By Zach Marshall
Zach Marshall is the 2015-16 TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center at UW-Madison, where he has been a tutor since fall 2012. He is also a PhD candidate in English literary studies writing a dissertation on American literature, slavery, and media culture.
It has recently come to my attention that I don’t know what to do when I work with writers who experience a certain kind of writing anxiety. As a writing tutor, part of my job is to provide motivational scaffolding to the writers I work with—encouraging them when they make progress, recognizing the challenges of writing, and exhorting them to future progress. Another part of my job is to help writers who struggle to produce writing think about the habits that create roadblocks for them, such as trying to get all of their writing done in one day. However, there’s a kind of writing anxiety that some writers experience that has challenged me recently because I’m not sure it can be resolved by encouraging them or advising them to adopt better habits. The type of anxiety I’m thinking of is when writers feel unable to make decisions they must make in order to write. Let’s call it “indecisiveness in writing.”
In indecisiveness in writing, the challenge is not that a writer hasn’t done their research or that a writer has poor writing habits; it’s more that a writer is faced with tough choices which don’t have clear answers. In this post, I’ll give examples of what indecisiveness in writing looks like, use research on indecisiveness to outline what might be going on when someone is experiencing indecisiveness in writing, and consider ways tutors might help an indecisive writer.
It may sound obvious to point out that the writing process requires many stages of complex decision-making, but I’ll list some out to make a point: choosing a topic, choosing a focus for the topic, choosing an organization schema, choosing sources to cite, choosing the individual sentences that convey the focused topic and organization, and, of course, choosing the individual words. To crudely quantify the decisions, a simple five-paragraph, 1,000 word essay constitutes at least 1,025 discrete decisions, and that’s after making all the decisions required to settle on a focused topic.
Three recent writing center situations have focused my attention on the importance of decision making for writers. These experiences initially drew my attention to general writing anxiety, but upon reflection, I realized that the issue at play in each situation had to do with a writer struggling to decide. I’ll relate them briefly:
1. Choosing a Topic: An undergraduate writer came to the Writing Center a few times for a course in music history. During one of our later meetings, this writer confided that they experienced a lot of anxiety around writing. I was surprised because this writer demonstrated an exceptional command of the course material and ability to make original connections. They said their real trouble comes whenever they have to generate an essay topic on their own and an instructor places few restrictions on what the topic can be. They experienced this anxiety acutely in their introduction to college composition course where students have a lot of freedom to choose topics. The difference in the music history course was that the topic was already narrowed to the point that they simply had to choose one of three songs to write about.
2. Organizing Ideas: During a writing center workshop on literature reviews for graduate students, I was teaching about how to make literature reviews stronger by having a clear structure that organized the subjects and significance of previous research. I explained that it was the writer’s job to group the previous research into smaller categories and organize those categories by significance. One writer in the back of the room raised their hand and asked, “But how are we supposed to know the smaller categories or the gaps in the field? Is there something we can compare our results to?” I had to pause and consider what this writer was asking: they were asking whether some definitive map of all fields existed; they were hoping it wasn’t their task to figure out—to decide—what the map looked like.
3. Outlining and Drafting: A writer at a Saturday morning writer’s retreat was trying to decide how to organize the introduction to their senior-thesis article on bioenergy reactions. We listed and then outlined the things they needed to include. When we finished, I said, “All right, it seems like you’re ready to write.” They hesitated, and I noticed they were crying. I said, “It seems like you’re feeling pretty uncomfortable with writing this introduction.” They explained that they had outlined before but just couldn’t get from outline to draft because they couldn’t decide whether they were giving too much or too little detail. To help this writer progress, I recommended writing by hand rather than on a laptop, just as a way to change the act of writing and reduce the anxiety. This approached helped that day, but when I met this writer a week later with the same project, they were still experiencing the same trouble.
In each situation, the anxiety the writer experienced had to do with making decisions about their writing, whether it was choosing a topic, deciding what claim to make about the shape of a field, or deciding what sentences to use to flesh out one item in an outline. Additionally, in each situation, the writer exhibited a clear awareness of their audience and the high stakes of their writing task.
More broadly, these three examples show that indecisiveness can occur in a variety of situations: it can lead to anxiety at multiple stages of the writing process and for writers at different stages of their educational careers.
What Indecisiveness Entails
In order to examine what may be going on in a writer’s mind that contributes to the feeling of indecisiveness, I borrow heavily from an article by professor of entrepreneurship and management Raed Elaydi. The article is titled “Construct Development and Measurement of Indecisiveness,” from Management Decision (2006), and I have found it particularly helpful for thinking about the challenges of indecisiveness in writing. Perhaps it seems odd to draw from the field of management to talk about writing, but Elaydi’s focus on decision making is apt for a writing context.
One of Elaydi’s primary goals is to sketch out a construct of what “indecisiveness” entails. He points out that previous research on decision making hasn’t really focused on indecisiveness because decision-making constructs assume what he calls “consequentialist theories.” These theories assume choosers use a rational utility-driven approach to decision making—weighing the pros and cons of multiple outcomes in order to come to a good decision. Consequentialist theories also assume people will come to a decision (perhaps like a car traveling down the highway).
But there are two big problems with such theories. First, this kind of approach doesn’t consider the emotional responses to various choices that cloud the decision-making process. For example, if the decider foresees a threatening outcome to one choice, they may avoid it even if it’s the more rational choice; Elaydi describes the resulting decision paralysis in the brain: “the amygdala triggers the release of adrenaline and other hormones into the blood stream, which elevates an avoidance response and more importantly disrupts the control of rational thought.” For writers thinking about decisions related to their writing, anxiety about certain options may increase their indecisiveness.
The second problem is that consequentialist approaches to decision making fail to consider situations in which someone avoids choosing and doesn’t feel comfortable about their avoidance. Elaydi identifies this situation as “undecided-uncomfortable”—being stuck in a decision-making process while also continuing to experience negative emotions about the decision. This construct describes really well what some writers I have worked with experience: a lack of confidence about what decision to make, which results in avoidance, which results in even more ambivalence about what to choose.
Elaydi, thus, calls for a decision-making construct that takes into account situations where people avoid making a decision, specifically because of emotional responses to various choices.
What Can Tutors Do?
My hope is that reviewing some research on decision making can illuminate strategies tutors can use when working with writers who experience indecisiveness, particularly to give options other than what might seem obvious at first.
I think most people’s first response when talking to someone who is feeling indecisive is to tell them to make a list of pros and cons for both choices. People assume that seeing each choice with all the pros and cons in two columns will help someone to come to the most rational decision. But, as Elaydi’s article points out, that rational model is not necessarily how decision making works. In some situations, the pro/con list might actually hinder progress (not to mention it would take ages for 1,025 decisions!).
Personally, I find this news refreshing. As an indecisive person, pro/con lists infuriate me: they don’t help me to come to a decision because I can’t quantify my emotional responses in the columns, which means I usually feel stuck in a Catch-22. Making a list of pros and cons may help some indecisive writers, but certainly not all.
What seems important for tutors is, first, to recognize when a writer is stuck because they are having trouble making writing decisions. Then, a tutor can redirect a writer’s thinking, not by listing the pros and cons of choice A versus choice B but rather by observing the previously invisible choice C, which is choosing neither A nor B. Thus, a writer’s choice shifts to something or nothing, moving on or remaining in a decision-making holding pattern. My hypothesis is that some writers who struggle with indecisiveness need to reorient their thinking so that they can see that more is lost in not making a decision than in making the “wrong” decision.
Unfortunately, I don’t have an example from a time when I used this strategy successfully with a student in a writing conference; I see this as a potential weakness of this post, so I’m interested to hear your comments. Nevertheless, as a person who has frequently experienced indecisiveness, I use similar logic to make all sorts of decisions. For example, when I’m buying shoes and choosing between a couple pairs I really like, I point out to myself that leaving the shoe store with either pair is better than leaving with neither. I have to reorient my perspective on my choices: I’m not choosing between yellow shoes and blue shoes; I’m choosing between something and nothing. Changing my perspective in this way helps me either to downplay emotions that are preventing a decision or to feel comfortable being impulsive.
Comparing some higher-stakes writing choices to choosing shoes may seem like trivialization, but reorienting the decision may be what some writers need in order to make progress. As silly as it sounds, having “shoe store theory” has helped me to cope with indecisiveness related to my writing. Which topic should I choose for this chapter? How should I outline my introduction? I can oscilate between choices forever, but if I wait for perfection, I never get anywhere.
In the end, writing is not like buying shoes. It’s better. If you wear your writing decision for a week and realize you’ve picked something that doesn’t work for you, you can change your mind with the bonus knowledge that there’s probably a better option. But if you wear new shoes for a week, the shoe store won’t take them back. My analogy is going to break down at some point, but I mainly want to avoid the analogy of decision making as traveling on a road. Roads are rigidly laid out paths with right or wrong destinations. Writing isn’t that clear. When someone is writing, there are multiple viable pathways and even multiple viable destinations—more like buying shoes.
Conclusion (allow me to be decisive for a moment…)
Basically, what I’m recommending is that tutors use a form of cognitive-behavior therapy, a counseling strategy that assumes the way people act is interconnected with the way they think and the way they feel (an idea that parallels Elaydi’s claim that decision-making constructs need to account for people’s feelings rather than simply reducing decisions to thoughts and actions). The goal in such a tutoring strategy is to redirect the way an indecisive writer thinks about the decision they have to make so that they can move beyond negative emotions that make it difficult for them to write (for what it’s worth, Rezvan, Baghban, Bahrami, & Abedi, 2008, cite Chambless et al.’s 1996 study showing cognitive behavior therapy to be the only empirically validated study for generalized anxiety disorder). It may seem strange or even irresponsible to recommend that writing tutors use cognitive-behavioral therapy in writing conferences. I don’t mean to suggest that writing tutors can act as therapists. Instead, because writing tutors advise about writing (which by definition involves thinking and acting), they shouldn’t ignore how writers feel about their choices.
What I’m arguing here may sound similar to things people already know about good writing habits. In one sense, I’m basically saying that writers who suffer from indecisiveness need to find a way to “make writing a clear priority in their life,” as Keith Hjortshoj recommends in Understanding Writing Blocks (2001) or as Paul Silvia similarly recommends in How to Write a Lot (2007) (cf. Salovey & Haar, 1990).
But there’s more to what I’m saying when it comes to the writing conference. People’s emotions and self-talk around writing matter, and they should matter to tutors. Paul Silvia, for example, claims, “Writer’s block is nothing more than the behavior of not writing” (46), and he debunks what he calls “specious barriers to writing a lot” (Ch. 2). But I’m pretty sure an indecisive writer wouldn’t find this news helpful, especially writers who point to negative self-talk as a source of their writer’s block. So I think that having a cognitive-behavior technique to reorient overwhelming indecisiveness will help some writers who are struggling to make writing decisions.
Elaydi, R. (2006). Construct development and measurement of indecisiveness. Management Decision, 44, 1363-1376. doi: 10.1108/00251740610715696
Hjortshoj, K. (2001). Understanding Writer’s Blocks. New York: Oxford UP.
Rezvan, S., Baghban, I., Bahrami, F., & Abedi M. (2008). A comparison of cognitive-behavior therapy with interpersonal and cognitive behavior therapy in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 21, 309-321. doi: 10.1080/09515070802602096
Salovey, P. & Haar, M. D. (1990). The efficacy of cognitive-behavior therapy and writing process training for alleviating writing anxiety. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 515-528.
Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to Write a Lot: a practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.