Which Shoes Should You Choose? A Meditation on Indecisiveness in Writing

Graduate Students, Higher Education, Peer Tutoring, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Undergraduate Students / Monday, April 4th, 2016

By Zach Marshall

Zach Marshall
Zach Marshall is the 2015-16 TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center at UW-Madison, where he has been a tutor since fall 2012. He is also a PhD candidate in English literary studies writing a dissertation on American literature, slavery, and media culture.

It has recently come to my attention that I don’t know what to do when I work with writers who experience a certain kind of writing anxiety.  As a writing tutor, part of my job is to provide motivational scaffolding to the writers I work with—encouraging them when they make progress, recognizing the challenges of writing, and exhorting them to future progress.  Another part of my job is to help writers who struggle to produce writing think about the habits that create roadblocks for them, such as trying to get all of their writing done in one day.  However, there’s a kind of writing anxiety that some writers experience that has challenged me recently because I’m not sure it can be resolved by encouraging them or advising them to adopt better habits.  The type of anxiety I’m thinking of is when writers feel unable to make decisions they must make in order to write.  Let’s call it “indecisiveness in writing.”

In indecisiveness in writing, the challenge is not that a writer hasn’t done their research or that a writer has poor writing habits; it’s more that a writer is faced with tough choices which don’t have clear answers.  In this post, I’ll give examples of what indecisiveness in writing looks like, use research on indecisiveness to outline what might be going on when someone is experiencing indecisiveness in writing, and consider ways tutors might help an indecisive writer.

Three Scenarios

It may sound obvious to point out that the writing process requires many stages of complex decision-making, but I’ll list some out to make a point: choosing a topic, choosing a focus for the topic, choosing an organization schema, choosing sources to cite, choosing the individual sentences that convey the focused topic and organization, and, of course, choosing the individual words.  To crudely quantify the decisions, a simple five-paragraph, 1,000 word essay constitutes at least 1,025 discrete decisions, and that’s after making all the decisions required to settle on a focused topic.

Three recent writing center situations have focused my attention on the importance of decision making for writers.  These experiences initially drew my attention to general writing anxiety, but upon reflection, I realized that the issue at play in each situation had to do with a writer struggling to decide.  I’ll relate them briefly:

Choosing what to order at lunch can sometimes lead to feelings of indecisiveness. "Piccolo Bar" by Martin Addison is licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0
Choosing what to order at lunch can sometimes lead to feelings of indecisiveness. “Piccolo Bar” by Martin Addison is licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0

1. Choosing a Topic: An undergraduate writer came to the Writing Center a few times for a course in music history. During one of our later meetings, this writer confided that they experienced a lot of anxiety around writing.  I was surprised because this writer demonstrated an exceptional command of the course material and ability to make original connections.  They said their real trouble comes whenever they have to generate an essay topic on their own and an instructor places few restrictions on what the topic can be.  They experienced this anxiety acutely in their introduction to college composition course where students have a lot of freedom to choose topics.  The difference in the music history course was that the topic was already narrowed to the point that they simply had to choose one of three songs to write about.

2. Organizing Ideas: During a writing center workshop on literature reviews for graduate students, I was teaching about how to make literature reviews stronger by having a clear structure that organized the subjects and significance of previous research. I explained that it was the writer’s job to group the previous research into smaller categories and organize those categories by significance.  One writer in the back of the room raised their hand and asked, “But how are we supposed to know the smaller categories or the gaps in the field?  Is there something we can compare our results to?”  I had to pause and consider what this writer was asking: they were asking whether some definitive map of all fields existed; they were hoping it wasn’t their task to figure out—to decide—what the map looked like.

3. Outlining and Drafting: A writer at a Saturday morning writer’s retreat was trying to decide how to organize the introduction to their senior-thesis article on bioenergy reactions.  We listed and then outlined the things they needed to include. When we finished, I said, “All right, it seems like you’re ready to write.”  They hesitated, and I noticed they were crying.  I said, “It seems like you’re feeling pretty uncomfortable with writing this introduction.”  They explained that they had outlined before but just couldn’t get from outline to draft because they couldn’t decide whether they were giving too much or too little detail.  To help this writer progress, I recommended writing by hand rather than on a laptop, just as a way to change the act of writing and reduce the anxiety.  This approached helped that day, but when I met this writer a week later with the same project, they were still experiencing the same trouble.

In each situation, the anxiety the writer experienced had to do with making decisions about their writing, whether it was choosing a topic, deciding what claim to make about the shape of a field, or deciding what sentences to use to flesh out one item in an outline.  Additionally, in each situation, the writer exhibited a clear awareness of their audience and the high stakes of their writing task.

More broadly, these three examples show that indecisiveness can occur in a variety of situations: it can lead to anxiety at multiple stages of the writing process and for writers at different stages of their educational careers.

What Indecisiveness Entails

"Looking for hanging chad, 2000 Presidential election," public domain
Talk about indecision! “Looking for hanging chad, 2000 Presidential election,” public domain

In order to examine what may be going on in a writer’s mind that contributes to the feeling of indecisiveness, I borrow heavily from an article by professor of entrepreneurship and management Raed Elaydi.  The article is titled “Construct Development and Measurement of Indecisiveness,” from Management Decision (2006), and I have found it particularly helpful for thinking about the challenges of indecisiveness in writing.  Perhaps it seems odd to draw from the field of management to talk about writing, but Elaydi’s focus on decision making is apt for a writing context.

One of Elaydi’s primary goals is to sketch out a construct of what “indecisiveness” entails.  He points out that previous research on decision making hasn’t really focused on indecisiveness because decision-making constructs assume what he calls “consequentialist theories.” These theories assume choosers use a rational utility-driven approach to decision making—weighing the pros and cons of multiple outcomes in order to come to a good decision.  Consequentialist theories also assume people will come to a decision (perhaps like a car traveling down the highway).

But there are two big problems with such theories.  First, this kind of approach doesn’t consider the emotional responses to various choices that cloud the decision-making process.  For example, if the decider foresees a threatening outcome to one choice, they may avoid it even if it’s the more rational choice; Elaydi describes the resulting decision paralysis in the brain: “the amygdala triggers the release of adrenaline and other hormones into the blood stream, which elevates an avoidance response and more importantly disrupts the control of rational thought.”  For writers thinking about decisions related to their writing, anxiety about certain options may increase their indecisiveness.

Detail of "In the ashes between two stools" (a proverb that describes indecisiveness) from The Dutch Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, public domain United States
Detail of “In the ashes between two stools” (a proverb that describes indecisiveness) from The Dutch Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (right), United States public domain

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe second problem is that consequentialist approaches to decision making fail to consider situations in which someone avoids choosing and doesn’t feel comfortable about their avoidance.  Elaydi identifies this situation as “undecided-uncomfortable”—being stuck in a decision-making process while also continuing to experience negative emotions about the decision.  This construct describes really well what some writers I have worked with experience: a lack of confidence about what decision to make, which results in avoidance, which results in even more ambivalence about what to choose.

Elaydi, thus, calls for a decision-making construct that takes into account situations where people avoid making a decision, specifically because of emotional responses to various choices.

What Can Tutors Do?

My hope is that reviewing some research on decision making can illuminate strategies tutors can use when working with writers who experience indecisiveness, particularly to give options other than what might seem obvious at first.

I think most people’s first response when talking to someone who is feeling indecisive is to tell them to make a list of pros and cons for both choices.  People assume that seeing each choice with all the pros and cons in two columns will help someone to come to the most rational decision.  But, as Elaydi’s article points out, that rational model is not necessarily how decision making works. In some situations, the pro/con list might actually hinder progress (not to mention it would take ages for 1,025 decisions!).

Personally, I find this news refreshing.  As an indecisive person, pro/con lists infuriate me: they don’t help me to come to a decision because I can’t quantify my emotional responses in the columns, which means I usually feel stuck in a Catch-22.  Making a list of pros and cons may help some indecisive writers, but certainly not all.

What seems important for tutors is, first, to recognize when a writer is stuck because they are having trouble making writing decisions.  Then, a tutor can redirect a writer’s thinking, not by listing the pros and cons of choice A versus choice B but rather by observing the previously invisible choice C, which is choosing neither A nor B.  Thus, a writer’s choice shifts to something or nothing, moving on or remaining in a decision-making holding pattern.  My hypothesis is that some writers who struggle with indecisiveness need to reorient their thinking so that they can see that more is lost in not making a decision than in making the “wrong” decision.

"Interior, Payless store, Mount Vernon, Virginia" by Ser Amantio di Nicolao is licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0
“Interior, Payless store, Mount Vernon, Virginia” by Ser Amantio di Nicolao is licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Unfortunately, I don’t have an example from a time when I used this strategy successfully with a student in a writing conference; I see this as a potential weakness of this post, so I’m interested to hear your comments.  Nevertheless, as a person who has frequently experienced indecisiveness, I use similar logic to make all sorts of decisions.  For example, when I’m buying shoes and choosing between a couple pairs I really like, I point out to myself that leaving the shoe store with either pair is better than leaving with neither.  I have to reorient my perspective on my choices: I’m not choosing between yellow shoes and blue shoes; I’m choosing between something and nothing.  Changing my perspective in this way helps me either to downplay emotions that are preventing a decision or to feel comfortable being impulsive.

Comparing some higher-stakes writing choices to choosing shoes may seem like trivialization, but reorienting the decision may be what some writers need in order to make progress. As silly as it sounds, having “shoe store theory” has helped me to cope with indecisiveness related to my writing.  Which topic should I choose for this chapter?  How should I outline my introduction?  I can oscilate between choices forever, but if I wait for perfection, I never get anywhere.

In the end, writing is not like buying shoes.  It’s better.  If you wear your writing decision for a week and realize you’ve picked something that doesn’t work for you, you can change your mind with the bonus knowledge that there’s probably a better option.  But if you wear new shoes for a week, the shoe store won’t take them back.  My analogy is going to break down at some point, but I mainly want to avoid the analogy of decision making as traveling on a road.  Roads are rigidly laid out paths with right or wrong destinations.  Writing isn’t that clear.  When someone is writing, there are multiple viable pathways and even multiple viable destinations—more like buying shoes.

Conclusion (allow me to be decisive for a moment…)

Deciding what clothes to wear can also be a challenge. "Closet 2009 Australia" by Matthew Paul Argall is licensed under PD-Self
Picking what clothes to wear can also lead to indecisiveness.
“Closet 2009 Australia” by Matthew Paul Argall is licensed under PD-Self

Basically, what I’m recommending is that tutors use a form of cognitive-behavior therapy, a counseling strategy that assumes the way people act is interconnected with the way they think and the way they feel (an idea that parallels Elaydi’s claim that decision-making constructs need to account for people’s feelings rather than simply reducing decisions to thoughts and actions).  The goal in such a tutoring strategy is to redirect the way an indecisive writer thinks about the decision they have to make so that they can move beyond negative emotions that make it difficult for them to write (for what it’s worth, Rezvan, Baghban, Bahrami, & Abedi, 2008, cite Chambless et al.’s 1996 study showing cognitive behavior therapy to be the only empirically validated study for generalized anxiety disorder).  It may seem strange or even irresponsible to recommend that writing tutors use cognitive-behavioral therapy in writing conferences.  I don’t mean to suggest that writing tutors can act as therapists.  Instead, because writing tutors advise about writing (which by definition involves thinking and acting), they shouldn’t ignore how writers feel about their choices.

What I’m arguing here may sound similar to things people already know about good writing habits.  In one sense, I’m basically saying that writers who suffer from indecisiveness need to find a way to “make writing a clear priority in their life,” as Keith Hjortshoj recommends in Understanding Writing Blocks (2001) or as Paul Silvia similarly recommends in How to Write a Lot (2007) (cf. Salovey & Haar, 1990).

Unless your clothes tell you what to wear. "What to wear" by Bosc d'Anjou is licensed under CC-BY-2.0
Unless your clothes tell you what to wear. “What to wear” by Bosc d’Anjou is licensed under CC-BY-2.0

But there’s more to what I’m saying when it comes to the writing conference.  People’s emotions and self-talk around writing matter, and they should matter to tutors.  Paul Silvia, for example, claims, “Writer’s block is nothing more than the behavior of not writing” (46), and he debunks what he calls “specious barriers to writing a lot” (Ch. 2).  But I’m pretty sure an indecisive writer wouldn’t find this news helpful, especially writers who point to negative self-talk as a source of their writer’s block.  So I think that having a cognitive-behavior technique to reorient overwhelming indecisiveness will help some writers who are struggling to make writing decisions.



Elaydi, R. (2006). Construct development and measurement of indecisiveness. Management Decision, 44, 1363-1376. doi: 10.1108/00251740610715696

Hjortshoj, K. (2001). Understanding Writer’s Blocks. New York: Oxford UP.

Rezvan, S., Baghban, I., Bahrami, F., & Abedi M. (2008). A comparison of cognitive-behavior therapy with interpersonal and cognitive behavior therapy in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 21, 309-321. doi: 10.1080/09515070802602096

Salovey, P. & Haar, M. D. (1990). The efficacy of cognitive-behavior therapy and writing process training for alleviating writing anxiety. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 515-528.

Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to Write a Lot: a practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

5 Replies to “Which Shoes Should You Choose? A Meditation on Indecisiveness in Writing”

  1. Thank you for this very thought-provoking post! I absolutely love your metaphor of shoe-shopping rather than the road or path of writing. I often have students ask me what they “should” do or what would be the “right” option when they are confronted with a choice about their writing. I have struggled to effectively explain that multiple options can be “not wrong” and that I can’t decide for them which is stronger. But of course, this can be terrifying, because what if the choice they make is wrong after all? With high-stakes writing — a senior thesis, a final paper due in two days — there isn’t a lot of room for choosing a different pair of shoes later, so I feel that this kind of flexibility and experimentation often needs to be practiced much earlier in the development of college writing skills. I’m sure most of us who have taught English 100 at UW-Madison have encountered students who resist the act of revising their own work, some of whom do ultimately come to embrace the idea that writing quality runs on a scale of effectiveness, rather than a binary of right/wrong. All of this is to say: I’m not sure that I have any better answers for helping writers already in the clutches of anxiety about their writing choices. However, if getting students comfortable with just making choices that they can revise later can prevent such crises, perhaps practicing low-stakes choice-making in a writing conference (by stepping away from the project or taking a small piece of it out of context to run a couple iterations of different options) can help relieve the pressure in then going away to make choices on one’s own?

  2. I like the way this post acknowledges the role emotions play in writing and offers some proactive strategies for addressing them. Like Leah, I often stress that decision making in writing is less about identifying “right” and “wrong” ways of doing things and more about correctly guessing and actively shaping your readers’ expectations.

    Barry Schwartz has a book called “The Paradox of Choice” that examines the many psychological studies showing that people who are presented with too many alternatives tend to be less satisfied with their choices than those who are presented with just a few choices. To that end, I think identifying the distinct options a student has to choose from can be helpful, as “potential writing strategies A, B, and C” is at least a finite list. I also like to include at least one option that is obviously less appropriate than the others when making these lists. It seems like starting with an easy decision builds students’ confidence in their own decision making skills, establishing a sort of momentum that encourages narrowing the field even further

  3. Thanks for this post. I agree that the emotional factors of rewriting are often overlooked. Writing is largely considered a rational activity, and its funny how easy it is to forget that we are motivated to write on topics that we are passionate about–yet we too easily separate that initial motivation from the “rational” act of writing, and I don’t think we can do that. Another thing that resonated with me was your comment, “if I wait for perfection, I’ll never get anywhere,” and I think it’s worth exploring the connection between indecisiveness and perfectionism. This has actually come up in some of the graduate writer’s groups: perfectionism is evil, and leads to procrastination, indecisiveness, and a general lack of productivity. So I tell graduate students to just write knowing you can revise later. Making a decision—even if it’s “wrong”— will at least enable you to discover something about your project, even if it’s that you made a decision that won’t work. Not deciding generally yields no discoveries.

    On a tangential note, I’ve always had more trouble writing on topics that I’m passionate about than topics I’m not (I doubt this is uncommon as one is probably more likely to be a perfectionist over something they care about). I wonder if that’s another level of emotion that feeds indecisiveness in the act of writing.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful and relevant post, Zach! I like the way you’ve broken down writer’s block in way that suggests its not a monotypic experience; there are, in fact, many kinds of writer’s block so a one-size fits all approach may not always work (to extend your shoe shopping analogy).

    I find that many of my undergraduate students who encounter difficulty making decisions in their writing are struggling with the pre-writing and invention processes. When this happens, I try to model a number of different approaches that can help generate content–the most effective usually being mind-mapping–and we work together to create a map and to draw productive connections. This allows students to see a multiplicity of options from which they can draw to narrow down their topic(s). More significantly, I find that when students are able to transcribe their many interesting ideas in this informal, low-stakes way, the process of focusing their outline or draft becomes much less anxiety-producing.

    I’m glad we’re thinking about the emotional roadblocks that hinder writerly success. I hope to see more discussion on the topic in future posts!

  5. Very interesting post, Zach! As I was reading, I found myself thinking about experiences I’ve had tutoring for the Writing Center where a student’s indecisiveness stems not from an insecurity about making a choice but rather from an absence of clear choices altogether. In particular, I am thinking about appointments I’ve had with students working on thesis statements. I’ve found that many students who know what argument they are trying to make in the paper still struggle to put that argument into a thesis statement not because they have more than one possible way to formulate that thesis but instead because that act of writing is already a challenge. It is like the choice is already between something and nothing, but choosing something is a struggle. I tend to believe that in these scenarios, the root issue is the perfectionism Rick identified in his response.

    I’ve had some success mitigating this perfectionism by asking the student to tell me what they are arguing however they want, and I transcribe what they say verbatim. This intervenes in the false starts of trying to write a thesis, produces something rather than nothing, and gives the students a sentence they can immediately take issue with and revise. For the students who have liked this technique, I suggest using the “Voice typing” tool in a googledoc to get the initial thesis down.

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