Tame the “Anxious Adding” that Leads to Unruly Sentences

Most of the time we think of sentence-level errors as a function of not knowing the rules of grammar, punctuation, or spelling. Certainly, this can be the case. But what if the way we construct sentences also reflects our cognitive make-up and affective states?

I am curious about how our cognitive processes and even emotional states can be reflected in our writing.

One student I worked with said, “When I’m trying to organize my thoughts, and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I start writing redundant clauses and adding all kinds of unnecessary qualifiers.”

I call this “anxious adding”: the impulse to qualify, explain, or cover all the bases. Yet anxious adding can result in runs-ons, excessive use of parenthetical statements, and sentences where the interior clauses don’t work together, resulting in non-parallel sentence structure.

This impulse to qualify, to hedge, to show multiple perspectives is a rational one for academic writers. In fact, some research suggests that appropriate use of hedging terms is a marker of “advanced” writing, of discursive belonging. The opposite—presenting overly airtight arguments—is a classic rookie move. If you’ve ever taught undergraduates you know what I’m talking about (“since the dawn of time, humans have struggled to communicate”).

But understanding when and how much to hedge and qualify is part of the learning process for advanced writers, and it’s possible to overdo as well underdo. Here is an exercise to try if you are anxious adding because you’re insecure about staking out a position or because your brain is wired to keep throwing in “what ifs,” and you feel obligated to try to address them right away.

  1. Breathe
  2. Write down the point you’re trying to make in the simplest possible terms.
  3. Does the sentence make you squirm for any reason? Why?
  4. Write down all of the other perspectives or possible “takes” you can think of. What are the reservations? The hesitations? The qualifications?
  5. What are the possible arguments against your statement?
  6. What qualifications or nuances do you need to add to feel comfortable making the statement?
  7. Now write out your central idea and your qualifications or reservations in paragraph form. See if you can put your central idea and the qualifications into relationship with each other using relational words like “while,” “however,” “although,” “even as,” etc.

The goal here is to slow down and separate out your core idea from all of the different responses you’re having to that idea. Teasing them apart and writing them separately may:

  • help you become conscious of your main idea and the various responses, reservations, and hedges that you feel the need to attach to that idea.
  • help alleviate the feeling that you need to address everything in the same sentence.
  • help you write sentences that have greater control and internal clarity.

Let me know if this helps and what else you do to tame the anxious adding impulse.



One Comment

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  1. ” If you’ve ever taught undergraduates you know what I’m talking about (“since the dawn of time, humans have struggled to communicate”).”
    Had to laugh at this… so true!!

    But some really useful tips here, thank you!!


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