When you write as much content as I do within a week’s time, your brain feels like a wobbly pot of room temperature Jello by week’s end. I write a lot of complex and research-heavy content (you can check out some of my “My Week” posts to see what I’m writing about from week to week). After a period of heavy order volume, I feel exhausted, but in most cases, that feeling is remedied by a few glasses of wine and a “House of Cards” marathon. After some projects, however, even evil Kevin Spacey can’t rejuvenate my creative engines.
Feeding the content monster gives you what you need to buy groceries. However, if you submit to the content factory mindset without refilling the creative well from time to time, you risk burnout, and you’re going to create substandard work. Find a way to sing for your supper while honoring your creative rhythms. Also—and I fully realize this is tough when your supper is nothing but a package of Ramen noodles—avoid taking jobs that cause you to produce shoddy work.
You’re a Writer, Not a Word Factory
When I first began freelancing, I didn’t have the confidence to chase after good gigs. Instead, I started producing content for bargain basement content companies (which shall remain nameless) that pay embarrassingly low rates to their writers. The benefit of the time I spent on those sites is that I learned a lot, both good and bad, about SEO. I also took jobs for the sake of learning about different topics, so I taught myself many new things in a low-pressure environment. Finally, just by writing so much all of the time, I dramatically improved my writing. I’ve been called “an editor’s dream” by one of my professors, and I owe that moniker to all of the writing practice I got while grinding out cheap writing projects.
The drawback of the time I spent creating bargain-basement content was that I developed a factory mindset. I had to write so much content to make money on those sites that I defined income generation in terms of production volume. Instead of taking an honest look at my skills, going after great clients, and charging what I was worth, I thought only about cranking out any job I could get. About 18 months into my freelancing career, I realized I’d completely burned myself out. Here’s a depressing paragraph that I wrote during that time:
“We’ve seen the consequences of mass production in our history. We’ve also seen the metaphors of mass production in our art, from zombies to Uruk-hai to Borg to Cybermen. All of these creatures represent our fears of losing our self-determination and our uniqueness. They also represent our fear that what we are will be taken and twisted until we become the very engine of automation that we hate. You don’t have to be a writer to have these fears. The timpanist sitting at the back of the orchestra, the illustrator creating panels of comics—all of these artists have similar fears, that their worlds are disappearing and that they’re ripe for obsolescence.”
Whew! The angst! Don’t worry—I’m feeling better now.
The Factory Mindset Isn’t Going Away
Content marketing offers a great way for writers to make a living, but it also adheres to a mass production business model. Mark Schaefer of Schaefer Marketing Solutions says that the supply of Web content doubles every nine to 24 months. Blogs, companies, not-for-profits, universities, medical practices, and other organizations aren’t pricking a capillary to get content; they’re ripping open the jugular.
Too often, in their desire to flood their marketing channels with content, these organizations forget that somewhere, out in the virtual miasma, human beings are typing furiously to satiate that hunger. They also don’t realize that content mass production sometimes makes writers feel like automatons. In the way that factory production has killed off many craftsmen in favor of the cheap and mediocre, content mass production can make writers feel that the Web cares nothing for artisanship. Trust me—content writers sometimes feel like they crank out piles of mediocre and useless drivel that does nothing good for the world.
How to Avoid Burning Out
As a freelancer, my income depends on taking on the right number of jobs for the right price and delivering my projects with fast turnaround. Unfortunately, on some days, I look at the blank document on my computer screen and realize that my creative reserves are completely empty. Even though my client expects the work by the next day, I have nothing left to give.
I think most freelancers have this experience from time to time. Here’s how I’ve learned to manage it:
Write Something Real
This piece of advice is especially important if a lot of your work involves ghostwriting. Write something with your name on it, and make it about something that matters to you. It doesn’t have to be something of eternal significance. It can just be something fun that you want to throw out there into digispace. Post it on your personal blog. Share it on Medium. Just get it out there.
Stop Submitting First Drafts
First drafts are usually so god-awful that you shouldn’t show them to anyone. Yet, if you’re writing with a content factory mindset, you’re mass-producing first drafts and sending them out all of the time. Doing this makes you feel bad about what you do, and it should. Only take writing jobs that make you feel proud of yourself, even if that means getting another day job while you try to break in to the profession.
Don’t Give Away Your Best Ideas
Have you ever pitched an amazing topic to a client and realized that someone else is going to put his or her name on your fantastic idea? You usually end up sulking and then subconsciously (or in some cases, passive-aggressively) shortchanging your client. I’ve learned to ghostwrite good things for clients while saving the best morsels for myself. Then, I work to put my byline on my best ideas.
Work When You Should Be Working
As a writer, you need social media. It’s a great way to share your work and to meet new people who can inspire you. However, social media can also become a huge time suck, stealing hours from your life that you’ll never get back. If you’re spending your most valuable working hours having slacktivist political arguments on Facebook, stop doing that right now. Logging in during your writing hours won’t alleviate burnout, and it won’t shrink your work pile. Procrastination will make you feel worse than you already feel.
Do Other Things
Creative thinking requires periods of dormancy during which you are not working on writing. Do something different so that your mind can lay dormant now and then. Draw or paint a picture. Make time for a solitary walk. Take a few minutes every day to meditate. Take a day off now and then to go to a bookstore or go to the beach. Go to a club and dance your fool heart out. Whatever works for you.
A Brief Shaming Before We Conclude
If you’re slaving away for a content farm, please stop. Accepting $5 for a 500-word blog post hurts our profession by driving writers’ wages into the basement. Writing for respectable businesses and marketing firms, on the other hand, means that you earn a better rate for your work. You don’t have to take on as many projects, and you can feel proud of the projects that you complete.
Ultimately, content writing fatigue occurs because the Web’s insatiable hunger for content can clash with how creative magic happens for writers. By all means, pay for your groceries by writing Web content. Just don’t jettison the kind of writer you want to be in your quest for a better supper.
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