Your Career: How to Overcome a Fear of Public Writing

Finding the right general-interest publication for your writing will help mitigate your worries about going public.

Whether you are a professor, an administrator, or a staff member, if you’re interested in public writing, the biggest obstacle you often face is your own fear of a negative reaction. You can always learn how to pitch to an editor or edit out jargon, but there’s no use learning either skill if you are too nervous to write for a nonacademic audience at all.

Without the protections of tenure, staff members, administrators, and contingent instructors may be especially uneasy about writing for mainstream publications. Meanwhile, pressure has increased on scholars, especially junior ones, to add public writing to their arsenal of skills. Nonacademic writing has become an extension of their professional personas, which triggers familiar anxieties.

Some of the fears are reasonable; others are subtle forms of self-sabotage. All of them can lead to writer’s block. Two of the most common:

A generalized anxiety about people not liking what you wrote. Certainly some readers will not like your article. However, because academics are trained to tear work apart, you might assume that every reader approaches essays looking for flaws, inconsistencies, and failures of method. In fact, people read for all sorts of reasons — to be entertained, to learn something new, to make a commute go faster, to ignore their family over breakfast. Write for your best reader, not your worst one.

A more substantive concern about becoming the target of hate mail. This fear is that if you publish an essay on a politically hot topic and it gains wide circulation, you will find your email inbox and social-media accounts flooded with angry readers.

To move beyond such concerns, it can be helpful to see that there are many forms of public writing — not just provocative op-eds but long-form essays, book reviews, advice columns, even good old-fashioned blogging. Some of those forms pose much less risk than others. You can enjoy both satisfaction and a sense of integrity in your public writing if you learn which genres and outlets suit you.

By Denise K. Magner, first published at JUNE 1, 2021