Avoiding Burnout With Strategic Breaks

by James Scott Bell

As is my usual practice, I spent a few days this past December going over my writing goals and practices, and making plans for the new year. And once again I found myself appreciating the discipline of the writing break.

Its value hit me anew as I read a Business Musings post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch titled “Burnout and the Indie Writer.” She writes:


I’ve been hearing that word a lot in the writer community. It took a while for the word to penetrate. I’ve had my own things to deal with this year, and I really haven’t been looking outward as much as I usually do.

But a friend who traveled to a number of conventions this year mentioned that avoiding burnout was a topic at every single one of those conventions.

Kris goes on to recommend some self-care items such as adequate sleep, being with loved ones, eating right and so on. All important suggestions.

The pressure comes when the writer who wants to make good dough at this thing (even a living) realizes that the only “formula” (and lottery-type luck is not a formula) is to keep producing quality work at a steady pace.

Notice that word, steady. I believe this is the key to avoiding writer burnout. Every writer has a sweet spot where production meets life and stays on its side of the fence. We call this a quota.

Now, those of you who’ve read my craft pieces over the years know I’m a quota guy. It’s the single most important discipline in my own writing life. I started down this road in 1988, and early on I remember reading about how important a quota was. The very first writing craft book I ever purchased was Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel. In it, he has a section on quotas, and notes that most pro writers keep track of the words they produce, not the time they spend at the desk.

That got to me, and I have stuck to a quota ever since. It’s almost always been 1,000 words a day, six days a week, with a day of rest on Sunday.

Though I have cheated on occasion when a deadline was breathing down my neck, this “writing Sabbath” has been crucial for me. It gives my brain much-needed rest. I find I’m always energized to start up again on Monday. That is perhaps the main reason I’ve never truly felt burned out. Tired, yes. But the big fizzle, no.

It’s also important, I’ve found, to take daily breaks. I’m usually not more than an hour at a time at the keyboard. I’ll then take a five- or ten-minute stretch or stroll. In the afternoon I take a power nap—15 to 20 minutes.

One other thing I have to do is keep myself from “over-writing” when the going is good. Block addresses this in his book:

One thing you might try to avoid, in this connection, is attempting to extend your productivity. This sort of overload principle works fine in weightlifting, where one’s ability to manage more weight increases as one lifts more weight, but it doesn’t work that way in writing. It’s tempting to try to do a little more each day than we did the day before, and I still find myself intermittently struggling to resist this particular temptation, even after lo these many years. If I can do five pages today, why can’t I do six tomorrow? And seven the day after? For that matter, if I really catch fire and do seven today, that proves I can definitely do a minimum of seven tomorrow. Doesn’t it?

No, it doesn’t.

What does happen, in point of fact, is that this sort of overload generally leads to exhaustion … Find your right pace, make sure it’s one that’s not going to be a strain, and then stick with it.

And sometimes writing breaks are thrust upon us.

Like getting sick. I thank the Good Lord I’m pretty healthy most of the time, but last year I got taken out by a bout of pneumonia. It actually set me back a couple of weeks. I managed some writing, but mostly I rested and took my antibiotics and sniped at my wife (this saint continued to take care of me.)

I’ve also found that when I go to a convention, like Bouchercon or ThrillerFest, it’s almost impossible for me to get in any writing time. There’s too much going on, like Gilstrap holding court in the bar with his Beefeater martini. No one wants to miss that. So I give myself permish to take several days off when I attend. (I also find I can write on a plane going to a location, but not coming home. I think that has to do with my being a morning person, as I described a couple of weeks ago.

Yes, there is one exception to all this steadiness, and that’s NaNoWriMo. We need not revisit the debate over this singular month of writing madness (you can search for NaNoWriMo in our archives for that), but it’s there for you to consider.

What I’m saying is simply this: be as intentional about taking a break from writing as you are about producing the words. Be strategic, be smart. I’ve said this many times before, but here it is again: figure out how many words you can easily write in a daily session. Now up that by 10%. So if it’s 250 words, you aim for 275. 1000 = 1100. Try to do that six days a week.

But do not beat yourself up if circumstances conspire against you. Treat every new week afresh.

Do this day after week after year—with regular breaks—and you will not only avoid the B-word, you’ll see an amazing output of material. Which is the difference between someone who wants to write and a writer.

So how have you been feeling about your writing life of late? Pressure? Not enough time? Are you beating yourself up a lot about production (or lack thereof)? Maybe you need to think about strategic break-taking. 


Because I believe so strongly in the mental game of writing, I’m making my ebook on the subject 99¢ this week.






36 thoughts on “Avoiding Burnout With Strategic Breaks

  1. Good advice re pacing and Sabbath breaks. Maybe God knew what she was doing.

    I seem to alternate between writing/revising for two or three days and then days devoted to other duties and no writing. I have not yet committed to a writing quota. Recently I find myself doing perhaps more revising than writing. I feel if I kept writing I would get further behind on the revising. Maybe if I were a better writer there wouldn’t be as much revising to do.

    My daughter–the one who’s “won” NaNoWriMo a half-dozen times without finishing a novel–tells me they count an hour of editing/revising as equivalent to a certain number of words. She’s committed to winning next November with just editing.

    I was glad to see your comments about writing less while at conferences. Knowing how much you’re on the road, I had wondered about that.

    I took yesterday off from fiction to do a little piece for medium.com on the ethics of watching the Super Bowl (https://medium.com/@ehb2013ehb/bowling-alone-698d396001ed).

    • Maybe if I were a better writer there wouldn’t be as much revising to do.

      Ha! The better the writer, the higher the bar … so the need for revision remains constant. Though some A listers have sold so many they take to “mailing it in.” It shows, but they still sell, so they drink Pina Coladas on their yachts and don’t think about revising anymore.

    • In a recent _Commonweal_ article, Jonathan Malesic notes that Aquinas dictated 4000 words a day to his various amanuenses. Then he goes on to argue that the reason he quite writing without finishing the _Summa Theologicae_ was burnout.

      • Mortimer Adler, who taught Aquinas for years, said many of his students came to believe in God as much from the existence of the Summa itself as the arguments within. They’d say, “No way a human being could have written all that without God’s help!”

  2. I popped over to read Kris’s blog. I find Kris and Dean to be amazingly far-sighted. They know so much about this biz, I follow their blogs in a sort of muted awe, hoping their wisdom will rub off. A lot of indies scoff at them … and then disappear, as Kris pointed out. Burnout is awful.

    I know that I certainly can’t do 15 books a year, not if I want them to be any good. 3 books a year is sustainable for me. I want to create products that I’m proud of and like to reread later on. If you churn through the Free lists on Amazon for something to read, so much of it is complete garbage. It baffles me. Why do people do this to themselves? Readers aren’t stupid.

    • Why do people do this to themselves? Readers aren’t stupid.

      Great question, Kessie. I think it shows that readers these days desperately seek escape, and a freebie offers them a no-risk option. But if it doesn’t deliver, that’ll be reflected in the reviews.

      There is a “pulp sweet spot” where the prolific writer should dwell, knowing how much is too much, but also how little is too little (in keeping with their overall goals as writers).

  3. Great post, James. I agree with you in that we should be steady. If one writer can do 5K words a day, it doesn’t mean we have to keep up that pace. I believe by setting achievable goals and sticking to a plan, we’ll be more productive. By the same token, if we’ve written our daily quota and the “muse” is speaking to us, by all means keep writing.

    I also like the idea of taking a day off to refresh our minds.

  4. Burnout is a true malady, but it’s not trendy. I see a lot of “burnout” trending out there as popular. I, for one, refused for years to accent “block” and “burnout” as words in my vocabulary. Work harder and you becoming more efficient, more productive. Until both my parents were diagnosed with full-blown Alzheimer’s 120 miles away from me. Yeah, I wrote in doctors’ offices, on the road in the truck, you name it, vowing to keep that productivity going because I was not one of those who let life slap her down. And I wound up sick, several times. Making me analyze what is my production level, and what is it I really want out of writing, because if I got hit with “life” again, I needed to be able to verbalize and identify what part of this business was the distilled bottom line I needed to maintain. Not sure I have it write yet, but I make sure what I write matters more. Quantity is a necessity in this profession, but not at the risk of quality . . . and sanity . . . and health.

    • Quantity is a necessity in this profession, but not at the risk of quality . . . and sanity . . . and health.

      Amen, Hope. You are an example of true writing grit and acquired wisdom. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. I fully agrees with the need for breaks. I’m huge on scheduling, so I schedule my work, my play, and my down time.

    One area where we differ, however, is the way in which we gauge our daily workload. I can’t go by word count because, quite simply, I don’t write narrative every day. Many days are structured as outlining days or character development days or editing days where the number of words produced can range from zero to ten thousand depending on the part of the process I’m in.

    So, I gauge time spent with butt in chair, hands on keyboard. I shoot for six hours each day, which fits well with my day job and all the rest of my daily life requirements.

    • Good addition, Logan. The only “rule” here is what works best for you in concert with your goals.

      Because I felt I’d been cheated out of ten years of writing (I’d been told so many times you couldn’t learn how to write saleable fiction), I determined to be prolific … steady, but prolific. I remember being impressed by a quote by Richard Rhodes: “A page a day is a book a year.” And another by James N. Frey (not the James Frey of A Million Little Pieces, but the James Frey of How to Write a Damn Good Novel), something to the effect that if you did a book a year for 20 years, you’d be among the most prolific novelists of all time. (Of course this was back in the “old days” when the only way to publish was via the Forbidden City!)

      And then my love of the pulp writers of old, for whom word count was what put food on their table.

  6. Darn, wish you had written this a year ago. It took me almost that long to figure out if I block out down time (like actually write it on my agenda) then my productive time is better.

    C. Hope Clark’s comment was sobering!

    • Glad to at least have caught you now, Priscilla. I am a big believer in writing down goals, to-do lists, prioritizations, etc. Getting rid of random chaos caused by the “tyranny of the urgent” is a crucial skill for the successful writer.

  7. It’s family day. So, if anyone asks, I was never here. 😉 Funny that this is the subject for today. It took me a long time to learn to take well-needed breaks, but I find I’m more productive when I do. Now, I better run before I get busted. Go Pats!!!

  8. I’m a morning person, too. So I do most of my writing in the mornings, and find that I can keep going, without breaks. And usually I can hit my goal of 1000 words. Afternoons, are my least productive writing time, with the postprandial snooze syndrome kicking in after lunch. So, for me, my “break” is the afternoon, with physical activity, like outside chores or woodworking.

    After a week of vacation from my day job, and having time for writing every day, I’m looking forward to a transition when this will be my “routine” schedule.

  9. Burnout is serious business. When I burn out, it lasts months & sometimes years. So 2018 has been made my year for FUN creativity–emphasis on the fun, because I tend to be hard-driving & perfectionistic. The day job leaves few hours a week for creativity, so I put excessive pressure on myself to make those few creative hours count. And for years I’ve ignored my desire to draw & paint as well as write.

    Not this year. Every week this year I’ve taken the time to write, draw, & paint–just to explore–with permission to screw up, permission to just try techniques & see what happens (where formerly I squeegeed the fun out of all creative pursuits). I’ve drawn a couple things and said “Wow! Did I do that? What could I do with more practice?”.

    I have a daily word count quota–the small numbers might be laughable to someone else, but it works for me, & I exceed that amount most days. Heck, already in January I wrote more than all of 2017 combined.

    Key for me in 2018 is just doing things for fun, not pressure (i.e. not every book has to be read for research or technique). I’ve also made it an express goal to put myself in an environment with other creatives & have found a wonderful visual arts community that I’ve joined which is very inspirational. Their talent is amazing!

    • It may interest you to know, BK, that I’ve taken up cartooning for a “side” hobby. Nothing major, just drawing (I was never good at it, but then I found this little cartoon course, and I do it for a way to let my brain play). I may blog about this in the future.

      • I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it as time goes on. Although it’s very early days yet, I’m finding that the painting & drawing cue me in to little details I would otherwise overlook and it’s giving me more patience as I write scenes & think about scene details. Visual arts also seem to help me accept ‘experimentation” in my writing–a leeway I haven’t been good about granting myself.

  10. There are days when it flows, and days when it goes (right out the window). But I do find that hitting it daily overcomes tons of story problems which crop up and must be dealt with.
    Oh, and thanks for the validation about the nap.

    • Naps rock, don’t pay Rich? I read somewhere about DaVinci’s practice of 20 minute naps, work for a couple of hours, another nap, resulting in little sleep but staying productive for a 24-hour cycle. There was a Seinfeld episode where Kramer tried that, but ended up being bored in the middle of the night and waking Jerry up.

      I’ll stick with one power nap, thank you.

  11. I’ve been on a break all January, maybe the result of writing nonstop for the last few years. I think it’s time to get back on the horse, though, especially after these wise words. Mr. Bell, I appreciate how you explain not just writing technique, but the writing life. Can’t easily have one without the other.

  12. I like writing every day. Otherwise, there’s housework. (No day job, empty nester, and the Hubster is retired, too.)

    I had an “in the city” day last week, and got zero written, but since I’d spent the night, I ordered a room service breakfast and didn’t leave the room until checkout time. The change of venue helped focus.

    My next deadline isn’t until mid-April, and I ran the numbers, assuming a first draft of 100K words, calculating how many words I’d need to write each day to hit that mark. Days I go over are words in the bank.

    • That’s a good tip for those with deadlines. Break it up like that. Essential. Bank those words, otherwise you get “firecracker on the tail” syndrome when you have a week to do 30k!

  13. It took me (stubborn Scorpio that I am) a long time to realize I had to try for a daily goal. I still don’t always make it but I am getting better. It never became clear to me how important this was until I heard Walter Moseley talk about the need for a daily schedule so you keep at least a toe in your conjured world. If you leave that world for too long, there it goes…Brigadoon.

    Naps…best recharger ever.
    And you absolutely MUST get up from the damn computer every hour and walk around or something, preferably outside. Your heart needs it.

    • Kris, I heard David Morrell say the same thing, that if you get away from your story more than a day, you start to lose a bit of connection with it. That’s why even if I have to miss actual writing, I try to jot some notes down from what is gurgling , around in my mind.

  14. Good post, Jim. I took mu break yesterday, to hang out with a friend. We went for a long lunch. I didn’t work when I got home, but I felt guilty about it. Now, thanks to you, I know better. I need that fallow time.

  15. Jim, I’m emerging from a period of burnout when life smaked me upside the head. I tried to work through the holidays even though my gut said take a break. A bout with the flu shut me down for a week. After I recuperated, I rushed back to my office to clean up the clutter and ended up in the hospital with major back spasms. Alright, all ready. I get the picture!!!

    Then promotion for my book that releases April 1 rolled over me. I literally have a 3-page spreadsheet to keep track of it all.

    In addition to my freelance editing work, I was a total idiot and took on a 2nd book to write while writing the next manuscript for my series. I thought dashing out a little contemporary romance for the money would be easy. Ha! My heart wasn’t in it…actually my gut. It had been telling me for weeks I’d made a mistake. The 25,000 words I wrote at a snail’s pace are simmering on a back burner now.

    Once I confessed I wasn’t Superwoman, I could finally breathe again. I’m still not convinced a blog tour will sell that many books. But I’ve beaten a severe case of burnout.

    It’s nice to know another morning person! I get up at 5 a.m. six days a week and write a 1000 words. It’s a good pace for me.

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