I met Kim Dorothy in a writer’s group where she shared this article and I’ve reblogged it with her permission. One of the things I talk about a lot when I teach workshops is to guard your dreams and hopes from others who might, intentionally or accidentally, destroy the joy you find in being a writer.
Her article offers some great personal insight into avoiding burnout and how to increase productivity. Read Kim’s tips below!
I average writing 70k-words per week. One of the guys in the head office invited me to post tips about avoiding burnout in a high-volume production mode. Keep in mind that I do this full-time and live alone, so it’s more or less my perfect world. Burnout is the flip side of efficiency; less of the former when there’s more of the latter. Most of the following relates to what I’ve learned about efficiency. There might be a kernel of something helpful here for you.
1. Buy the best you can afford.
a. A slow computer drags down spontaneity, preventing you from tapping into that special part of the brain where the writer in you lives – in the word vault. I have several computers; some for heavy-duty video processing and Photoshop work and others, portable and light including one that will fit in my purse.
b. A keyboard has to be properly responsive. You don’t want to need to “punch” the keys, nor do you want a flat plastic pretend board that gives you no sense of keystrike fulfillment. You may prefer an external keyboard paired with a laptop as some laptop designs that include a touchpad are awkwardly designed so that you have to arch your wrists to avoid touching the pad as you type.
c. The monitor should be the highest resolution you can afford. Our eyestrain is greater than that of an air traffic controller and you can seriously damage your eyes as well as sit for long periods in an unnatural position to accommodate the screen’s poor resolution. I also find it easier on my eyes if I swap monitors. I use dual 27” UHD for design work and my 13” UHD laptop screen for simply writing. Less environmental input to process.
d. Get the right chair. This isn’t necessarily the most expensive as some companies produce office furniture that revolves more around design aesthetic than support and functionality. My favorite chair at the moment is an $89 upholstered dining room chair from the mark-down room at Value City Furniture. It holds my back straight, my lap is parallel to the floor, it cushions my tush and slides easily on a plastic chair mat.
e. Get the right desk. This is about height so you can have the ideal posture while typing. It also needs to accommodate your monitor at eye height so your neck isn’t strained. I use an added-on adjustable keyboard tray that slides in and out, tilts and allows you to switch the side where your mouse sits. It’s securely screwed into the underside of the desk’s top. I have a short footstool under my desk that keeps my feet from swelling or my knees from creating blood clots or poor circulation.
f. Make it a dedicated work computer. No gaming, no social media, no emails. No kids or spouse who changes the background and trashes your files. Plenty of disk space, but have a back-up.
2. Dropbox, iCloud, etc. Since I use multiple computers, I keep all my writing files in the cloud. They sync and I can sit down at any one of my units and pick up where I left off. I also use Evernote because I can capture browser screenshots, articles, audio, photos; all the things I use to build my outline. Again, it syncs across all my devices, including my phone while I’m driving and think of something. I don’t have to chase ideas down.
3. Move around. My computer is a tool and I have several. My house happens to have four floors and there is a computer on three of them, including one on a rolling laptop table I can take outdoors by the pool in summer. If you have one working area, stand up every half hour and stretch out a few yoga moves, throw in some laundry, chop onions for dinner, go rinse your face or brush your teeth. Just move and then get back to it. Avoid movement that can be a diversion, such as watching tv or getting on the phone to visit with your friend.
4. Eat well. A brain on normal standby burns 20% of your caloric intake. A “thinking” brain uses even more. Your brain needs healthy fats and protein for top working order. Do not eat sugarly carbs as these slow you down and trigger cravings and produce erratic blood sugar levels. Try it – eat a doughnut or a bowl of cereal and you’ll feel yourself fading. Avoid foods with tryptophan. I recommend never eating at the computer. It gums up your keyboard and your tush and belly will widen. Eat small but healthy snacks during your half-hour stretches. While on this topic, dress in layers and work in fresh air whenever possible.
5. Train your brain. The human body is a wonderfully adaptable machine and you can use that to your advantage. If you write for five hours in the morning on Monday and two hours in the afternoon on Tuesday, the body is spending energy and awareness on adapting. Set a writing time and stick to it. If you wake up at 3 a.m. and can’t sleep, don’t go and write. You’re confusing your body’s internal clock and you’ll pay for it. Then, just like that magic cup of coffee keeps you regular, your brain will allocate resources more smoothly because it knows what to expect. This also reduces your anxiety and if you know your writing pace, you can predict to the day when your book will be complete. I recommend a nap at about 3 pm. Even a short one is restorative. When you’re not writing, don’t be at the computer playing games. Give your body plenty of exercise.
6. Mute your phone. Message alerts and phone calls break your concentration. It’s okay to return calls to people later on.
7. You may have your favorites, but when writing I have the following open: Grammarly / Word / Thesaurus, Evernote and Chrome. I use Evernote like you may use Scrivener. I fit them all on one screen when possible, or in layers when not. The fewer times my hands leave the keyboard to feel for the mouse, and to return, the more productive I am.
8. Dictation for dialogue. I use Dragon and a PC for the best results. I think there’s a post in the All-Star files where I take you through all the combinations of computer / software / microphones I experimented with. Mary Crawford also has published an excellent book on the topic.
a. I tend to always dictate dialogue. I close my eyes, sit back in the recliner and become the voice of my character(s). It feels natural and more authentic; like you’re in a play on stage but starring in all the roles. It’s fun. Note on this: It takes some time to get used to saying, “New line, open quote,” etc. and then “close quote.” I’ve experimented with just saying “dash” or “x” and then go back and let the search and replace swap them into quotes and new lines. Still working on this. If you’ve mastered it, please mention it below. The software knows whether it’s an open or closed quote.
b. Sometimes, I dictate portions, such as describing a house or the decoration in a room, etc. I picture it and it seems to flow more easily. I always keyboard type my surprises and plot twists. Here again, it comes from the word vault. Just add an “insert so-and-so here” to the manuscript and come back to it.
c. Use dictation sparingly according to how comfortable you’ve become and how accurate your computer and software set-up are. If you don’t do it well, you’ll just aggravate yourself.
9. I prefer rough outlines. Detailed outlines reduce spontaneity of thought but it’s nice to come back to your work and pick up where you left off without re-reading the book to regain your train of thought. If I break at the end of the chapter, I always leave a note for myself in the beginning of the next. Something like, “Mary and Sally theorize why John Doe has a criminal record.” Avoid re-reading and editing as you go. These waste time because there will always be an ultimate edit where you can fix things.
10. I fill my Evernote notebook for the current work with screen capture photos of my primary characters, settings, the car they drive, maps of locations, etc. This way I can look at them visually and not confuse the color of their eyes or have them drive south when their destination is north in reality. I also give them a character workup such as, “Mary was shy, almost reclusive due to her parents’ old age and that she thought herself unattractive. She loves anything chocolate and crochets while in the bathroom for escapism. She dreams of finding the right guy.” I am an empath and have, many times, created a character definition and then gone for a drive and actually see someone who resembles them. I can pull over, make notes about their posture, how quickly they walk, whether their house windows are dirty, etc. into Evernote on her particular note. Go to the mall or an airport and watch people. Decide whether couples are business, siblings or lovers and what tells you that. This goes a long way to helping you show not tell.
11. 70k words in a week may sound impossible, but when broken down into 10k words per day, it’s a reasonable goal. Prepping before writing should be given a good amount of time because it prevents interruption when you’re in the word vault.
12. When you’re writing multiple books at the same time, as I do, it’s easy to get confused with names. I will substitute “boy”, “girl”, “father”, “boss” and so forth and then search and replace later with the character’s name. This should be done PRE-edit. If you’re chasing a word count, one of your characters names can become two, such as “boy” becomes “John Boy.”
13. Writing can be tedious. To help with this, I incorporate people I know and release my pent-up emotions. I may use a former lover as romantic inspiration, or as the victim who dies a painful death if he’s moved on in real life. You are omnipotent here – take advantage of that.
14. I write in Word and open the column that shows reviewing comments. I insert as a note a visual icon for the season, the time of day, etc. This way my timeline is valid. I also keep the navigation pane open and use character styling. This tells me which chapter I’m in and whose POV I’m writing, when applicable.
15. Do your research thoroughly and in advance. Don’t wait until you come to the scene where the FMC is going on vacation to research the airport, what it looks like, how busy it typically is, the destination, the accommodations, how people dress, where they’re from, etc. Knowing all this in advance enriches your character. She can shop for clothes, pack, arrange for animal care, take a leave of absence, dread the eight-hour flight, bring sea-sickness wristbands, etc. in the chapters leading up to departure. You don’t have to break stride or go back to add these details.
16. The only clock in my house that works is on my computer. I live in a timeless space so I can step into my books without being tethered to the real one.
17. Keep things nearby to prevent interruption. This includes Kleenex, a nail file, Visine, something to drink, pen and paper, etc. I use Alexa on a regular basis to calculate numbers, give me dates in history, weather averages in distant locations on a certain date, calculate mileage between locations to estimate driving or flying time, get area codes for phony phone numbers, ingredients for a recipe—you get the drift.
18. Your job at this point is to write. Whether you design your own cover or source it elsewhere, it can wait. You’re not the editor, the marketer, the designer or the social media superstar. Stick to the plan. This is not to say that you can’t change your game plan for your book mid-stream. It’s better to call a bad attempt off than to slug through it and let it suck you down like quicksand.
19. **Added** Resist the temptation to play music while you write. The body will try to align the rhythms, just as you do while walking a treadmill. If the scene is slow and romantic, but the music is a Sousa march…well you get the drift.
Burnout comes predictably. You write longer than you should or at different times of the day. You feel physically rung out and your body aches, particularly your eyes. You may have set unrealistic deadlines or not allowed adequate time to get the flu or stock up on groceries. Keep balance in all things, especially family, relaxation, business/job, exercise along with your writing. Even more fatally, burnout leads to dread and that kills your muse. I can honestly say I’ve never known what “writer’s block” feels like, but I can certainly tell you what burnout feels like. I don’t think they’re the same, but they can definitely play tag team. Last of all, we all have days when nothing goes right – so acutely that you think the end times have begun. Stop, back away and don’t contaminate your work with that negativity. You won’t accomplish anything but increase your stress and ruin yourself for the next day.
Hope something here has helped!