The Waiting Room

This could take a while...

Friday, February 08, 2008


Posted by Seeking Solace |

My Composition students began working on their first essay assignment. Today was a brainstorming session where the students worked in groups to discuss their topics and whether the topic was suitable for the assignment. I noticed one girl who was just sitting there, absolutely paralyzed with fear. I asked her if everything was OK. She told me that she is absolute afraid of writing.

I decided it would be best to talk to her in the hall because I could see tears in her eyes. After some probing, I found out that she has felt this way since the seventh grade. When I tried to get to what specifically sparked her fear, she shut down. She told me that she would rather take an "F" than write an essay.


I told her that I could let her avoid the assignment, as that will not do her any good. And I would not be doing my job if I let her slide. I told her that I am willing to work with her. We would work on this together, taking baby steps. I told her that for now, I just wanted her to write about her topic. I told her not to worry about structure or anything else. Just write.

She seemed OK with that idea. At the end of the in-class writing session, she said that she was now worried about introductions, and the like. I told her not to stress about that now. We are taking this slow and she should focus on the task at hand.

I have heard of math anxiety, test anxiety, pubic speaking anxiety, but never essay wring anxiety. But the sheer look of fear on this girl's face told me that she would rather be in the dentist chair than write an essay. This was no joke. She has writing anxiety.

After class, I told my office mate about what happened. She was as shocked as I was. She suggested having this student write in a journal a couple time a week and then review it with me, just to get used to writing. I think that is a great idea. I am going to pick up a notebook for her and present the idea to her on Monday. I am also going to continue to spoon feed her until she gains some confidence. I am afraid that if I don't, I will lose her. Perhaps some in-class free writing session would not only benefit her but others as well.

Have any of you heard of "writing anxiety"?


Kai said...

How does one apply for college with "writing anxiety"?? Don't you have to write an essay to get in?

I've never heard of such a thing, but as someone who suffers from other forms of anxiety nothing surprises me.

Propter Doc said...

I have a lack of confidence in my writing, inspired by overbearing parents. It generally means that I am terrified of anyone reading my writing, rather than the process of writing itself. Blogging has helped with this, as did a patient and kind English teacher at school who read without mocking, or being harsh and who was constructive in suggestions and very supportive. Still, when I hand a paper draft into my current PI, the thought of sitting going through it makes my blood run cold and is the number one demotivating factor in getting it (not) done. The fact that we have fundamental differences in style doesn't help.

Support, constructive help, the journal idea, all awesome.

Prisca said...

Wow! I hope you'll have a chance to find out where some of this is coming from for her. Do you suppose she has trouble reading, too? I'm wondering if she has undiagnosed learning disabilities or, like you noted, is it a parallel to 'math anxiety.' Keep us posted!

p.s. How's The Boy doing after play group? I've been wondering if he suffered ill effects. :(

desertdemocrat said...

I had a student last semester who expressed a similar anxiety. He had been told over and over and over again that he couldn't write, would never be able to, etc.

He simply could not put fingers to keyboard or pencil to paper. After trying a variety of things--free writing, journaling, etc.--I decided to ask him to try recording his thoughts--using dictating software or a digital recorder, and then typing up what he said.

He came back with several paragraphs of texts, with great ideas, evidence, and even a pretty well organized discussion. We then worked on revising the text to remove some of the signs of spoken discourse, saved the file, and he went off to record some more thoughts. I worked with him through the first essay, and then he was able to record and revise on his own more and more for each assignment.

Toward the end of the semester, he even began to brainstorm in-class with pencil and paper.

I also worked to make encouraging comments and to focus on small problems one at a time. I think this helped him gain confidence as did producing text from his recorded thoughts.

Maybe something like this will help your student too.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I had a student last semester who probably had writing anxiety. He'd come to every class and participate in discussions. After class he'd chat about the ideas we discussed, but he wouldn't turn in a paper.

I asked him to start brining me drafts, but he wouldn't do it... eventually I told him that I couldn't pass him unless he did some writing work and he brought in something -- which was a start.

I wish I'd thought of the journal option - He could have written journal entries about class discussion topics etc... which would have let him put something down.

It seemed to me that his fear was a perfectionist thing... like if he wrote it down and it was somehow "wrong", then the whole world would know he wasn't smart.

Psychgrad said...

I have some degree of writing anxiety. Mainly from negative feedback on past work. But, I find that as I continue, it gets much easier. I think the journal idea is a good one too. I find blogging helps, at least in terms of getting in the habit of putting words on paper. Trying to represent your thinking in words is not (for many) an innate ability, so practice definitely helps.

joy said...

When I wrote papers I had a difficult time starting. I did not know where to start, so I wouldn't. After procrastinating until the last possible moment, I'd dig in and get it done.
Usually I'd realize I did know and I'd wonder what took me so long.

Looking back I don't think I knew I was afraid. I think I thought I was lazy or incompetent and that added to the fears.

I wish I'd been more aware. It's good that you could see this process in class and help her!

RageyOne said...

Wow. I've never heard of writing anxiety. It sounds like you have the right idea about helping her out though.

Seeking Solace said...

Thanks everyone for your input. I am hoping that the journal and free writing will help this student. She is very quiet and shy, so I don't want to push too hard.

I am thinking abut incorporating blogging into my courses. My office mate does it and I am really impressed with the concept. I don't know if it is too late do adopt it. If it is, I am definitely going to use it next semester.

Prisca: The Boy is doing great. He went to daycare yesterday and got an excellent report card. I spoke with the head trainer who thinks maybe the Boy should attend one of the weekend playgroups which are not as crowded. Some of his Monday night playgroup buddies also go on Saturdays, so he will have some friends to play with.

Alice said...

Wow, this is new to me. However, maybe that's why our students turn down scholarships when asked to write an essay.

M in my diary said...

I have students who tell me they are afraid to write and that English is their worst subject and that they "hate" writing, but I've never seen anyone get so paralyzed in the classroom as to nearly cry.

I have had people who also did not express fear but had a lot of trouble getting even some basic ideas down on paper regardless of which method we used.

I think the journal writing is a good idea. Building up a little confidence is important. I wonder about any potential learning disability when the situation is this extreme.

Anonymous said...

This is very normal. I've now taught basic writing in a community college for 11 years and have seen it many times. I'm sure that if the student ever decides to tell you about it, you'll find that she has been brutalized in the past by English teachers who covered her papers with red pen and told her she couldn't write and she was stupid.

Solace, you did absolutely the right thing. This student needs to be encouraged for now to write without concern about structure, form and grammar--just get words on paper. Journaling is great for her. Then she needs a supportive reader to help her find the strong parts in what she's produced and learn how she can develop those into more formal prose that she can submit as papers. She really needs to be handled with kid gloves, but if you do, you can make a major difference in her life.

One of the most interesting cases of this I saw was when I was teaching my college's most basic writing course and I had a student in it who I believed was misplaced. He wrote beautifully and was very bright but had little confidence. I told him I believed he should skip the next level of basic writing and go to freshman composition and he reluctantly agreed. Our course had a final which consisted of writing an in-class essay over a period of two hours. At the end of the two hours, he came up to me, white as a ghost, and handed me blank paper. "I can't do it" he said. This after a semester of writing incredible papers. He was paralyzed.

Writing anxiety is very real, especially for community college students.

k8 said...

What Anonymous and others said!

Basically, it's like the same anxiety some people have about public speaking. There can be many reasons. Perfectionism is definitely one - once upon a time, it stifled my writing, although not to this extreme. Teachers who hand back papers that look like open heart surgery has been performed on them do more damage than they know. Research on writing and cognition have shown that people can only process a few types of revisions at a time.

I use a lot of informal writing in my classes (journals, blogs, etc.). While I haven't had any students with the extreme anxiety your student has, those who are more apprehensive about writing do gain confidence when they have a space to write where they know that they won't be criticized.

Bardiac said...

This sounds a bit extreme, but not at all uncommon. I like ideas of using freewriting and journaling to try to loosen students up; it's like there has to be a way to ease in. I also love the idea of using a tape recorder!

Wayfarer Scientista said...

I think I used to have this and my 5th grade teacher solved it similarly to desertdemocrat by giving me a tape recorder to tell stories into and eventually transcribing them by computer and eventually it morphed into me writing straight out.

Anonymous said...

Oh i have this big time. When i was in grade school i always received alot of praise for my story writing. I was a science major in college and wrote very good research papers.
Then...i had to take the required "essay writing course"
They ripped me to shreds. I failed the exam twice, and barely passed the course.
I hate writing essays with a passion now. I am completely afraid of it and to be honest it has had disasterous affects on my life. I have put off applying to grad school or pursuing another degree for nearly 10 years because I refuse to write an application essay...I am afraid i will babble on, and my writing will make me look like an idiot.
But the fear about being judged by my writing is just too much to overcome. I know this sounds silly, but its how i feel and thus how i behave towards it.
What is really the kicker, is that i recently found out that i have a 130 IQ. I am a very intelligent, thoughtful, hardworking, ethical person. Stuck in a dead end job because I have been given the impression my writing is always crap.
Well as hard as i have tried to avoid it, i cant anymore. I am going to give it a try and apply to pursue another degree. I just have to do the best that is in me, and if they dont like it then...

Anonymous said...

oh and by the way...writing in a journal has never helped me. Its completely different writing for yourself than writing and knowing your going to be evaluated, graded, or judged by it.
Your mind blanks, and suddenly you have no knowledge, experience or information on the subject your supposed to be writing about. Your overly concerned about paragraph structure, "proper" development and format of your essay and gramatical errors.
You dont worry about those things when your just writing in a journal.