12 Tips for Recovering from Writing Burnout

by Jami Gold on January 3, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Tire burnout mark on pavement with text: 12 Tips for Recovering from Writing Burnout

As I write this, I’m suffering from acute sleep exhaustion after pulling an all-nighter. I stayed up until 5:30 a.m. to finalize not one, but two entries for RWA’s Golden Heart contest (the big contest for non-published romance writers) before the deadline.

I’m glad I completed everything on time and met the deadline. However, I’ve now spent far too long staring at a blank “Add New Post” screen on my blog and lacking any motivation to do even more writing for a blog post when I’m running on less than three hours of sleep.

No matter how much we love writing, we can sometimes feel burned out. I wrote 61K words in November for NaNoWriMo. (Yay!) And then promptly didn’t write any fiction for the next couple of weeks. (Boo.)

Was that the fault of the chaos of the Christmas season, or did I simply need a break? Honestly, it was probably a little of both.

Is Overdoing It a Given for Writers?

Mental health professionals recommend that we avoid stress and overdoing things, but writing is a career of deadlines. The techniques to avoid burnout (getting enough sleep, saying no to deadlines, not taking on too much) aren’t always compatible with a writing career.

This past weekend, I’d recovered enough from Christmas and NaNoWriMo to write over 10K in two days. In the 48 hours after that, I edited over 100 pages, critiqued another 100 pages for a fellow Golden Heart entrant, formatted almost 400 pages, wrote a synopsis from scratch, and revised said synopsis. And uh, didn’t sleep much. *smile* So it’s understandable that I wanted a little downtime before plunging into a blog post.

Sometimes overdoing it is just a fact of life for us. And when that happens, we need to allow time to cope, recover, and restart.

However, if we want to produce words faster so we can release more books, we have to shorten the duration of downtime we need before doing it all over again. That means learning the most effective downtime techniques for us.

Dealing with Burnout by Recovering Faster

Depending on the cause and severity of our burnout, some techniques might help us more than others. Heavy writing days might make us feel like we have no more words. Lack of sleep can sap our motivation.

Whatever the cause, knowing our options can help us find the right cure for our situation. These suggestions are roughly in order of light to deep recovery strategies:

  • Sleep: Deep sleep is most helpful.
  • Relaxing/Socializing: In my case, this often translates to playing on Twitter. *smile*
  • Replenish the Words: Do activities that fill us up again and give our muse new ideas, such as reading for pleasure, watching TV/movies, or listening to music.
  • Exercise: Get the blood moving.
  • Explore Other Creative Outlets: Gardening, painting, etc.
  • Be Mindless: Wash dishes, do laundry, vacuum, etc.
  • Change the Scenery: Try writing in a different location: at a cafe, in a park, etc.
  • Rediscover the Passion: Remind ourselves why we want this career, such as by rereading the story that first made us want to be a writer or by reading one of our own stories for pleasure.
  • Resolve to Cut Back: Sometimes our dread of upcoming stresses makes us feel burned out before we even start. Try eliminating some of those stresses.
  • Take a Vacation: Ditch the kids at the grandparents for a weekend for a stay-cation or get away and have new experiences.
  • Identify Our Blocks: If we’re feeling negative about doing writing of any sort, there’s usually an underlying reason (resentment, self-doubt, depression, etc.).
  • Evaluate Priorities: Are we happy with our current path, or do we need to change our approach? Are our deadlines the career equivalent of busywork, or will they help us achieve our goals?

Now, as I’m typing the end of this post, I can point to what worked for me this time. A few hours on Twitter gave me the break I needed to dive into writing again. Some days that’s all we’ll need. Other days, we’ll need a lot more.

You’ll notice that just banging our head on the keyboard, hoping words fall out, isn’t on that list above. We all need downtime. The key is discovering what kind of a break we need to get us back into productive mode quickly.

Have you suffered from writing burnout? What triggered it? How did you recover? Were you frustrated by how long it took to recover? What do you think you could have done differently? Do you have other suggestions for how to recover from writing burnout?

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45 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Angela Quarles January 3, 2013 at 7:07 am

Great tips Jami!!!

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Jami Gold January 3, 2013 at 9:34 am

Thanks Angela!

And everyone, Angela was my Golden Heart entry critiquing buddy, so she also did the “editing 100 pages and critiquing another 100″ thing with me. Congratulations to her for getting both of her entries in too! :)

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Buffy Armstrong January 3, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Congrats, Angela!

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Buffy Armstrong January 3, 2013 at 8:33 am

Wow, that’s an amazing amount of working accomplished in a short time. I’m very impressed. Good luck with your Golden Heart submissions. You rock!

After I finish a writing project or need a break from the one I’m working on, I binge read or try to get caught up in a TV show on DVD, i.e. find a way to get out of my own head for a while.

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Jami Gold January 3, 2013 at 9:36 am

Hi Buffy,

Oh, I can’t tell you how jealous I was of all the binge reading I saw you get done of books sitting in my TBR pile. LOL! If it weren’t for Christmas, that would have been my preferred downtime activity last month. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Sally Clements January 3, 2013 at 8:50 am

I’ve just found your excellent story planning for pansters Romance Beat Sheet, and it’s given me the impetus to attack my wip with new eyes! Thanks so much for it! :)

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Jami Gold January 3, 2013 at 9:40 am

Hi Sally,

Aww, thanks! Yes, I’m kind of an over-achieving perfectionist despite myself–I have that tool, but I never filled it out for this WIP I just finished. LOL! I had most of the beats worked out in my head, but since the story turned out 20K longer than I planned, I’m not sure how they all line up. As a pantser, I tend to use tools like that more on the back-end of revisions. Good luck with your WIP and thanks for the comment!

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Todd Moody January 3, 2013 at 9:07 am

Holy crap that is a lot of stuff, Jami! Between my day job and taking care of the three remaining kids at home and trying to be a good husband by helping around the house I’m fairly busy. I try to write in the in-between, but I can see that it’s not going to be a viable way to go forward if I intend to do this full-time. I actually talked about that with my wife this past week. I’m going to need to set some boundaries.

I had lots of downtime over the holidays this year. I took the longest vacation in ten years. I did a little critiquing and a little writing. Not nearly enough, but I took the time to really relax and unwind. I am leaving tomorrow to attend my MFA Creative Writing residency for the next week. I think I will be forced to write to deadlines a lot more in the coming months and years as I work through this. I think it will be good for me, as I tend to work better under pressure, I just don’t relish the idea of not getting any sleep.

You are amazing! Great post as always!

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Jami Gold January 3, 2013 at 9:46 am

Hi Todd,

Yes, the only reason I was able to get all that done is because my day job was on holiday. :) I certainly understand the issue with finding time. But you’re right that sometimes we have to carve the time out of our lives rather than just accept the scraps.

Good luck with your MFA program! I hope you keep my up to date on how you’re doing with it. :) And I know exactly what you mean about working better under pressure. Those 4 days of intense writing all came down to meeting deadlines, when I could have (should have) spread it over the month of December. :D Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda January 3, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Woo! Are both your entries in the paranormal category? And may I add how incredibly grateful I am that the synopsis for the GH isn’t scored? Because both of mine would fail. Miserably.

I’m a big fan of the exercise and word replenishing activities. I try to give myself a week off after I finish a first draft, where all I do is laze around, writing wise. It usually works. I tried to take a whole month off once (last August). Yeah, that didn’t work out so well.

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Jami Gold January 3, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Hi Amanda,

Yes, both of my entries are in the paranormal romance category, but I’m not competitive with other authors about it. :) (I helped Angela Quarles (*gasp* a “competitor”) with her entries too–LOL!)

Oh yeah, one of my synopses has been vetted by others but the other one (the one I just finished because I, er, just finished the book and figured out what the ending was ;) ) hasn’t been seen by anyone but me, so I have no idea if it’s coherent.

Fantastic point about how sometimes if we take too long of a break, it can be harder to get into the groove again. That’s another important reason to recover from our burnouts as quickly as possible. Thanks for the great comment! :)

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Julie Glover January 3, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Congrats on getting the Golden Heart entries turned on and best wishes with that! I am a believer in taking a day off every week. I might still do some writing or editing on that day, but it’s not on my calendar to do so. I know some writers suggest that you must work 7 days/week to get ahead, but there’s something about taking time and replenishing your stores so you can plunge ahead and do your best work.

I think it’s good to take a break now and then, whether regularly or when your body and brain scream for you to do so. Great tips, Jami!

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Jami Gold January 3, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Hi Julie,

I don’t have a goal of taking one day off a week, but that’s usually how things work out because of family activities. :) Regular short breaks can recharge us and prevent those bigger burnouts, I think. Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc January 3, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Jami, after all of that, I’m amazed you’re not in a coma!
Wow!
I’m so thrilled, however, that you treat your blog a lot like a job. You show up even though you’d probably rather be snoozing. More of us need to emulate you…especially me.
I agree with you that taking a break is crucial. I’ve found, over time, that hours and hours of writing wipe me out. Even when the words are flowing and the pages are filling up with prose I tend to feel exhausted when I’m through for the day.
I like to recharge by watching a little TV.
Or even taking a nap ;)
I want to congratulate you on submitting your work to the Golden Heart. I’ll be at the RWA conference this year *fingers crossed* and can’t wait to see you with high hopes that you’ll be accepting a first place award!!
Best wishes to you on all your endeavors!!
Have a great evening :)
Tamara

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Jami Gold January 3, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Hi Tamara,

Great point about treating something like a job. I do that with my blog because I want to be professional about it, but really all goals we make come down to that level of dedication. Either we’re going to put in the work or we’re not.

Yes, I’m not planning on going to RWA13 in Atlanta, but if I final, I’ll be there. So *fingers crossed* just so we’d get a chance to meet! :) Thanks for the comment!

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E.B.Pike January 3, 2013 at 4:43 pm

You are so right! Sleep is the #1 for me. If I’m not well-rested my creativity gets totally zapped.

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Jami Gold January 3, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Hi E.B.,

I’m an odd bird in that low sleep makes my voice stronger, but there’s a point of diminishing returns. I tend to get not-quite-enough sleep on a regular basis and then do catch up once a week or so. It’s a tricky line. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson January 3, 2013 at 5:58 pm

I’ve been faking my way through it since my computer crashed. It’s been rough. And, honestly, I’m not sure I am cut out to be a writer if it means meeting deadlines like this. All. The. Time. It is exhausting.

Recently, I realized that my burnout is possibly about a fear of criticism. Which was a weird realization. Not one really criticizes my blog content. But if you write a crappy book, well… I imagine my friends saying:

“Did you read her book?”
“Yeah, it sucked.”
“I know. I didn’t buy it. I HEARD it was really bad.”

And I kind of froze up. Because I overheard people saying this about a fiend of mine who wrote a book. Time to stop being afraid and just finish it, right?

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Jami Gold January 3, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Hi Renee,

Oh no, I can imagine all too well. (A hard drive crash years ago crushed me for a long time. I still haven’t worked up the strength to deal with some of the missing data.)

As for the criticism thing, it might be good for you (once you’ve made your story as good as you think you can) to enter it in a few contests. The same story of mine that received a perfect score and won contests has also gotten some “meh” scores. We hear all the time that not everyone will like our work, but seeing the diversity of scores in a situation like that really brings that understanding home in a “show don’t tell” kind of way. :) I hope that helps! Thanks for the comment!

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Sydney Aaliyah January 3, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Hi Jami, Great list. For me, it all about sleep. As my sleep goes, my day and my focus for the day goes. I know this about myself, but still I get caught up in watching the 12:00 am to 1:00 am Seinfeld episodes more times a week then I should.
Maybe I need to try some of your other tips.

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Jami Gold January 3, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Hi Sydney,

LOL! I get caught up in things I shouldn’t all the time. *looks at Twitter* Yeah, all the time. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Stephanie Scott January 4, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Good luck with the Golden Heart! I’m an RWA member for the first time this year, but I passed on entering the Golden Heart. I’ve entered a few chapter contests (and even won for my category!). I’m activiely soliciting agents and I’ve been busy with edits, so I just missed it.

Like you, I work in long stints, I can write 10k in a weekend and I have to force myself to go to bed or get out and exercise. Then I’ll go for days or a week without writing. I need more balance!

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Jami Gold January 4, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Hi Stephanie,

Thanks! And congratulations to you for winning your category! :)

Yes, I struggle for balance as well, but then it always seems like the shifting of priorities makes me switch from task to task over the weeks, and that sometimes it’s writing “season” and sometimes it’s get-caught-up-on-emails “season” and so forth. So who knows if there’s one “right” way. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jennifer Barricklow January 4, 2013 at 4:57 pm

I’m pretty good with things like exercise and mindless tasks–stuff I need/have/ought to do anyway–but I’ve got to work on some of the less obviously functional ideas: replenish the words sounds like heaven. Thanks for this timely list. :-)

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Jami Gold January 4, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Hi Jennifer,

Yes, that’s one that I want to do more often too. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jami's Tech Guy January 5, 2013 at 12:00 am

Alas poor Burnout! I knew him, Jami.

Yeah, a couple years of averaging 80+ hours a week will do that. Now when I find myself burning out, I’ve found what works best to recover my good cheer as well as my creative mojo.

Sleep and quality time with TechWife do wonders for my mood when the stress level is off the scale. And with TechKids and running a business, that’s situation normal.

For the creative mojo, beta reading or doing something frivolously geeky is my charger. I still love tech and being able to figure out how to make something do far more than what the manufacturer imagined is great fun.

As to beta reading, actually pretty much the same thing. I love jumping into stories and figuring out why the characters act the way they do and why the world is the way it is.

Speaking of which, *coughs lightly* my beta reading pile is empty.

Being a TechGuy that often hears people’s worries (like bartenders and hairdressers do), the same seems true for other creative folk. Muses do not like going too long without doing something new or revisiting some old friends (WIPS).

Great post Jami, I hope you’re enjoying the start to your weekend and recovering from the stress of Nano, GH, and the holidays!

-Jay
@jaytechdad

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Sherry G. January 5, 2013 at 9:27 am

Jami,

This was a great post about writer’s burnout. I tried doing Na No Wri Mo this year for the first time, to get started on my second novel–my first is currently waiting for acceptance or rejection–while at the same time I was working fifty hours a week at my regular job. I do work from home, but still, I’m on mountain time and my company is eastern, so I work from 6:30 AM to 5 PM. Needless to say, plenty of sleep, socializing and exercise are hard things to come by on that schedule, and adding in trying to do Na No, well, I was completely drained and burned out by Thanksgiving. I took ten days off for Christmas, had company from out of state, rested, did mindless things, and finally, I’m back to editing the eight chapters I wrote in November and ideas are flowing again. I feel like writing. Thanks for the great tips for helping with the burnout.

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Jami Gold January 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Hi Sherry,

Wow, after all that, you definitely needed that break at Christmas. :) Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Linda Adams - Soldier, Storyteller January 5, 2013 at 10:03 am

I’ve had burnout. Many, many years ago I was trying to break into Hollywood. A well-meaning person said that I should write a script a week. So I wrote a script a week — first draft to final, then launched into the next one. Suddenly the muse was gone, and it took two years before I was able to write again. It’s one of the reasons I get really irritated when someone says writer’s block doesn’t exist or is a product of laziness. Writing some 30-40 scripts was like doing that many novels.

There’s a lot of focus on produce, produce, produce! Butt in chair! Write every day! Write 2,000 words a day! But no one talks about taking breaks. I try do do one day a week, and if I go on vacation, it’s a no writing zone. I’m on a 2 week one now because I’m going to be an in Odyssey revision class for the next 6 weeks.

The best way I think to recover from writing burnout is to not let it get that far. Don’t take on more than you can manage.

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Jami Gold January 6, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Hi Linda,

*gasps* A script a week? I’ve heard some TV writers have to do that–during the TV season, but otherwise, that sounds absolutely insane.

You’re right that we need to do what we can to prevent our burnout from getting that bad. Like you, I typically have a no-writing day fairly regularly, and that means my burnout never gets too deep. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Misha January 8, 2013 at 12:45 am

I actually learnt how to identify when burnout is imminent. Then I immediately go on rest mode, usually doing the things you listed. This way, I recover in a few days, rather than weeks or months later. :-)

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Jami Gold January 8, 2013 at 8:44 am

Hi Misha,

Yes, that’s a big part of why my recoveries usually don’t take too long either. I’d do a post about watching out for the signs of burnout, but I suspect everyone’s signs would be different. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Marlo Berliner January 14, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Great post, Jami! Thanks for the tips!

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Jami Gold January 14, 2013 at 7:57 pm

No problem, Marlo! :) I hope they help!

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Alex January 15, 2013 at 11:03 am

I wrote 80,000 words in 3 weeks so I could finish my novel. I wrote about 4,000 words a day and on the last day, while working on the last 3 pages, my mind turned to mush. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I wrote for about 4-5 hours per day. I didn’t see the burnout coming till it hit me….but luckily I finished as soon as it hit.

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Jami Gold January 15, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Hi Alex,

Wow! That’s a lot of words. Even Candace Havens’s Fast Draft often works out to 50K in 2 weeks, so you got that beat. (Not sure that was quite your goal. ;) ) Congratulations on finishing and now I hope you get to enjoy some relaxing time! Thanks for the comment!

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Cristine Gasser January 15, 2013 at 7:01 pm

Jami, excellent tips. I had the same experience after NaNoWriMo, I managed 52K and thought this was great and I should be able to keep up that momentum… nope, I couldn’t write a check after. Looking over your list, I can assume that four or five things on the list I did helped me bounce back. I used to think I was ‘fermenting’ ideas or my unconscious mind was working through a plot conundrum but after NaNoWriMo, I can definitely say I was burnt out! This list is a keeper, I’m printing it out!

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Jami Gold January 16, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Hi Cristine,

LOL! about not being able to write a check. Yes, I hear you. And part of what we need to do is build up our writing skills. Just like exercise, we can overdo something and then crash afterward, but if we work up to it, we could (not me, but possibly you ;) ) do the Ironman race.

I hope this list helps. :) Thanks for the comment!

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