I was surprised the first time I met a writer who approached their craft like work: They were compelled to write but didn’t necessarily enjoy it. For me, writing has always been my favorite activity. But over the years I’ve come to realize that we all take different paths to a story or an article or a piece of nonfiction. There are as many ways to approach this creation as there are people. Every writer is different.
What links all writers together is the drive to create. That energy pushes us through everything else, past blocks and weariness, busy schedules and personal tragedies. No matter what else is happening—and no matter how hard the actual writing is—we always have that drive to put our thoughts into words.
Until we don’t.
Writing burnout isn’t Writer’s Block, whether you believe in Writer’s Block or not (I don’t). It’s worse. A block is defined by a frustrated desire to work—you want to write, but you can’t. Burnout is defined by a loss of that desire—you simply don’t want to write.
Burnout is often paired with a healthy dose of depression. For us authors, writing is as an essential part of our lives in both practical, economic terms and spiritual and emotional terms. Without it, we feel something is missing.
So make no mistake: experiencing writing burnout has real costs.
How do you know if you’re experiencing burnout? There are some clear signs:
Like all forms of depression, writer’s burnout often generates a feeling of malaise—you don’t enjoy things you once did (most notably, writing) and you lack energy for just about any activity that isn’t sleeping in.
We all have a general sense of what we can—and should—get done in a day. If you’re suddenly struggling to produce what you normally get done, it’s often a sign that burnout is creeping up on you, or is possibly already sitting on your shoulders like an 800-pound gorilla that gets very angry when you try to write something.
If you’re suddenly making a lot of mistakes and getting a lot more requests for edits on your work, it could be because you’ve lost the drive that pushed you to only turn in your best efforts. A sudden downturn in the quality of your work is a clear warning sign that if you’re not burned out already, you will be soon.
Writing anything is an achievement. Writing a novel is a huge achievement, but successfully completing an article, story, limerick, or haiku also counts as a significant achievement. When I finished a novel, I get a rush of excitement because I finished something that was very challenging. If you stop feeling that rush of energy when you finish things, you might be teetering on the edge of burnout, because that joy is some of the first stuff to go.
Everyone is different, so your symptoms of burnout may very well vary quite a bit. The real answer is this: If you’re wandering around asking yourself if you’re burned out, you probably are.
The best way to deal with writing burnout is to never actually experience it. This can be easier said than done. Burnout is the result of a complex matrix of things, some directly connected to writing and some more tangentially. Your Day Job, if you have one, can have a profound impact on many of your other activities, including the energy you have available to write. Your health plays an obvious role—if you’re not feeling well, you’re not going to be doing good work, assuming you can work at all.
Avoiding the many invisible contributors to writing burnout relies mainly on practicing good habits.
Taking care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally is one of the most important things you can do for yourself in general. Doing so will improve just about every aspect of your life—including your writing, because you’ll have more energy, a sharper mind, and a positive outlook.
So what do I mean by self-care? This is fundamental stuff:
Diet. Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a nutritionally complete diet will have a ton of beneficial effects on every aspect of your life—but the bottom line is that you’ll feel better, so your writing will be better.
Sleep. Getting enough sleep is crucial. Not only will it keep your brain operating at a high level, it means having the energy and drive to work even if you have plenty of other responsibilities eating up your time.
Mental health. Deadlines can be deadly. Stress and the feeling that you need to keep working and working and working in order to complete assignments, chapters, or other metrics can transform writing from spiritually nourishing work into something that undermines your happiness. Take breaks! Read a book, play a video game—get your mind off your work a few times a day in order to avoid feeling like you’re not getting anything done despite working constantly.
Also, consider the possibility that your writer’s burnout is just a symptom of other mental health challenges. A therapist or counselor might be a smart move if your feelings of burnout aren’t so much isolated moments of frustration as your subconscious screaming for some attention.
Exercise. Moving around is crucial for your overall health and sense of wellbeing. If you find yourself sitting for long periods of time writing, you’re probably contributing to both rising chances of negative health events and burnout. Change that dynamic by building in physical activity. This doesn’t have to be ambitious or complicated—a 20-minute walk, a quick jog, literally anything that gets your heart rate up will work just fine.
If you write full-time, whether working on your own fiction or for an employer or client, the line between “hey writing is fun and I love doing it” and “I am exhausted and if I write one more word my eyes will bleed” can get very blurry very quick. Sometimes you need to treat your writing like a job and schedule some time off for yourself. A day—or even a half day—spent doing anything but writing or thinking about writing can have a tremendously positive effect on your mood, which in turn can only burnish your creativity and fire up your energy for the work to come.
As writers, we have a tendency to let writing be our entire identity. It’s how we answer a wide variety of questions, from “What do you do?” to “What did you want to be when you grew up?” As a result, any time the work isn’t going well it’s easy to conflate that with how we’re doing as human beings. A key way to avoid burnout is to take a moment to step away from your writing and remind yourself that you have other things—positive things!—going on in your life, and that as important as writing is to you it isn’t the only thing.
Being “productive” is a terrible way to measure a life. While metrics like word count can be useful in pushing you to complete tasks on time, they can also have a deadening effect because you constantly feel like you’re not getting enough done, and you can find yourself piling on words just to hit these goals—words that you later remove in horror, leading to even more pressure to meet that day’s word count. Removing these artificial goals—at least temporarily—can relieve some of the pressure and stave off burnout.
Writing is a powerful act of creativity, and for many writers it becomes our only creative outlet. With all of your creative energies going towards a single activity, the risk that it becomes routine and repetitive grows disturbingly real. It’s like driving around with your car in a single gear—eventually the transmission burns out.
Finding an alternative creative outlet as a hobby has several benefits: It allows you to just enjoy creating without worrying about hitting pro standards or earning money from your work, it lets you flex different creative muscles, and it offers a zen-like moment in time when your subconscious can chew on writing projects in the background while you do other things. I started taking guitar lessons a few years ago, and I spend some time writing and arranging ridiculous songs under the band name The Levon Sobieski Domination. No one expects anything from this band, so it’s pretty freeing to just create without worrying about whether I’m any good at music or if anyone actually cares or notices.
Writing professionally often feels like a dream to me—growing up, being a professional writer who makes his living with words seemed impossible. It’s gratifying every time I get paid to write something, whether it’s a novel or story or a freelance article. But if you let the “pro” side of things take over you can get burned out because you begin to associate writing with pressure, deadlines, edit letters, feedback, and the struggle to pay your bills. Firing up a passion project that isn’t associated with a publishing deal or a freelance assignment—that’s totally for you—can refresh your creative engines and avoid that dreadful moment when you sit down to write and realize with horror that you don’t want to.
Writing burnout is often like any other kind of burnout: It can stem from simply having too much work. Whether it’s freelance assignments, invitations to submit or include a short story in an anthology or contest, or requests for guest blogs, sometimes the best way to forestall burnout is to simply judiciously turn down requests and opportunities. The feeling of power and control that results can be very calming.
This is a simple trick—but it works. One mistake many writers make is working on a project until they simply hit a wall or make their (probably arbitrary) goals for the day. This often pushes you to work longer than you should, and robs you of both a sense of accomplishment (because you’re too tired to feel good about what you achieved) and a sense of excitement (because you haven’t left any ideas on the table for tomorrow). Stop writing when you still know exactly where it’s all going, instead. Leaving a few story beats for the morning will help you wake up excited to get back to work instead of burned out.
No matter how careful you are, as a writer you’re vulnerable to burnout. That’s because you can’t control every aspect of your life, and outside stressors will intrude. That outside stress eats up your writing time, forces you to postpone or abandon projects, and makes every looming professional or personal deadline fraught.
So what can you do if you wake up one day and just dread sitting down at your keyboard?
The most important thing is to resist that panicky urge to double down. Yes, losing time and not getting those words on the screen feels dangerous, but forcing yourself to grind through writing isn’t going to produce good writing, and it will actively deepen your burnout. The amount of time you can take off will vary depending on your specific situation, but even a few hours can help reset your brain and get some energy.
What to do instead of writing? Goof off! Play video games, watch movies, go have a drink with an old friend, take a nap—whatever works for you. It’s okay to contact clients and ask for extra time on projects, or to pass up some work and suggest someone else for a project. Burnout is an early warning system, so pay attention and take immediate un-action.
A break may not be enough—consider whether you need a true vacation from writing. This can be tough if you’re earning a living from your writing, but taking time off from your work is crucial. If your writing has become your work, try to plan a week or two where you either don’t have to write at all or can focus your writing on personal projects that excite you.
Writing is so often an instinctive, automatic function that it becomes completely mixed in with our self-image. So when the engine breaks down and we find it impossible to put words together—possibly for the first time in our lives—it’s easy to blame ourselves. But this is the time for the opposite—this is the time to be kind to yourself. Burnout is not a failure inviting self-recrimination. It’s a sign of poor mental health, and your best first aid is to treat yourself gently and find ways to encourage yourself.
If you find yourself dreading the act of sitting down to write, if you’ve lost that drive to create, it might have something to do with how you write. Our processes often don’t scale well—an approach to writing that worked when you had no deadlines or when you had just one freelance client might become a burden when you suddenly need to scale. For example, many novelists spend years or even decades on their first published novel—and then find themselves contractually obligated to deliver a second novel in six months. Suddenly, the way they worked for years is no longer the best approach, leading to stress, panic, and the sudden realization that something that once brought you great pleasure now only brings dread. Or perhaps you’re not a particularly fast writer, so pumping out one blog post every week for a client works pretty well, but as your freelance business grows you find yourself typing away at midnight every day because you simply don’t work fast enough to scale your business. The solution to this may not be easy or obvious, but if you’re experiencing burnout it’s worth your time to take a hard look at your processes.
If you’re feeling frustrated and burned out, put your current projects away and pick up something you’ve already finished. It doesn’t matter if it’s a seven-volume epic fantasy or a piece of flash fiction, just grab something from your “completed” file and read it. I’m always surprised at how much I enjoy my own writing—which is crazy, because if anyone’s gonna like my work it ought to be me. But reading old, finished stuff, even if it’s not perfect, always gets me excited again, because it demonstrates three energy-laden things:
- It reminds you that you can, in fact, finish projects.
- It reminds you that you are, in fact, pretty good at this.
- It makes you visualize a moment when you weren’t burned out and tired, but were excited and energized.
This doesn’t have to be a book or story—it could be a blog post you’re proud of, or even a letter you wrote. The only requirement is that it be your work.
I always make this point to aspiring writers: Most of the work of writing isn’t actually writing. That is, the act of putting words on the page is just the final point of a vast pyramid of effort. The stuff that goes into writing includes (but isn’t limited to) research, daydreaming, thinking, doodling—and reading. Oh, so much reading. One of the best ways to learn the craft of writing is to read deeply and widely.
This can also help you get past a case of burnout. When I read a terrific book or story, it’s not so much my creative juices that immediately ponder how to steal those great ideas and techniques for my own work, it’s my competitive nature—how dare this writer who is not me be doing great work! I immediately want to do even better work. Seeking inspiration from books, movies, TV shows, video games, poems, songs—anything, really—is just as much part of the writing process as anything else, and it can revive your excitement about writing and creating. It can also remind you of the joy and wisdom you bring other people when they read what you’ve written.
Writing can be a lonely business. Even if you’re surrounded by people, writing is typically an activity that takes place entirely in your head, and working on a writing project can lead to hours, days, even weeks spent by yourself. That kind of isolation can wear on anyone, and that sense of working in a void can make you doubt whether it’s worth all the time and effort.
One potential solution is to reach out and meet up with other writers, either in real life or virtually. This doesn’t require you to talk shop and come prepared with a synopsis of your work in progress—it could be entirely social. Other writers are the only people who can really understand what burnout feels like for them, and can offer you plenty of good advice as well as the comfort of knowing that other writers have experienced the same kind of frustration.
Plus, never underestimate the Power of Jealousy. Whenever I talk to other writers and they tell me about the incredible projects they’re working on, it makes me want to race home and get back to work. Or, if not jealousy exactly, hearing other writers talk about their work can be very inspiring.