From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

Page 3 of 7

Face the Fear: Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety

public_speakingMy heart was on fire.

I clutched five note cards in my shaking hands, staring back at countless faces. My heartbeat throbbed in my ears. My throat was tight. Why was this happening? I had prepared, spent hours making my slides and perfecting my presentation. My research was solid. Yet fear clutched me as I stood in front of the class, unable to speak. No matter how hard I tried to retain control, my emotions betrayed me. I felt like a coward.

I’ve always been quiet. My fear of saying the wrong thing often prevents me from saying anything at all. I sometimes feel that my contributions to a conversation may turn out to be meaningless or boring. When I do speak up, I sometimes regret it. This leads me to spend too much time worrying about the things I’ve said in the past and not enough time on what I want to say in the future.

My worries peaked early in high school. Anxiety permeated my class presentations and group discussions, hindering me from expressing my true opinions in fear of rejection.  None of my friends had come with me to my new school. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was inferior and that my classmates would always know more and understand more than I ever could. I started spending long hours preparing even short class presentations and discussions just so I could feel like I was in control. My anxiety kept me from living my fullest life and from taking the risks that I should have. Striving towards perfection left me with no time to myself and little energy.

College shifted my perspective. I was still anxious, but I found myself comforted by the fact that no one really knew each other at the beginning of my freshman year. Thousands of strangers gave me a newfound anonymity. My anxieties significantly decreased when I decided that I didn’t really care what random students in my classes thought of my words. I realized most people tend not to pay attention to presentations and class discussions anyway. Most are more concerned with what they’re going to say themselves when their turn arrives.

I’ve learned that being quiet shouldn’t stop you from speaking up. Your friends will care about your opinions and view them as valid and worthwhile. Those who dismiss your thoughts are not your friends anyway. Because of this outlook, I began to see myself as an equal to others in my classes and in my life. While I still feel some anxiety before presentations and discussions, I’ve realized my thoughts are valuable, despite their imperfections.

Image: Creative Commons

The Anxiety of Beginnings

fountain-pen-on-paperTrips to Wawa and hanging out on the Terrace define my experience here at William and Mary, but so does the struggle to begin writing papers. Here a few strategies from my arsenal that make getting started on paper-writing just a little simpler.

When getting started, make a checklist. 

And not a checklist that says “write paper.” That can only be checked off, well, in that distant time when the paper is finally done.

Instead, I have a checklist that is much more focused on each step of writing. My average paper-writing checklist looks something like this:

  • brainstorming
  • refine brainstorming by sequencing ideas
  • flesh out thesis
  • figure out topic sentences
  • go outside and find a dog to pet**
  • write intro and conclusion
  • develop body paragraph structure
  • plan structure of body paragraphs based on topic sentences
  • ⅓ paragraphs done
  • ⅔ paragraphs
  • binge watch Parks and Rec**
  • channel my inner Ann Perkins and do something nice for another person**
  • all body paragraphs done
  • adjust intro and conclusion accordingly


When I check off a box on the checklist, I am motivated to stay productive because I know that I have at least begun the writing process. This system might not work for everyone, but the age-old tip of breaking large tasks into small, bite-sized steps is pretty golden advice.

When brainstorming, don’t dismiss your own ideas.

One trap that I fall into when brainstorming is dismissing ideas as “too dumb” to be included in the paper. Simple ideas form the basis of more complex ideas; when dismissing ideas, you narrow the scope of ideas that have the potential to form the foundation of your paper. It’s one thing to remove ideas from your paper once you’re finished outlining – that likely means that the idea may not be relevant to your thesis. At the brainstorming stage, however, all ideas are game. Once all ideas are on paper in the form of questionably legible half-sentences in a notebook (my way of brainstorming, though that might not be the best format for everyone), you’ll discover trends in your ideas. These trends and patterns in your ideas will form the basis of your thesis.

It’s super important to begin the first stage of writing with self-validation in order to stay motivated. Don’t doubt the strength of your ideas when brainstorming!

When done with your writing, take time to appreciate what you’ve created.

Part of what makes writing so daunting is not taking the time to look back and appreciate what you have created. Seeing what you’ve written is a reminder that you seriously did transform some ideas in your head into a real paper. The real world calls for people to take concepts and turn them into something tangible through the writing process. It is an incredibly powerful gift to have the chance to take your ideas and systematically validate them. While writing papers can be challenging, they are part of what makes our liberal arts education so valuable.

A Case for the Bookstore

bookstore_1I never write papers in Swem.

Unpopular as that opinion may be, I can explain. As an English major, I have spent much of my college career writing papers. In the pursuit of enjoying this experience as much as possible, I have experimented with many locations around campus; however, I have had varying degrees of success. I have tried various academic buildings, my dorm room or lounge, and of course Swem and Swemromas. Academic buildings and dorms rooms are never quite right, although the new ISC is growing on me (in large part due to the Starbucks). Even though many students consider Swem a studying haven, I never produce my best work on any of Swem’s four floors. Instead, when it comes time for me to sit down and write, I often opt for the William & Mary bookstore in Merchants Square.

The bookstore is an ideal place for me and my writing process. I love being surrounded by tables of interesting books and the quiet, cozy atmosphere of the bookstore. The Café is usually quiet and relaxed, with the occasional dimmed conversation or the sound of the espresso machine from Starbucks; the patio, just separated enough from the bustling DOG Street, is typically serene (you may even get to pet a dog!). As a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur, I love the ready availability of Starbucks’ Pike Place roast. I am also a fair-weather writer in the most literal sense. I do some of my best writing sitting outside in the sunshine with an iced coffee in hand. In fact, I have written entire final papers at one of the tables on the bookstore patio or sitting at a table in front of a window in the cafe on chillier days.

The one downfall of the bookstore is its somewhat unreliable wi-fi, especially when sitting outside. However, as part of my writing process, I do any research in advance, creating an outline that I can then work from. When I actually sit down to write my paper, I already have all of the information I need. In my case, the lack of reliable wifi at the bookstore actually motivates me to stay focused on my assignment, rather than hindering my progress.

I understand that everyone’s writing process is unique, so the bookstore may not be the best spot for all writers. However, I encourage you to always be willing to try a new writing spot, even if you think your current spot is working. I have found that, sometimes, the best way to overcome writer’s block or a lack of motivation is to switch things up! So if you venture over to the bookstore to write your next paper, I might just meet you there.


Image from “Living In Williamsburg”

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