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January 3, 2013

12 Tips for Recovering from Writing Burnout

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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51 Comments on "12 Tips for Recovering from Writing Burnout"

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Angela Quarles

Great tips Jami!!!

Buffy Armstrong

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.

Sally Clements

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! 🙂

Todd Moody

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!

Amanda

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.

Julie Glover

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!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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

E.B.Pike

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

Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson

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?

Sydney Aaliyah

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.

Stephanie Scott

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!

Jennifer Barricklow

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. 🙂

Jami's Tech Guy

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

Sherry G.
Sherry G.

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.

Linda Adams - Soldier, Storyteller

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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[…] 12 Tips for Recovering from Writing Burnout by Jami Gold.  Jami provided some great tips in order to get back to productive writing.   […]

Misha

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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Marlo Berliner

Great post, Jami! Thanks for the tips!

Alex
Alex

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.

Cristine Gasser

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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Meaghan Curley
Meaghan Curley

I’ve just finished a novel about 2 months ago and I’m definitely feeling the burn…I’ve tried getting back into writing every day (because frankly every day I dont write feels like a felony) but every idea, hell every sentence just feels so stressful and not-worth-it. I know I’ll get over this soon but right now I just feel like the world is ending for me. I’m almost heartbroken being in this state of uncreativity. Anybody in the same boat?

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[…] I’ve written before about burnout and how the usual techniques to avoid burnout (getting enough sleep, saying no to deadlines, not taking on too much) aren’t always compatible with a writing career. Sometimes overdoing it is just a fact of life for us. […]

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