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.