Reader 1: For 15 years I’ve made my living as a freelance writer and have been grateful for the variety and stimulation that comes with this work. Until recently. For about six months, I’ve been battling something more than writer’s block — it’s almost a hatred of writing. I approach most of my projects with dread and wind up gritting my teeth through the last minute. The quality of my writing has suffered, along with my well-being. How do I lift myself out of this rut before it threatens my career?
Karla: Sounds like classic burnout to me — but don’t take my word for it. Here’s some boots-on-the-ground advice from long-term freelancers that could help folks in other fields as well.
Mix it up. Freelance writer and game designer Matt Forbeck moves from writing novels to nonfiction to tabletop and video games “like a farmer rotating crops. It keeps the soil fresh so that I can keep producing new and exciting things.”
When a year of covering the refugee crisis in Europe left her too “paralyzed” to write, journalist Tania Karas took several months off to study Arabic in Lebanon.
For Atlanta writer Laura Scholz, teaching fitness provides an alternative income source and has led to related writing projects. “The more topics and interests in your wheelhouse, the more opportunities you have.”
Give yourself a break. Caitlin Kelly, a writer and writing coach in Tarrytown, N.Y., used fellowships to Paris and Washington and a proper vacation in Europe to acquire “new skills, new contacts, new ideas, a break from the grind.”
Even short escapes can pay big dividends. “When times are flush with work, I do something nice for my future self,” says Deanna Fox, a food and agriculture writer in Delanson, N.Y. Fox invests in a gift certificate that she can cash in later for a guilt-free treat.
Count the hours. When it’s nose-to-grindstone time, Owen K.C. Stephens, a tabletop game writer and developer in Seattle, commits to writing nonstop, one hour at a time — “no matter how hard it is, or how bad the resulting material is” — then walks away for a short break doing something unrelated.
Seek community. During Karas’s year in Europe, “I didn’t socialize with anyone who wasn’t a refugee, journalist or aid worker” — so she never disconnected from her work. Her Arabic course brought restorative social and professional connections.
W. Dana Nuon, a programmer who freelanced for 15 years from his Ashburn, Va., home (disclosure: we are friends), recommends frequenting coffee shops, renting space with workspace providers such as WeWork, and joining meetup groups to mingle with a variety of freelancers.
Take shelter under an employer’s wing. You may also need a break from the freelance lifestyle. Most of the freelancers I spoke with have at some point enjoyed the benefits of full-time jobs: predictable workloads, steady income and a built-in support system.
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PRO TIP: Burned out on writing? If you want to feel better, read the despondent telegram (“I can’t look you in the voice”) that American wit Dorothy Parker sent her editor in 1945.