Creative burnout, your project isn’t working

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So far in this series, we’ve talked about some heavy reasons you might be experiencing creative burnout. We talked about life taking a toll on us. We talked about the world sometimes being a shitty place to be. 

There are other reasons we might suffer creative burnout that aren’t so clinically depressing. This week, we’re going to talk about a common one. 

You have a project you’ve been working on. A novel, a short story, a podcast season. Whatever it is, suddenly you’ve hit a snag. You don’t have the energy to work on it anymore. You have the time, but not the inclination. Is it the dreaded writer’s block? Have your words failed you?

Probably not. 

The problem is probably with your story. For whatever reason, it’s not working. You know it’s not working, and you’re not ready to admit it. So, instead, you’re ghosting your draft like you’d ghost someone on Tinder. But unlike your Tinder stalker, your project can still be saved. 

See the problem for what it is

The most important step to take is to see your problem for what it is. It’s a problem with the story, not with you. You are not lazy. Remember, laziness doesn’t exist

This is good news because problems with your story can always be fixed. Maybe your characters are boring. Maybe the pacing is wrong. Maybe there’s just not enough going on to compel the plot forward.

The important thing is to not internalize this. You are not your writing. No one story, no matter how bad, is going to define you. 

Now that you understand that, we can talk about how to fix it. 

Freewriting time

Freewriting is my favorite writing tool. I will come to the blank page like I would a trusted friend and just spill my guts. When my story isn’t working, a lot of what I’m doing in freewriting is complaining. 

This is boring. 

I hate this main character.

What is even happening?

I don’t want to write fight scenes, I hate them.

This isn’t interesting enough.

There’s too much going on to keep track of.

Yes, I do eventually get tired of hearing myself complain. But, by that time I have a list of things that need fixing in my draft.

Mind you, I will do this even if it’s a rough draft. While I don’t normally edit first drafts until they’re done, sometimes it’s unavoidable. Sometimes the project just isn’t going to work how it’s going right now. It’s better to toss a draft and start at the beginning again than to lose the project together.

Talk it out

Sometimes the blank page isn’t the best ear, though. While it’s a great listener, it can’t talk back.

This is when it’s important to have writing friends. Or, at least friends who you can bounce things off of. Friends who don’t mind hearing about your story in its infancy. Most importantly, friends who you trust to be honest with you, even if they don’t think you’re going to like the answer. 

Take a break

If you’ve taken your project’s problems to the freewriting page, you’ve met a writing buddy for coffee to talk it out and you still don’t know how to fix your project, it might be time to take a break. Set the project aside for a while, and work on something else. Note that I don’t suggest avoiding writing altogether. I suggest taking a break from that specific writing project.

The reason for this is simple. You want to keep exercising your writing skills. Every bit of writing teaches us something. And remember, your brain is still working on problems even when you’re not actively thinking about them. So while you’re writing a bit of poetry, your subconscious is still working through the problems with your space opera. 

I don’t suggest taking too much time away from a problem project, though. Otherwise, the subconscious will forget. My rule of thumb is no more than a week.

Is this the story you want to tell?

Before I even go into this, let me be clear. This is a last resort. This is not going to be the case most of the time. 

That being said, sometimes a story just isn’t one that you want to tell. Sometimes it’s a great idea, but you aren’t the person to write it. 

There’s no shame in this. Maybe you tried a different genre and it’s just not working for you. I, for example, love reading historical fiction. I do not love writing it. That does not mean that I am a bad writer. It just means that I have a genre that I’m good at writing, and several genres that I am not good at writing.

Of course, there are other reasons a story might not work. It’s hard for me to tell you how to spot this problem because it’s a personal problem. But deep down, we as creators know when our creation just isn’t working out. 

It’s okay to know when to quit. Just so long as you can truly say that you’ve given it your best try. 


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