What Does ‘Writer Burnout’ Actually Look Like?

Burnout might not look the way you’ve been told it’s supposed to look.

Burnout has been an increasingly popular subject among creative people on the internet over the past year. More and more people, I think, are realizing that there is nothing more hurtful about burnout than failing to acknowledge that it exists.

So here’s the truth: Burnout — especially among writers — exists. And it may not appear the way you might expect it to.

I used to think that burnout meant you worked yourself so hard you’d get to a point where you physically could not do work anymore. I suppose for some people this may be the case. But as a general health advocate, I’ve done my fair share of scouring the credible internet to figure out what it really means to burn out.

For most people, it’s a lot more terrifying — and dangerous — than you might think.

I don’t know how often it happens to writers. But I have to assume it happens often to a lot of people, more often than most realize, because most writers don’t know that they’re even experiencing it.

Burnout is not a condition with obvious symptoms. You don’t sit back in your chair as you’re struggling to get something written and think, “I’m tired and I’m really not enjoying what I’m doing and it’s affecting my work. I must be experiencing burnout.”

It’s much more subtle — dare I say sneaky — than that.

I have most often heard creative burnout described as a gradual decline into misery. As many fail to realize, burnout is not the inability to do work. Experiencing burnout, you generally continue to do work despite no longer feeling fulfilled while you’re doing it or after it is finished.

It’s very easy, and common, to mistake burnout for boredom.

And this means that far too many writers of all levels of passion and experience are abandoning projects left and right because they think they’re tired of them, when it’s very possible they don’t have to give them up completely — they’ve just burned out on them and need to take a break.

If they took a break, gave themselves room to breathe, and then tried returning to the project they were so sick of working on before, they might realize they still love that book or that blog or that idea. They just needed time away from it, and can now continue, until they realize they need another break.

I think there’s major stigma surrounding the idea of “going back to something you thought you were done with.” There’s this belief that if you keep going back to old projects, you’re incapable of growing and moving forward in your writing career. And to a point, this is true. It’s good advice. But only in the right context.

Because yes, there are situations in which you truly are done with something and have grown beyond it and need to move on. You can’t keep working on the same draft of the same book your entire career, for example, or you’ll never get around to writing anything else, and that’s not good for anyone. Sometimes you do have to let go.

But that does not mean that every time you start getting bored you should toss what you’re working on completely out of your project pile and forget it ever existed. Sometimes a simple break can give you a new perspective. Especially if you’ve burned yourself out and aren’t sure you can or want to do … well. Anything.

It’s OK to go back to things you once loved. You might remember why you walked away and you can walk away again without feeling like you have to ever go back. But you might go back to something with a completely different perspective, and it might just end up being the best decision you could have made.

Burnout is both curable and preventable. It will probably happen to you. It doesn’t have to.

Obviously if you feel you’re constantly experiencing symptoms of burnout without relief, there might be something much more serious going on. No longer enjoying things that once enriched your life is a classic symptom of depression, for example.

Burnout is not in itself a mental health issue, but can have similar symptoms, and could actually end up masking very real problems that a break from writing will absolutely NOT fix.

But even if you feel you experience burnout often, and aren’t experiencing other symptoms that could mean something more is happening to you, it is 100 percent acceptable to seek help. “First world problems” (I feel the need to do too much in a day, I am not enjoying my very well-paying job) are still problems. They are your problems, and you have every right to talk to someone and seek professional advice about them.

Whether merely a symptom of a larger issue or an issue on its own, burnout is miserable, and too many writers find themselves suffering in silence — many of them unknowingly.

So let’s keep talking about this. Let’s say we’re feeling burned out when we’re feeling burned out. Let’s admit we may have made mistakes that led to feeling this way, but that we’re going to try our best to learn from them and do more to prevent it next time.

Let’s make it okay to burn out. But let’s also acknowledge that it doesn’t have to be this way.

We do not, and should not, have to exhaust ourselves in order to increase our own chances of success in this unpredictable, competitive, oversaturated industry. We shouldn’t have to feel like working 16-hour days seven days a week is the only way to make it as writers.

We should never have to say, “I’m willing to be miserable now so that I can be happy later.” Because there’s a good chance you will continue being miserable even when your “hard work” does pay off.

Is hard work necessary to succeed in writing? Yes. Absolutely yes.

But burnout happens most often when we work hard constantly, and don’t supplement our hard work with what I’ll call “hard play.”

Want to “be a writer”? Work hard. Write often. But also sleep in when you can, and watch some good TV shows, and read books for fun, and spend time with your friends and family and just you by yourself sometimes if you want.

The best defense against writer burnout is not to stop writing, but instead to always make sure you are doing what you need to do to continue being happy while doing it.

So that is the question I will leave you with. Are you working hard? And if you are, are you happy with the work that you are doing? Is there anything you would change? And if you aren’t happy with the way your writing life is going, what are you going to do about it?

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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5 thoughts on “What Does ‘Writer Burnout’ Actually Look Like?

  1. This strikes home with me. My local critiquing group had a meeting yesterday and we were just talking about how all of us were going through burnout in one form or another.

  2. I think you have described burnout really well. It is when you just can’t bear what you are doing any more regardless of how well paid it is. I have felt like that of at least a year but have an obligation to stay in my job for another 6 months.

  3. Thanks again Meg. As writers, we are as human as anybody else. Each of us needs balance in our lives. If we become consumed with writing and writing, we may hit “the wall” sooner than we realize. Your questions at the end are good places to check-in with ourselves.

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