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Writing Apprehension in Composition

In my personality test on writing apprehension, I looked at different scales with which writing apprehension has been measured, noting that several existing methods are either highly dated or doesn't adequately present writers with tools they can use to self-reflect in their composition process. In addition, many early methods appear to "diagnose." Ideally, a writer should have tools at their disposal to help guide them through both mechanical and more complex blocks. However, no writer will consistently respond to the same tools in the same way and there are very few guarantees as to what tools can work.

In 1975, the Daly-Miller Writing Apprehension Scale was developed. Cynthia L. Selfe in "An Apprehensive Writer Composes" explains how, after taking this test, one student named Bev was selected as a case study subject. She stated she was not confident in her ability as an academic writer, going as far as to say that she didn't feel that she was truly "taught" because expectations of writing changed so often.

For the case study, Bev was supposed to write a piece according to a specific prompt and revise it, stating her thoughts and what she was doing in her composition process throughout. Notably, as she was revising, Selfe noted that she was so caught up in smaller sentence-level issues that she would either ignore larger stylistic or developmental issues or attempt to solve those larger problems with sentence-level work.

What is important to note is that it is possible for a piece of writing to be so crowded in mechanical issues that it can be difficult to see past them. That can and does create problems. In Bev's case, and she stated this, she wasn't aware of the tools she could use to directly meet and navigate her blocks.

How well do you understand the obstacles you face while writing?

Blocks can happen in any phase of writing, even the planning phase, but what's not often considered is whether the writer understands their blocks. Consider, when you write, how well you can articulate a problem you run into. A sentence, for example, can stand out for a specific reason that is difficult to dictate. Maybe it just looks wrong or the meaning stands out negatively among other sentences. So, in as much detail as possible, I suggest stating as much as you know about the problem. Maybe it's a problem that you have faced before and it's possible that the same relevant details apply.

What are your intentions?

As broad as this question is, intent matters. As you are working towards understanding the different kinds of blocks you face, it's important to remember what your overall intentions are with a specific piece of writing, with a section, with a paragraph, with a sentence. It's possible that the problems that you face in writing or revising can be compared with your problem in a way that can be useful to you. If the meaning of a sentence is too far removed from your intentions of the paragraph, but you wrote it as a way to get closer to the goal of your overall piece, then that sentence could have some utility elsewhere.

Are any of the problems you are facing a sign that you need to step back to your planning process?

Many obstacles that are faced by writers can be negotiated in a planning process that operates in the way that the individual writer thinks. This is one of the primary reasons, especially according to post-process theorists, why writing is so difficult to teach. Every writer thinks differently. When the details of the problem that a writer is facing and the path to solving a problem steer a writer further from their intentions, I will usually tell my writers to take a second look at their planning process or to even re-plan. This does not necessarily mean to rewrite [although it can in some cases]. Ideally, writing plans change throughout the composition process and intent can change as well. In this piece, I discuss how constructive planning strategies can be used to help writers create their own individualized writing plans.

How do you communicate with yourself about the obstacles you face as you write?

A person who is not confident in their composition process might not use the most productive language to communicate with themselves about writing. When Bev was asked to review her writing sample, the first thing she said was, "Let's see how bad it is." The way that you, as a writer, think is not flawed. The tools that you are going to be using might be different from the kinds of tools other writers use, but that doesn't make your thinking as a writer flawed. Saying, "Let's see how bad it is" is usually indicative of a lack of confidence in one's own writing, and that's not new. That said, it can be more productive to reframe that viewpoint as to say that it's possible that Bev feels that the way she thinks as a writer is fundamentally flawed because of the problems that she often faces when writing. As such, she blankets her experiences in writing as negative through that statement, and something like that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, it doesn't have to be. Think about the way you evaluate your own writing and be honest. If you've made negative statements about your own writing, whether they are as generalized as Bev's or they do not offer yourself advice, consider how you can turn that negative statement into and "Instead of..., I can..." statement. Here are some examples.

  • Instead of automatically introducing the topic in the very first sentence, I can use another sentence to make a bridge to that topic.

  • Instead of letting my sources speak for me in this instance, I can use this section to interpret the source that I am using and connect it to my overall purpose.

  • Instead of introducing an example that might not have as much bearing on the issue that I'm discussing, I can move back to my planning phases and ensure I've remained within the bounds of the social or rhetorical situation.

The way that you construct your "Instead of...I can..." statement does not have to remain in the bounds of one sentence as long as it has the two crucial parts. An "Instead of..." section relays one problem or block that a writer might be facing. An "I can" section takes the details from the previous section to construct a tool that the writer can use.

A Purposeful Exercise

Click here to read "Echo Dell," a poem by Lucy Maude Montgomery.

  1. Take as much time as you need with this poem. I suggest reading it both to yourself and aloud.

  2. Think specifically about the kind of language that Montgomery uses. Think of the rhyming scheme, the use of alliteration, the placement of the beats, what separates the lines from one another, and what changes about that language between stanzas.

  3. Write at least one paragraph specifically about the language. Plan it out if you need to. This is not a timed exercise. When you are ready, proceed to the next step.

  4. Think about possible underlying meanings. What or where is Echo Dell? Did you notice that Montgomery began with sights and sounds that are familiar to us, things we can experience, and slowly transitioned to more fantastical images? What does that strategy convey? You do not have to limit yourself to these questions, but I hope that they will help as a starting point.

  5. Write at least one paragraph specifically about the meanings of the poem. As in step three, this is not a timed exercise. Plan it out if you need to. When you are finished, proceed to the next step.

  6. Now, compare the two pieces that you've written? Did you feel more apprehensive about one than the other? Did one turn out better, in your opinion, than the other? Why is that? Maybe, it would help to have a dialogue about what you've written and your experiences in that regard. Try to be as detailed about both the positives and the problems that you may have experienced during this exercise.

  7. Finally, try to create at least three "Instead of...I can..." statements that you feel can help you.

Thank you so much to everyone who has given me feedback on my posts thus far. I hope that my more interactive style of posting has been helping. I think that Selfe's take on Bev's composition process was dated, but I feel that it looks forward to more productive ways of talking about and thinking through writing apprehension. I would love to know more about what you would like to see in the future!

I would love to discuss anything you may have taken from this post, previous posts, or any of my exercises with you. There are many ways you can do this. You can use the "chat" function on this website, fill out the contact form, or you can become a Purposeful Prose member. Members can "like," comment directly on my posts, and make use of my forum.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Daly, J., & Miller, M. (1975). The Daly-Miller Test. CSU.

Montgomery, L.M. (N.D). Echo Dell.

Selfe, C. L. (1985). An apprehensive writer composes. When a writer can’t write, 83-95.

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Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Jul 23, 2021

So many, many wonderful things about this piece! Love the "Instead of . . . I can" process. As mentioned, writers and their methods vary greatly and some easily feel constrained (and sometimes worn out) with the editing process -- making it difficult to recognize they type of revision required. Purposes and intentions must be revisited at times. Absolutely besotted with the poem. And the exercise was very compelling -- each method/analysis yielding a different product! Thanks again, Anna, for sharing your amazing expertise!!

Replying to

Thank you so much! I’m glad this post was helpful to you and I hope to be able to use these methods more myself! I’m so glad you liked the poem. She has so many hidden gems!

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