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Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Content Creation and the Problem of Burnout

at 5:26 PM

I want to take a step back from the series of posts I’ve been writing about content marketing and address something that’s only tangentially related--but that anyone involved in the production of content must eventually contend with.

What I want to talk about is creative burnout.

You see, behind all this talk about content lies a pretty daunting assumption having to do with creation. All content strategies are fueled by fresh content, and, unless you’ve got a writerly robot or a roomful of hyperliterate chimps with typewriters, that content usually comes from the same small group of staffers week in and week out. Sometimes, it may even be just one person.

Those of us who write content for businesses must often limit our subject matter to fairly specialized thematic corrals. That’s a good thing--it means your business has a niche and a specific point of view. And yet, regardless of how passionate you are about your business and your field, most all of us writer types occasionally find ourselves grasping for inspired new ideas and the words to convey them.

As for me, creative dry spells tend to be cyclical and (thankfully) short-lived. I’ve been through enough of them to know they always pass, but they still invoke feelings of dread and--dare I say--despair. The mind tends to rebel when faced with what feels like a truly blank page. Sometimes, I start to fear I’ve already “said” everything I have to offer about a given topic. Other times, I’m in such awe of the smart, insightful writing by others in the industry that I think surely I ought to just throw in the towel. (Side note: do not believe the lies your brain tells you, even if they are true.)

Unfortunately, editorial calendars don’t brake for writer’s block. If you read our blog with any frequency, you know that we often preach about the importance of regularly publishing new material to your business’s website. And it’s true that consistency really is key to the success of your content strategy. But any honest discussion of high-volume content creation must recognize and contend with the problem of creative burnout.

One caveat: the more you care about the quality of your business’s content, the more you ought to care about burnout. After all, the best writing--writing that is engaging, informative, and thought-provoking--can’t be phoned in.

OK. So assuming creative burnout is an unfortunate inevitability, what’s a content guy or gal to do?

 

For Every Input, there’s an Equal and Opposite Output

Well, not exactly. But nine times out of ten, the reason I get burnt out is because my personal output has exceeded my input. Most writers were readers long before they ever put fingers to keys (or pen to paper). Many of you can probably guess where I’m going with this: the act of consuming others’ ideas (by reading, listening, or watching) is critical to the act of conceiving ideas and producing writing of one’s own.

Yet in most professional contexts, reading is seen as more passive and less productive than writing. That’s as unfortunate as it is untrue. Reading may not lead immediately to a tangible product or deliverable, but it’s essential to the formulation and expression of new ideas. Not only does regular reading keep you up-to-date on what others are saying about a given topic, but doing so can subtly--or not-so-subtly--shape your thoughts and trigger new ideas, often in unexpected ways. And when I talk about reading, I don’t just mean industry blogs and news outlets (although those are important, too). I mean anything and everything that catches your eye. So, if you start to feel that the well of inspiration getting low, it’s probably time to hit the books (and blogs, and magazines, and podcasts).

 

Keep a Running List of Ideas

This is probably obvious. But if you tend to go through cycles of high and low writing productivity, a good way to capitalize on the high end of the cycle is to keep a running list of all your writing ideas. In my experience, when I’m in a period of high creative energy, I tend to have more ideas than I could possibly write about. And when I’m feeling burnt out, I have a hard time coming up with anything. Hence, the list. Note that this list should be different from an editorial calendar in that it should contain all your writing ideas, even the half-baked and not-quite-right ones. While writer’s block can make it feel hard to write on any topic, having evidence of all the ideas you’ve tossed around in more fertile times can help rekindle inspiration and, if nothing else, provide you with several starting points that are one step up from nothing.

 

Talk Things Through with Friends and Colleagues

I sincerely hope that, like me, you’re lucky enough to work with the sort of generous colleagues who are happy to be your sounding board when it comes to your writing ideas--as well as your writing challenges. If it’s one idea you’re stuck on, talking it through with a friend or co-worker might help you to clarify your thoughts and provide a conversational framework for a written piece. Same advice goes for more general feelings of malaise-y burnout. Sometimes, all you really need to shake things loose is the opportunity to vent about how stuck you feel.

 

Bring in a New Voice

From a practical standpoint, it may be necessary to shuffle up the editorial calendar in the face of writer’s block. It’s OK to give yourself a little time-out from writing, especially if you can arrange for help filling in the gaps. Depending on how your organization approaches content creation, now may be the time to bring in an expert guest blogger, ask a staffer from a different department to write on a given topic, or highlight the work of others you’ve found to be useful, perhaps in the form of a roundup.

 

Prevention is the Best Medicine

Finally, it’s wise to consider ways you might prevent burnout from happening in the first place. In a lot of cases, writers get burnt out because they overcommit and find themselves in a situation of output overdrive. This relates to what I was saying before about balancing your intellectual inputs and outputs, but there is a subtle and important difference. Many writers I know tend to have a hustler’s mindset. This can be especially problematic for freelancers, who are naturally inclined to say yes to assignment that comes their way. Others say yes too often because they are sincerely interested in the writing assignments they’re offered and overestimate their ability to do it all. And some people simply have a hard time saying no. To the extent that it’s financially feasible, you must be proactive to avoid over-committing and preserve your creative energy. In a salaried business setting, it may be difficult to scale down your responsibilities in terms of content; in that case, you’ll need to get creative about how to fulfill your firm’s content requirements without doing more writing than you yourself can handle.

So tell me, dear readers: what have been your experiences with creative burnout--and what are your strategies for dealing?

Comments

Tema | January 9, 2013 2:26 PM
Thanks for sharing, Jane. I love the idea of reframing reading as research--so long as you define research loosely and don't feel you have to confine yourself to just those topics that relate directly to your current writing project. Inspiration tends to come from unexpected places!
Jane McKay | January 8, 2013 8:28 PM
Thank you, Terna, for your insight. Working for myself, at times I find it difficult to get creative inspiration without anyone (apart from my 2 year old) to bounce ideas around with. Reading is a crucial part of the writing process but, as you say, it's seen as less productive than creation. I feel as though I'm not achieving anything when I'm reading, especially when I'm reading the work of the amazingly talented writers out there. I need to rephrase reading as "research" and let myself indulge in some very productive and stimulating passive time.
Andy | January 7, 2013 11:21 AM
I am not the one in charge of my time. Writing is an important one task among a big variety of other tasks, two of which include answering the phone and dealing with walk-in requests. If I could have my way, I'd work in an enclosed alcove or a room with a door. I can't concentrate for more than 2-5 minutes at a time. I'm exhausted by being jolted out of a promising run and by putting that smile back on my face.
Please do not publish my email address.
Tema | December 27, 2012 7:26 AM
Hi James--thanks for reading and commenting. For me, this post was less about the ability to write well (which is a much larger topic) and more about the ability to consistently produce quality writing over time in a situation of high output. I agree that the best writers have the ability to write in a well-rounded way on a variety of topics, but even the best writers are sometimes confronted with burnout or writer's block. Plus, I felt that a direct discussion of the issue of burnout was generally missing from the conversation around content strategy, whose success relies on the production of a never-ending stream of fresh content.
Lawyer James | December 26, 2012 9:46 PM
Having the ability to be well-rounded on various subjects that all have a way [created by the writer] of connecting back to the end goal is a skill that's generally developed over time. But hey, if you ever need any help let me know :)
Tema | December 21, 2012 4:32 PM
Thanks, Justin! I agree that doing something wholly unconnected to whatever creative pursuit has you feeling stuck can help get things moving again. I often find that the best intellectual ideas come from unrelated sources. It's good to be well-rounded!
Justin | December 21, 2012 1:11 PM
Tema,
Timely article. I agree with all the points you made, even though my "creative block" is more visual and less literary. One of the best things I've done to clear a block is to spend time doing something totally unrelated to my 9-5 pursuits. Take a motorcycle ride, tinker in my workshop, read some books to my kids or some other activity that allows my brain to rest.

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