Having your work published and your name out there can feel both exhilarating and terrifying. There's the obvious thrill of finally circulating the stories you have been working on and getting a byline under your belt, but presenting your efforts to the world can also trigger stress and worries. Even after crafting an excellent piece, you might wonder: Did I do a good job? Are there mistakes I couldn't spot? Will people read and engage with this?
"As journalists or people who write and get published, [on] the one hand we really want to get our message across, and on the other hand we are shy and vulnerable," said Emma Donaldson-Feilder, occupational psychologist at Affinity Coaching and Supervision. "There is that want to express, but at the moment when [a piece of writing] becomes published, we suddenly have that fear of how it might be seen, viewed, [and] come across."
Since online platforms and social media allow immediate and direct feedback, journalists can feel like they’re under an intimidating level of scrutiny. When a story goes live, your sources, readers, and everyone else can publicly and instantly point out a misstep, criticize or even attack you. Accountability is a positive motivator, but the fear of messing up can become paralyzing.
When, back in February, freelance journalist and creative consultant Maansi Kalyan wrote about the Indian Farmers' Protest for VICE, she had already received backlash on social media for voicing alternative views. "Some criticism [was] verging on threatening, so to say I was anxious to release an article covering the topic that'd be read all around the world is an understatement," she said.
Having just recently gone full-time freelance, Kalyan feels more anxious than ever about projects. "This is despite the knowledge that I'm good at what I do and the belief that I'm talented. ‘Imposter syndrome’ is almost a rite of passage, I've learned, especially amongst women of color in arts career trajectories."
Emerging writers don't necessarily have it worse, though, according to Donaldson-Feilder. It could go either way: "If you're new and don't know how it might be, you might have less fear because you're just jumping in there."
On the other hand, you also don't know that you can cope with criticism or rejection, she explained. "It's like any other industry. The more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel," said Almara Abgarian, news and lifestyle editor at Jam Press. Starting out, she penned very personal pieces and understandably worried about negative and judgmental comments. "I once wrote about going naked speed dating; I loved it and it is one of my most read pieces ever, but I was worried that I would be slut-shamed. Which I was, [by] trolls online," she said.
Other instances she recalls include opinion pieces on topics like politics, which she thinks are anxiety-inducing in a completely different way. "Journalists are often easy targets for trolls, and I'm astounded by the level of abuse that can be hurled our way." Like most women journalists she knows, she has received hate mail.
So, how can journalists deal with the pressure of delivering quality work, handle the fear of judgment, and grow more confident in their knowledge and skills to cope with pre-publishing nerves?
Below, our three interviewees shared tips on how to deal with publishing anxiety.
The first step is to recognize when you are feeling anxious and be with that sensation, said Donaldson-Feilder. Then, try to be kind to yourself. "To forgive if we make the odd mistake, or take care of ourselves, make sure we get enough sleep, that we don't stay up all night worrying and writing and rewriting," she explained. In other words, a level of kindness that is emotional but also practical.
Remember that it is normal to feel anxious sometimes, and a lot of other people do, too.
"The third element of self-compassion, which is perhaps the most important, is common humanity," she added. "That sense that I'm not alone, that we are all human beings and we are all vulnerable, and we are all interconnected when it comes down to it. [It's] knowing it's not me that is bad and being able to be kind."
Find support from people you trust
Reaching out to a friend, colleague or mentor for practical and emotional support after completing a story can help you overcome the anxiety of sharing your work with the rest of the world.
"My biggest tip for people who worry about what they are writing is to let a friend read the rough copy," said Abgarian, who regularly shares her articles with one of her best friends. "I trust her opinion, but I also know that she will give constructive feedback. I can't tell you how many times I have amended a line here or there thanks to our chats, which has then left me feeling much better about the story."
Donaldson-Feilder confirmed that receiving support and reassurance from other people can be powerful. "There is increasing evidence now that just being with another person, if they are supportive, calming, helpful — [we] begin to mirror that calmness, that can help us to calm down," she said. This can help us feel like somebody is in our corner.
Set the right mindset and boundaries
Being new to the journalism world, Kalyan said she is still researching and testing coping techniques. Better understanding how the industry is built around public opinion helps.
"It means fostering the belief that it's not personal, though it may feel it is. Whatever the reaction to your work, it doesn't mean that you're public enemy number one,” said Kalyan. “The audience's reaction [will] be more about what you've uncovered than the person whose name is on the byline."
Going offline rather than constantly checking up on reactions to the piece also helps. Take a walk, watch a movie, have a bath, bake — whatever can keep you away from the constant monitoring. "Out of sight, out of mind — and you've got to train yourself to drop any attachment to your article once it's completed," said Kalyan.
Rein in perfectionism
Fight negative perfectionist tendencies. Have you ever fixated on the same sentence for 30 minutes, or missed a deadline for revising a perfectly reasonable lead? Combat this with some pre-planning, and go back to that sense of kindness.
"It's almost planning beforehand that I'm gonna draw the line at X number of rewrites, or I'm gonna send it to this person, and if they say it's okay, then it's okay even if there is the odd typo," Donaldson-Feilder suggested. "Good enough is good enough. If we over-stress ourselves about each piece, that's not kind and helpful to ourselves."
Discover what works for you
Discover and do more of what works for you. Abgarian, for example, finds it helpful to write, then sleep on the story and reread it in the morning with fresh eyes — if the piece is not time-sensitive or has a longer deadline.
"If I'm writing about a sensitive topic, I might look for stories on the same topic to see how others have tackled it. It can show you what has worked and what hasn't for others, and the audience's response to it," she added.
She also keeps what she calls an “imposter wall” at home; a selection of her favorite articles, all framed and hung above her computer. "I'm not conceited, I promise, but if I'm ever doubting myself, it helps to be able to look up and see the articles there," she said.
Cristiana Bedei is an Italian freelance journalist with international experience.