I went for a long run. Then I came back and didn’t touch my computer. Went to bet and got up for another bit of exercise outside. High intensity vigorous exercise has been my best solution yet for writer’s block, hands down. Try it!

      Thanks for the tips,

      • Hi Scott. I love what you said about, “Before I got into my own hole . . .” That’s exactly what happens – we can put ourselves in a hole and bury ourselves in drama and misery if we don’t look out.

        If the exercise is too high-intensity and vigorous I might keel over, which would definitely solve my writer’s block issues 🙂 No, in all seriousness, I can see the effectiveness there. I do lots of walking and hiking/hill-climbing and that can do wonders.

    • Aileen says:

      I really appreciated your tips for dealing with page fright!
      “save my energy for writing instead of squandering it in an eternal wrestling match.” “writing ‘fat and fast’ rough drafts without thought to sentence structure or punctuation.” “use softer language like ’sculpt’ or ‘whittle’ to describe the home stretch activities”

      I frequently have page fright. I’m not sure that I had a strategy for dealing with it – but after reading this I do.

      You gave some really usable, great tips. Thank you for this post!

      • Thanks for stopping in, my fellow page fright sufferer 🙂 The more I can make things seem like ‘not a big deal,’ when I write, the better it goes. If I can write fast and think, “No big deal, this is just a draft no one else will see,” or “No big deal, just doing a little sculpting here,” that makes a big difference. Good luck testing and tweaking your strategy!

    • Hi Jean,
      This was fabulous!

      I love the tip about Recommitting. There were times in my past when I took on too much freelance work and felt that I was going to have a stroke! After I handed in my assignments I swore I would take the next month off – but when I could never say no. After a while I realized I enjoyed the challenge and writing.

      I am a very slow writer. I always have been. I try to “spit out” a first draft without editing, but I can’t seem to go more than a few paragraphs without thinking of something I want to revise. I even revise my journals! Yikes!

      I’m going to have to do some more affirmations on letting go and allowing my writing to flow.

      Thanks so much for sharing your process with us.

      • I think there’s a 12-step program for people who revise their journals, Angela 🙂 I understand though, really. It’s part of the craft to want to tweak and polish to perfection, and it’s hard to make that part of our creative spirit sit outside the door and wait its turn. One thing that helped me was going through Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way process a few times, as well as going through Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down the Bones.’ Okay, I guess that was two things. Looks like no guest posts on any mathematic’s blogs in my future 🙂

    • Doug Armey says:


      Great post that all of us as writers can relate to. Good practical help to overcome it as well. And I love your humor. Makes the medicine go down smooth.


      • Thanks, Doug. We definitely don’t want any yukky tasting medicine 🙂 Seriously, the more time I spend talking with other writers, the more I discover how we all get tripped up over the same things. Just knowing that can be a big help on a hard day!

    • I think the advice in this post is great – not just when you are writing but for many events in life. I like the part about recognizing the fear. When you go to the doctor you get some relief when he gives your symptoms a name. I think that is the case for fear too.
      Great post with lots of good info – thanks Jean

      • Hi Marion. You’re right – when we put a name to something we can get on a path to dealing with it. Now, if I would just remember this for more than 2.5 seconds 🙂

    • Great post, thanks. I have a couple of techniques. One is really a kind of joke – I call it the Playpen technique – and it involves banishing your demons into a playpen in the corner of your writing room. The other is from a mindfulness meditation technique which is simply to bring your mind back every time it wanders. No fuss, no beating yourself up, just recognize you’ve been distracted, regardless the form it takes, and re-commit to writing, to what’s in front of you.

      I have a couple of posts about these techniques on my blog Free Your Pen. More posts on the creative process and how to deal with your anxiety coming soon..

      • Oh, I love that Playpen technique, Jes. How could I be afraid of anything in a playpen? Love that. I do find the mindfulness meditation technique helpful if I do it before I get cranked up into full-blown panic mode. Your blog sounds like it’s right up my alley, so I’ll be popping over for a visit.

    • Hi Jean!
      What an awesome post! As usual your catchy titles have me cracking up inside. I’ve been scared spitless so many times it’s wonder I’m not so deliriously dehydrated.

      When I find myself paralyzed, I take that as cue that I need to step away from the computer and go for a walk. Somehow that new serge of blood flow to the brain helps me think more clearly. I have to be careful to carry my phone with me, though, so that I use the voice recorder to capture my ideas before they slip away. It’s funny how when I don’t have paper or pen it seems to scare my mind back to work.

      • Hi Kiesha. You’d better start carrying a water bottle 🙂 Walking is definitely a great way to get out of our head dramas and back to reality. Great idea to use the phone voice recorder as an idea-catcher!

    • GIna says:

      What a fantastic post! I got so much out of it. I wish I could find something like this everyday to read as soon as I wake up in the morning to get me motivated. I need to be reminded of these things daily, even though I know them in my head, it’s hard sometimes to get my heart to remember them.

      Thank you. Now I’m off to write while the inspiration is there.

      • Thanks Gina. I can so relate to that ‘I know this in my head, but . . . ‘ feeling. Life would sure be a lot easier if we were born with a user’s manual strapped to our wrists 🙂

    • Great advice, and applicable to far more than just writing. Fear can sabotage any passion if we let it.

      Insert obvious Dune reference.

      • Right you are, Ray. Fear has kept me from forging ahead with many passions because I didn’t ‘permit it to pass over me and through me.’ I couldn’t resist slipping in something from Dune 🙂

    • Paul Baarn says:

      Hi Jean,

      Excellent article. I especially appreciate that you keep it real, in saying that fear will still be a factor from time to time. No magic pill.

      I agree with all the steps you mention. At the moment I use two steps very often. I take a minute to just sit and breathe before I go and do my next work. I find it not only clears my head, but I can feel the tension in my body flow away, even though I wasn’t aware of the tension in the first place.

      I also use a technique I call fragmenting, where I split up my task into ridiculously small and simple steps. I may have steps like: open Google Docs – Make a new document – Put in temporary title – Save document – Put in TOC -……

      When the task (or at least the start of the task) is split up, I have far less resistance to starting it. When I think about the whole process I may fear the stuff I don’t know yet and it makes me put off the task. After fragmenting, there is no risk in doing those first simple tasks. And once I’m on the go, it’s easier to go on.

      Oh, I just remembered a third thing I do. I write down what I don’t know. I write it down as questions in the parts of the document where the information should go. Once it’s on paper it’s out of my head and I’ve freed up some more brain cycles.

      I enjoyed reading your article.

      Paul Baarn

      • Hi Paul. Thanks for sharing so many great ideas! I practice ‘baby steps’ but your ‘fragmenting’ process sounds even better to a fraidy cat like me. ‘Ridiculously small and simple steps’ is an inspiring phrase.

    • Angela says:

      Wow – you hit the nail on the head. And I have to admit, I’m somewhat relieved to know that I’m not the only one who ever feels this way (misery really does love company)! I feel all of these levels of fear every time I take on a new client. To move past the initial paralysis, I find that it helps to literally talk myself through it – often out loud. Something I likely shouldn’t admit! Thanks for yet another fantastic post.

      • Hi Angela. It’s just fine to admit you talk to yourself. We won’t tell anyone 🙂 Seriously, what a great way to coach yourself into action.

    • Great advice, Jean!

      Sometimes the way I deal with the fear is to just start without thinking TOO much about what I’m getting into: like diving into a swimming pool without stopping to dip my toes in the water.

      • I like that ‘diving into a swimming pool’ image, Mark. My own toe-dipping has kept me out of the pool far too often!

    • >