Audience and Anxiety

While writing a recent post on signposting and metadiscourse, I experienced a bout of writers’ anxiety that nearly derailed the whole post. Writing this blog is, of course, a source of some anxiety; it is hard to avoid feeling self-conscious about writing while simultaneously telling others how to do it. In many ways it is easier to talk about writing in the classroom because nobody can evaluate your own writing at the exact same time that you are holding forth on good writing. Although there was this one time that someone accessed my dissertation online during a class on thesis writing. And then announced to everyone that he had done so! I carried on teaching, but I was seriously unnerved and totally convinced that I could see a ‘gotcha’ look in his eye the whole time.

So, there is a root anxiety present every time I hit the ‘Publish’ button. In fact, I think it is a bit unfortunate that WordPress gave the button such an intimidating name. What’s wrong with the friendly ‘Share’ button used by Facebook or the silly-but-not-intimidating ‘Tweet’ button? Every time I have to hit ‘Publish’, I mutter ‘publish-ish’ to myself as a comforting reminder of the limitations of this endeavour. But since this is, after all, a blog about writing, I thought I should use this space to reflect a little on working through writing anxieties.

I have talked frequently in this blog about the importance of audience, but I haven’t talked about the anxiety of audience. My emphasis on audience awareness as a way of strengthening writing may obscure the way that acknowledging an audience can complicate the writing process. Thinking about audience means imagining that someone will actually read our writing—not always a welcome thought. The anxiety caused by writing is the anxiety that putting something down in black and white will allow our  audience to find out the various ways in which we are inadequate. We fear that the reader will dislike the current piece of writing and thus, by extension, see us in a less favourable light. The reticence that this anxiety creates can be pernicious for two reasons. At a simple level, writing less undermines our ability to write well. Anything that inhibits our writing will put us in a potentially vicious cycle since more writing is a necessary, if not sufficient, strategy for improving our writing. At a deeper level, shielding our ideas from criticism only guarantees that we won’t improve those ideas; allowing our ideas to take shape on the page and then allowing others to see them is the only way we can establish if they are worthwhile.

Sometimes the best way to get through writing anxiety is to trust our eventual readers to let us know where we’ve gone wrong. We tend to imagine a dissatisfied reader as someone who scoffs and vows never to bother with us again; more often than not, if we are serious about what we are saying, dissatisfied readers will actually come back to us with ways to rethink, rework, and improve. Not every reader we encounter will be this ideal charitable reader, but it is still legitimate to use that reader as the target audience. The value of the imaginary charitable reader is that such a reader could come back to us with grounded concerns about problems in the text and not just disdain. You may disagree with what I said about metadiscourse, but I have to trust that you’ll explain those disagreements rather than just dismissing me out of hand.

In short, we may be able to lessen our anxiety by re-imagining our relationship with our reader as less adversarial and more constructive. The constructive reader may have lots of criticisms, but those criticisms will be grounded in the text and, as such, will not call into question our overall worthiness. Imagining this ideal reader is one way that we can help ourselves think about audience without succumbing to the attendant anxiety.

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