Meeting 2020 Writing Goals, Burnout, Symptoms and Cures

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on

New Year. New work in progress.

That was the dream.

Well, that didn’t happen, but I came close. I finished making content changes to my novel in early December. This was a protracted process during which I chopped twenty thousand words out of my manuscript and added a second narrative point of view. My target goal was 85,000 words. I ended up missing this goal too, but I’m happy with the novel’s current length (89K).

During the rest of December and the first weeks of January, I focused on line editing. My primary goals were to fix paragraph flow and maximize readability. After all the chopping I did earlier, there were issues with transitions both within and between paragraphs. More often than not, I found stray sentences that broke the smooth flow of the rest of the paragraph. I either had to delete those sentences or move them to some other place in the manuscript. Usually the latter.

The third editing phase was copy editing. Here I went line by line, fixing the grammar and correcting typos. A lot of the errors were missing commas. Occasionally, I’d find a misplaced modifier. Every copy editing session starts off fun, but boy does it get mind-numbing. That’s when I have to stop. If your head isn’t in copy editing mode, then you’ll end up overlooking errors. Because I often did my copy editing after work, when I’m mentally exhausted to begin with, this process took a few weeks.

So, I’ve basically missed my end-of-the-year deadline by a month.

If you’re asking why, the answer is burnout.

What is burnout?

Interestingly, the word was first coined to describe the mental state of people suffering from severe work-related stress, particularly of people working in the “helping” professions (i.e. nursing). The term was later expanded to include people in other professions- to any overworked individual. This includes anyone running the career rat race.

So can a writer- one who isn’t under contract to produce- feel burn out? I’d say yes. Writing is a career and is therefore a trajectory that one has to be on. Even people who publish using Kindle Direct Publishing (or want to) will feel burnout. The push to create output is intense.

As for me, I’m not sure what the cause of my burnout is. One possibility is that I’ve been working on this manuscript for more than a year. Maybe that’s just too long.

Symptoms of Burnout

So, what was my experience of burnout like?

Writers report many symptoms such as exhaustion, lack of motivation, negativity, declining memory, and bad writing.

Except for lack of motivation, I’ve experienced all these symptoms to some extent. A lot of these exist separately from my writing, however. Negativity, for instance. Also, I’m a sufferer of chronic insomnia, so things like exhaustion and declining memory go hand in hand. The symptom that made me stop and take notice was the bad writing.

As I did my content editing- deleting what wasn’t necessary and adding what was, I realized that the sentences I was writing/ rewriting/ adding were getting shorter and simpler. It became a struggle to add feeling to them. I eventually got there, but it was a struggle.

What I now mostly feel is depletion. In some sense, this is normal. I can’t find the quote, but I remember reading some article, either in the Guardian or the New York Times, in which a writer says that finishing a manuscript leaves a hole in your head (something like that; I think it might have been Salman Rushdie). I’m definitely feeling that now.

To recuperate, I’m going to just write sentences. Maybe twenty sentences a day, and I’ll work at them until I can feel something. Drawing masters often practice making lines to warm up the muscle memory in their shoulders and their arms. What if writers need to do the same thing? It’s worth a shot.

Anyway, I’ll have fun, regardless.

And who knows? Maybe like a sketch artist I can work alfresco.

(Who am I kidding? There’s a pandemic going on. There’ll be no sitting in a coffee shop eavesdropping on conversations for writing inspiration. I’ll have to stay put, in my gray, gray room.)

Let me know what your experience of creative burnout was like in the comments.

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