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Beating Burnout - Tips for Copywriters and Every Writer

by Dawn Copeman

Back in November we had a troubling question from Charlotte, who wrote: "Until recently, I'd say sometime in the past six months, I had no difficulty in writing. I am a commercial writer for an online company and spend my day writing press releases, web pages, whitepapers, ebooks and manuals. Recently, however, I have noticed that I am finding it harder to motivate myself to work. I am still writing, but the words don't come as easily as they did before. I have read many of the articles at Writing-World on dealing with writer's block, but unlike freelancers I cannot switch to a different genre or activity; I have to produce the words day in, day out no matter what. It's taking me longer and longer to do my work; I'm working through lunch and doing unpaid overtime just to meet my deadlines. I'm worried I might lose my job unless I can sort this problem out. I hope someone out there can help me."

I was, personally, quite concerned about Charlotte's predicament as it is hard to beat down writer's block when you cannot effectively take a break from the type of writing that is blocking you.

Thankfully, a lot of you have come to her rescue, such as Batya Jacobs, who wrote: "Dear Charlotte, my husband had something quite similar. He was studying for his law exams when he suddenly ran out of umph. I helped him over that hump using the narrative therapy approach. Viz:

A) Finding out what was stopping the flow. Giving it a name (e.g. barrier or whatever seems a good name to you) then think what 'barrier' is stopping you from doing. How is it doing it? Is it there all the time? What is it telling you to prevent you from writing how you used to? What does it want from you? What does it know about you that it is using against you? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

If there any good aspects to it, could you get those things without allowing 'barrier' to interfere with your writing?

Does Barrier represent any value of yours?

B) Think about the time when you were writing in the way you liked. How was that for you? How did you manage that? What skills did you use to succeed at your writing tasks? How did you learn those skills? Was there any one you looked up to as a model for your success? Who wasn't surprised at your success? Were there any actions, exercises etc. that you did when you were studying that helped you become more professional?

C) Perhaps you could give a minute or two to other genres. In your spare time you might try the odd nonsense poem or essay about a thought or two.

You could certainly start writing letters to 'Barrier' asking him how he's managing to block you etc."

Larry Van Deventer can sympathise entirely with Charlotte and believes a short vacation might be the cure. He wrote: "I also have those times when I cannot seem to find the words. Words are the tools used to communicate. I am not fortunate enough to have a job such as you have but there are times when I just cannot produce any more words, so I take a break. I take a vacation for a time. At other times words comes in a flourish like a rushing mighty wind and I write furiously and become so productive that I amaze myself. In antipode to what you find yourself working endlessly, try a vacation and let the words pile up and then open the door and let them out."

Katherine Swartz thinks that "Maybe the problem is too much of the same kind of work for too long. If you can't take a vacation now, try proposing to your supervisor that you work on a new kind of project -- say, a blog on a closely-but-not-too-closely-related topic. Or focus your off hours on getting into a totally different frame of mind: write poetry or fiction, perhaps. Or, find (or rediscover) an absorbing and challenging hobby that takes your mind off writing completely."

Audrey Henderson wrote to say that in her opinion: "It sounds to me like Charlotte may be suffering from writer's fatigue.

"That can be a tough problem to tackle. In my experience trying to force myself to write only resulted in producing subpar work and eventually totally burning out. At one point I walked away from writing completely for more than 10 years. (I had been an active writer since I was 11 years old.)

"Charlotte should not allow herself to reach that point.

"She said she cannot switch to a different genre or activity at work, but can she do so away from the job? If so, maybe she can pour some of her creative energies into a different activity, which might relieve some of the writer's fatigue she is experiencing.

"Another strategy I would advise is taking a break from writing -- not a 10-year break, but maybe a few days or a week.

"If she is truly suffering from writer's fatigue, what she needs is downtime.

"Does she have vacation time coming -- and somewhere she wants to go? If not, even small breaks during the day may help. Instead of working through lunch, take that lunch hour and have lunch with a colleague or go to a park or museum. If she's still not done at quitting time, she should go home if possible anyway. If she wants, she can take work with her and do an hour or so (no more) after she's had a chance to unwind and decompress at home.

"I would also advise Charlotte to disconnect from her work process, and concentrate on why she is writing a given piece. What audience is a white paper intended to reach? What information is a reader of a press release hoping to find? This approach allows the writing to be more of a guiding force, rather than Charlotte pouring every ounce of herself into every word.

"Finally, and this is hard advice to follow, but especially for someone suffering from writer's fatigue, it is essential: sometimes good enough is good enough. Of course Charlotte takes pride in her work, and she wants to produce excellent copy or prose. But sometimes, especially under time pressure, the best anyone can do is to make sure that the essential elements are included and expressed in a coherent fashion, and let the rest go.

"This is counterintuitive too, but my guess is that Charlotte will find that writing begins to come easier, and what she produces will be good, if not sparkling."

I agree wholeheartedly with Audrey's advice and suggest that Charlotte remembers that in copywriting there are, if you look for them, formulas to follow that will take the stress and pressure off. Most copywriting follows the same formula for one very good reason: it works.

Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel or come up with a staggeringly new approach to a press release, just stick with the basics. Use these tools, these formulas to support your writing. Use books such as Andy Maslen's "The Copywriting Sourcebook" or read or re-read the classic "The Copywriter's Handbook" by Bob Bly -- sometimes just a small refresher course can re-invigorate your copy and your approach to work. Or visit Copyblogger and take their free copywriting course, Copywriting 101, http://www.copyblogger.com/copywriting-101/. Use these formulas, these tips and advice to support your writing while you re-discover your creative spark.

Then to inspire you further, think about the reader; try to find something in your work that sparks your interest and take regular breaks.

Finally, stop being so hard on yourself, this will only add to the pressure and make things worse. A well-known and successful copywriter, Nick Usborne, says "Its okay not to be the best at what you do." Do your best, give yourself time to rest and heal and you will still be producing valuable work.

Copyright © 2013 by Dawn Copeman

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Dawn Copeman is a UK-based freelance writer and educator who has published over 300 articles on the topics of travel, cookery, history, health and writing. An experienced commercial freelancer, Dawn contributed several chapters on commercial writing to Moira Allen's Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (2nd Edition).

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