Recovering from Writers’ Burnout: Steps to Happier Writing

Many writers (and other creative people) hit that point eventually: they burn out. They feel tired. They can’t feel any interest in their work, and doing that work becomes harder and harder.

I started to hit the burnout point last year with my freelance writing. Unfortunately I missed some of the signs and so I continued taking contracts. Eventually I became almost completely burned out–unable to take interest in all but the lightest, most relaxing writing. That’s a terrible place to go if writing is what you’ve wanted to do all of your life.

I was determined to find my way out again, to regain my excitement and my interest in writing. I’m happy to say that I’m well on my way to recovery at this point, but it has required some fundamental changes in the ways that I approach writing. Hopefully my experiences can help you too.

Take a Vacation

There’s one thing that, above all, you should try to do for yourself when you start to burn out. If you can at all afford to, take a vacation. If you’re still finishing off a contract then take a vacation as soon as it’s over. Be lazy. Sit around the house and read thrillers, mysteries, or something equally pointless and fun. Watch movies. Take lots of walks in the sunshine. Relax. You need to be able to approach the rest of all this feeling rested if at all possible.

Exploration of Self

Everyone’s situation is a little bit different. Everyone’s reasons for burning out are their own. In order to know how to make things better, you have to know why you burned out. This means that, although it might be uncomfortable, you probably need to do a little self-exploration.

A journal is one good way to do this. A “guided journal” might help even more. One of the better ones I’ve found is What Really Matters to Me, by Robyn Conley-Weaver. The idea is that the provided prompts help you to figure out what it is that really matters to you and how to get it. Writing about problems is a very different process than talking or thinking about them, and can sometimes lead you to some surprising conclusions. It isn’t a cure-all, but for some people it might help. I started out dead-set against journaling, but I’ve learned that sometimes it’s very worthwhile indeed.

If you know there are specific issues that precipitated your burnout, then you might try to work directly on those. For instance, in my case I’d say that the downhill slide appeared to start when I got a particularly vicious set of redlines from an editor. I did two things about this. First, I decided that I really didn’t need to take any more contracts from him. Why work for someone who’s going to make your life miserable? Second, I found a particularly useful book on
self-esteem.
While I have a right to expect an editor to behave professionally, I also know that I have some self-confidence issues that made the event burn me out more than it should have.

Try to identify your problem areas and work (with books, a journal, or a therapist) to improve them. By making yourself emotionally healthier you are making yourself better able to be happy and fulfilled. When you’re happy and fulfilled, you aren’t likely to burn out.

Take Care of Yourself

If you’re burning out, that’s a good sign that you need to take better care of yourself, your energy, and your talent.

Be Careful of Criticism

Yes, you need to be able to handle the kind of critiques you’ll get when your material is published. You need to be able to handle the fact that someone will invariably say that you suck as a writer.

However, during the creative process this is exactly what you don’t need. As Mari Messer says in Pencil Dancing, you and your work are vulnerable in the early stages. Too much harsh criticism too early and your enthusiasm (and thus energy and creativity) will be squashed. There are a couple of things you can do about this:

  • Don’t show your work before its time. Let things stew for a little while. Do a couple of drafts before you show it to anyone else.
  • Ask for the kind of criticism you want. Feel free to say, “this is a really early draft, so for the moment I just want to know what is working.”
  • Build up to further levels of criticism. Start out asking for the easy stuff (like what works), do a revision, ask for a little more, do a revision, and so on. Don’t ask for niggly little stuff like typos until the end — otherwise your inner critic is likely to come out too hard too fast and your enthusiasm will die.
  • Ask for constructive criticism. Any honest opinion that doesn’t boil down to “you suck” can be phrased constructively. Someone who really wants to help you should be willing to go to the trouble of doing this. If someone isn’t willing to do this, then perhaps you should re-consider whether they make a good sounding-board and editor in the early stages of work. Reserve them for the very last round of edits before your work goes in front of the public or goes to a professional editor — if at all.

In order to really let your creativity run wild you need to feel free to take risks in the very first stages. You need to feel that you can put anything down on paper and not be laughed at or called a fool. This means that criticism has to wait until later stages in the process. Don’t get me wrong; criticism does have its place, and is both necessary and valuable to the writing process. But it needs to be used properly, in the right amounts, at the right times.

Do keep in mind, however, that most people who criticize your work aren’t trying to make you unhappy. Most of the time they’re genuinely trying to help, so don’t berate them for ruining your life. Calmly explain that what they’re doing just isn’t what you need right now. Or thank them for their help and decide for yourself that this isn’t the right time to worry about what they’re saying. Then move on.

Accept Failure

If there’s one useful lesson I’ve learned, it is this: failure is a natural, and perhaps even necessary, part of the creative process (as well as life, for that matter). Even a best-selling author has a couple of flops hiding in his desk drawers. Sometimes you have to start off down the wrong path. If you don’t play around and try risky things, after all, you aren’t going to create masterpieces. First drafts don’t have to be perfect.

Unfortunately, some writing industries refuse to accept this reality. Editors in certain fields expect that everything you write will be of good quality in the very first draft, and can get pretty snippy if it isn’t. Schools usually don’t help this process; in school, every single thing we do tends to get graded, and having something graded as a failure is certainly not okay in the eyes of teachers and parents. While these attitudes make sense from certain viewpoints (you should be sending your best work to an editor; your teacher has to evaluate you based on something), in the long run they can lead to uninspired writing (why take any risks in this kind of climate?) and unhappy writers who’d rather be anywhere else doing anything else.

I don’t think there’s any really good solution to this — like I said, there are good reasons for both approaches. If these kinds of expectations are too damaging to you, then maybe it’s time to explore other options. Work on your self-esteem. Write for pleasure instead of publication. Accept that sometimes you have to fail before you succeed.

Relax!

I gradually found that one of my problems was that, for various reasons, I felt too stressed out when I went to my computer to write in the morning. I worked on the underlying issues behind the stress and tried to deal with them directly. For a few weeks I also stopped having morning coffee, just to give me time to handle everything else. On any morning on which I felt stressed, I refused to sit down and start writing until I’d read for a little while and felt myself relaxing. You can try other things as well: yoga, qigong, meditation, long walks in the sun, playing with your cats, etc. It doesn’t matter exactly what works, as long as something works.

Exploration of Writing

Read a bunch of books on writing. Buy them, borrow them, or pick them up at your local library. Particularly look for books on the following subjects:

  • Forms of writing you’ve always been interested in but never really tried.
  • Creativity.
  • “The writing life.” I.e., books on being a writer and dealing with a writer’s problems.
  • Anything at all that strikes a chord in you or sounds interesting or exciting.

Obviously not all writing books are created equal. Some will irritate you rather than inspiring you, and it’s good to avoid these if possible. In my own quest to kick burnout I’ve been reading plenty of writing books, and as I finish them you’ll be able to find links to the reviews on our reviews page. The books that inspire me might annoy you, it’s true, but hopefully the reviews are in-depth enough to help you choose your own favorites. (As of the writing of this article I still have a decent selection of books left to read, so feel free to come back for more suggestions.)

First, Just Read

At first just read the books. Enjoy them. Don’t push yourself to try any exercises contained therein. Think about what they say. In fact, try to start out with books that aren’t exercise heavy, that are somewhat generalized, like Eric Maisel’s Living the Writer’s Life or Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. Take notes on any particularly startling or useful thoughts you have while reading and write them down so you don’t forget them. (You could put them in that journal you’re keeping.)

Even better, alternate the writing books with whatever genre of books most excites and interests you. Indulge in some fantasy, horror, science fiction, romance, historical novels, or whatever else you find fascinating. It might help to remind you why you started writing in the first place.

Let Your Excitement Guide You

When an exercise strikes you as interesting, give it a try. Pull out a new, blank notebook. Try to pick something quick, like a ten-minute or five-minute free-writing exercise. Something that won’t feel like work. (A couple of good books to find such exercises in are Pencil Dancing, The Writer’s Idea Book, Discovering the Writer Within, and The Writer’s Path.) Just let it happen. Look back at it and see what you think. Not in terms of whether it was any good, but in terms of whether you enjoyed it.

If it really wasn’t fun then go back to the self-exploration and reading stages. Eventually, if something strikes you as interesting again, then give it another try. Keep doing this until you find you’ve written something that leaves you feeling interested and excited after you’re done writing it. Feel free to try new forms. If you usually write poetry, try fiction. If you usually write novels, try short-short stories. If you usually free-write then try something structured, and vice versa.

Play!

Now just play around. Enjoy yourself. Try new things. Write stupid stuff and don’t show it to anyone. Journal. Read. Write when you feel like it. Above all, do what feels good!

Write for Yourself

Here is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned during this process. Maybe it will help you too.

Regardless of the type of writing you do, and who ultimately ends up paying for it, owning it, or publishing it, make sure you write for yourself. Make sure you’re writing for your own enjoyment first and that paycheck second. Writing doesn’t generally pay enough to be worth doing just for the money. If that were all you cared about you’d probably be in another line of work, so you need to be able to enjoy writing for yourself.

When you read books on writing written by successful authors, you’ll often find that learning this lesson happens at a specific time. It happens when the author spends those first depressing years getting rejection slip after rejection slip. This is when you learn that if you aren’t going to write for yourself, then there really isn’t any point to doing it at all, is there?

Sometimes, however, we either skip or forget this step. I mostly skipped it, and I regret that now. I never learned to write for myself. I almost always had an editor looking over my shoulder from the start of each project. Now I have to learn this lesson all over again–how to write for my own sake, without worrying about the possible or potential results of the effort until it’s time to move into the evaluation and revision phase.

I never understood the value of free-writing before this. I never understood that it had a real point to it. As Walton and Toomay say in The Writer’s Path:

“In emotional terms, free-writing invites you to express your uninhibited feelings–all parts welcome, no word judged wrong or inappropriate. When we free-write we do it for ourselves. No one else need ever read or hear what we’ve written unless we choose to share it. This privacy is fundamental to the liberating nature of free-writing.”

Free-writing is all about learning to write for yourself, and being able to write for yourself is fundamental to your ability to enjoy writing.

As a side-note, “write for yourself” doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to leave the writing industry you’re in and take up novel-writing. Or, maybe it does. Only you can say what will ultimately make you happy.

Motivation

One of the best discussions of the need to write for yourself can be found in Susan Perry’s Writing in Flow. She discusses the difference between intrinsic motivators (those that come from inside of you — like challenging yourself, finding pleasure in your work, etc.) and extrinsic motivators (those that come from outside of yourself, like external deadlines, other people’s evaluations of your writing, and the need to pay the rent). According to her research, there almost always needs to be some element of intrinsic motivation involved if you really want to get into and enjoy your work. So learn to write for yourself–from your own intrinsic motivations and needs. I think you’ll find it much more rewarding!

If you’re having trouble finding your intrinsic motivators, then give Susan Perry’s book a try. It’s all about figuring out how to enjoy your work, and it does an incredibly good job of it!

Take a Little More Time

I know that the low pay scales tend to make most writers feel as though they must fit every word possible into every single day. I used to write 5,000 words a day, no problem. When I started reading books on writing by people like Bradbury and King — people who are certainly quite prolific as authors, and who have written for decades without burning out–I found that they usually write for about half a day at a time. With a little practice you can still get 1,000-3,000 words done in this amount of time. Heck, if you try some of the exercises in Fast Fiction you can get a surprising amount done in just a half-hour of work. At several pages a day you’ll have a novel in no time.

Like most writing advice, this one depends on you. Some writers can go for days on end over and over for years without ever burning out. Others can’t. Do what works for you. If you’ve been getting burned out, at least try cutting back a little.

Ten Steps to Happier Writing

Although everyone’s burnout comes from a different collection of places, there are things you can do to make things easier on yourself. Give these suggestions a try and I think you’ll realize that you don’t have to give up writing in order to be happy. In fact, writing might just make you happier than ever!

  1. Take a vacation.
  2. Explore yourself and the issues that led to your burnout. Become a healthier, happier person. Take care of yourself.
  3. Use criticism properly; don’t accidentally squash your enthusiasm, or allow others to do so. Don’t show your work publicly before its time.
  4. Learn to accept failure as a normal part of the creative process.
  5. Allow your free-writes and rough drafts to suck; sometimes this is how you have to start out in order to end up with something great.
  6. Relax!
  7. Explore other areas of writing.
  8. Read, let your excitement guide you, and play around a bit.
  9. Learn to enjoy writing for yourself. You don’t have to get every single piece of writing published in order to find value in each one.
  10. Take a little more time, and don’t drive yourself quite so hard.
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