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Write On! Beating Burnout to the Punch!

Encouragement, Coaching and Prompts for Writers

A monthly blog by Eve West Bessier, Poet Laureate Emerita of Silver City and Grant County, New Mexico

It’s been one heck of a year! We’ve all been through the wringer on multiple levels and the cumulative stress has affected all aspects of our lives, including our writing.

You may be experiencing some burnout symptoms, feeling ready to throw in the towel, hang up your gloves, return to your corner. I certainly have times when I feel this way! That’s why I’ve decided to write about how we can beat burnout to the punch.

Burnout is nothing to be belittled. As writers we can feel quite literally beaten up by our own valiant attempts at success in our craft. As writers, we tend to be our own nagging supervisors and it can be difficult to take the weekend off or a real vacation. Our work tends to follow us around like an untrained puppy constantly yelping for attention.

Over the decades, I have had to train myself (and that puppy!) in the art of taking a break from the work before the work breaks me. I have not learned this the easy way, which is one reason I am hoping to spare you the misery of learning it the hard way.

Burnout is a gradual process. You won’t necessarily know it’s sneaking up on you until it hits you like a two-by-four, leaves you seeing stars and renders you unable to write. To avoid getting to that point, you need to watch for some early warning signs.

Yellow Alert: Are you no longer enthusiastic about sitting down in front of your current writing project and getting to it? Does it feel more like an obligation than an adventure? If so, the yellow flag is up.

Orange Alert: Do you keep plugging away at a draft only to find that each consecutive version seems weaker than the previous one? Despite all of the hours you are devoting to the work, is it just not coming together, in fact, does it seem to be coming apart at the seams? If so, the orange flag is at the top of the mast.

Red Alert: Does your writing work actually feel like a lead weight on your shoulders, but you can’t seem to shake the obsession with getting it right and getting it done? Do you literally groan when you sit down at your writing desk? Do you rest your face in your hands, elbows on the desk, and sigh deeply while rubbing your fingers through your hair? A funky chrome robot with his accordion arms waving is heading your way yelling, “Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!” The red flag is waving! Burn out is about to clobber you!

So, what can you do to prevent getting to that red flag stage? Here are nine tips that will go a long way towards keeping burnout at bay.

Tip #1. There is nothing better for your writing than to take a break from it. After putting in some solid time on a draft. Let it sit at least for a few days, preferably for a week. Let it marinate. Don’t be too quick or too anxious to get it to the next stage in its natural development. I realize this is not possible if you are working on a tight professional deadline, but for writers who are solidly in the “creative writing as an avocation” niche, this is good advice.

Tip #2. Don’t give early drafts to others for scrutiny. Unless you’re working on a piece for a journal or newspaper and you are obliged to do so, having an outside editorial eye on your piece while it is still very fresh can squelch the flavors, or overwhelm them with a plethora of additional herbs and spices other cooks think should be added. Just keep the other cooks out of your kitchen until you’ve let the writing marinate.

Tip #3: If you are writing as your creative outlet not as your profession, then your writing is your hobby. Deep breath! I know, we writers are a serious bunch. We pour our hearts and souls into our work. Calling what we do a hobby can seem demeaning. We are not collecting commemorative plates after all! Still, it’s okay to call it a hobby! In fact, it’s extremely helpful to do so, because generally people don’t get burned out on their hobbies the way they get burned out on their work. Their hobbies are the very thing that helps them avoid burnout in their work. Calling our writing our hobby can help us drain some of the heaviness from the endeavor. Are you ready? Say it aloud: “Writing is my hobby. I do this for fun.” Say it a few times, until the resistance lessens. Shout it if necessary.

Tip #4: If you are working on shorter pieces like poems, essays, articles or short stories; move around between your various pieces. That allows you to let a piece rest while you work on another one. If you are interested in publishing at any of those tiers I’ve talked about in the past, you can play the baseball field in this way. Keep your bases loaded so you can send a piece home (out for potential publication) while you are still working to move other pieces onto first, second and third base. Keep a deep bench! The variety of focus will help you stay interested and not get bogged down and discouraged.

Tip #5: If you are working on a book-length project of any sort, move around in the manuscript. Let a chapter rest while you work on a different one. This doesn’t apply to first drafts, of course, especially for novels as the storyline is what carries you forward, but it works for subsequent drafts in any genre. Don’t try to perfect Chapter One before you move on to the rest of the manuscript.

Tip #6: At any stage in the writing process, it’s super important to allow yourself to walk away from the manuscript on a regular basis. “Put your hands up and step away from the manuscript!” I know, that darned thing follows you everywhere. Whispering in your ear at the grocery store. Waking you up in the middle of the night. It wants to interrupt your dinner, your evening’s entertainment, even your quiet moment in the bathroom. Don’t let it usurp your entire life! Keep it on a tight leash, so it knows who’s boss. Like a puppy, your manuscript needs to be fastidiously trained. You can’t let it get the best of you!

Tip# 7: Speaking of training. Treats are a good way to reinforce good habits. When you are successful at keeping good boundaries with your work, give yourself a little treat, whatever that might be for you. Do this regularly so that you create positive associations with your healthy new behaviors.

Tip #8: Take a vacation! This is a tough one. I confess, I haven’t had true vacation (a week or two off) in probably over a decade. I rarely even take a day away. Writers beware! We have a tendency to work full-time with no days off, for no pay. That sounds like an open invitation for burnout, yes? So, start with small steps. They say you need two weeks off in order to reap the full benefits of a vacation, but if two weeks seems impossible, start smaller.

Take the entire afternoon off after you’ve put in your morning hours of writing work. Get out of the house, go somewhere else all afternoon and I don’t mean grocery shopping, though that can seem like a vacation to a writer.

Find a new hobby that really feels like a hobby to you and not like more work. Spend some quality time with this new enjoyable activity every week.

Take the weekend off. Remember, people on payrolls usually get a couple of days a week off. Be more like them.

When you are ready for the challenge, take a two-week vacation. Unplug from your work routines and from your cyber routines. Leave home if possible because home is where the writing desk sits! If you can’t leave home, and none of us could do so safely during this past year, then put some yellow CAUTION tape around your desk or across the entrance of your writing office. Seriously, writing can imitate an addiction and strong measures are required.

Tip #9: Celebrate your successes! When you finish a project, relish the achievement, published or not. If you do get a piece published, do a happy dance! Keep dancing for at least a week. You’ve worked so hard. You deserve to savor the moment. Whatever you do, don’t just jump right into the next project with nary a pat on the proverbial back.

Read this blog again whenever you recognize the warning flags. Burnout will rob you of the intrinsic enjoyment of your writer’s life, so beat it to the punch and stay in the joy!

No writing prompt this time, as I am encouraging you to take a vacation!

Scroll down to About The Author for more information and check out Eve’s website at:

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

Eve West Bessier

Eve is a poet laureate emerita of Silver City and Grant County, New Mexico; and of Davis and Yolo County, California. She has served on the steering committee for the Southwest Word Fiesta, and was a presenter during two festivals. Eve is a retired social scientist, voice and life coach. She is a writer, jazz vocalist, photographer and nature enthusiast.
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We respectfully acknowledge that the entirety of southwestern New Mexico is the traditional territory, since time immemorial, of the Chis-Nde, also known as the people of the Chiricahua Apache Nation. The Chiricahua Apache Nation is recognized as a sovereign Native Nation by the United States in the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Friendship of 1 July 1852 (10 Stat. 979) (Treaty of Santa Fe ratified 23 March 1853 and proclaimed by President Franklin Pierce 25 March 1853).

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