Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved space. Rockets and robots, planets and pulsars, constellations and comets. When she was eight years old, she knew she was going to work for NASA one day, and she did. And it was awesome.
Then, somewhere along the line, it stopped being so awesome. Sure, it was cool, but it wasn’t fun anymore. The magic of the cosmos got sucked out with the daily grind—it’s hard to see the stars over the piles of email in an inbox.
“When you grow up, your heart dies,” indeed.
Burning out on one of your life’s true loves is tough. It’s different than burnout that happens when we try to take on too many projects or work too much or don’t take a day off for three months in a row. You may still have energy and passion, just not about the subject area you love about the most.
However, you still have to do the work. It’s hard to focus, though, since the last thing you want to write about is your thing. You don’t feel creative or you don’t really care about what you’re saying. So your writing gets less inspired and you struggle until, one day, your only recourse is to run away to Key West and crew a sunset sail tour boat.
Or not. Because we are all badass writers who get shit done, we might run away, but we carry our laptop with us and keep writing, which results in subject burnout in paradise as opposed to subject burnout at home. Burnout is burnout, my friend, no matter where you are.
The question is, how do you keep finding joy in a particular subject when you have to write about it every single day? How do you ad astra without the per aspera?
There are some strategies you can use (five of them, to be exact) to keep from burning out on a particular subject. I’ll be honest, some of these are a process, not a quick fix. And, speaking from personal experience, sometimes the answer to subject burnout is to take a long break and do something completely different. But if you try these approaches before you hit the critical stage, you’ve got a shot at preventing subject burnout.
A wise man once said, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”
Knowing when to fold and walk away holds just as true for writing as it does for poker. If you start to hate your favorite subject, don’t ask for more cards in the hopes that you’ll get an ace. Put down the hand and take a break.
Cranky writing generally isn’t good writing. If your reaction to writing is to get annoyed, you need a break. It’s not only working too much that creates burnout, it can also be a laser focus on one thing or topic. There is such a thing as too much good stuff. Even chocolate loses its rich taste after four or five bites.
Get outside and take a walk. Crank up loud music and dance around your living room. Go for a drive. Accomplish something on your to-do list that has nothing to do with work.
Many people find the Pomodoro Technique useful for just this reason; a scheduled break helps your mind stay sharp. But you can take that idea to the next level—if you’re finding it hard to concentrate on a particular subject as opposed to work in general, walk away for a little bit.
Even if you love a subject, writing about it all the time can get a bit tedious; taking small breaks from time to time can keep you from building up negative feelings toward a topic. Over the long run, walking away for a few minutes can help you stay on target.
One problem with taking a break from our prime subject area is that sometimes we don’t have time to take a break. We’re so deep into a set of projects and on a tight deadline that we don’t have the luxury of not thinking about our area of expertise.
However, if we’re stuck on a problem (picking a totally random example, say, the last section of an article), it helps to let our subconscious work on it while our active mind focuses on something else. That might mean watching cute cat videos (or “Gilmore Girls” gifs), but if you’re crashing on deadlines, then shifting your focus to another area of work can be more helpful and productive.
To prevent subject burnout, personally, I use the Rory Gilmore method: When you get punchy focusing on the Bolshevik revolution, shift over to Anne Boleyn, then finish strong with calculus.
In other words, if you’re having trouble working on one writing project, slide over to another one for a bit.
I know this sounds a little flaky, like you can’t stick with an idea or article and just get it finished, and this approach is not for everyone. If shifting between projects doesn’t work for you, try shifting to free writing or noodling around with a scrap of dialogue from a fiction story (or writing something researched and non-fiction if you’re working on a fictional story) for 10 minutes; it can re-energize you on your original work and keep you from burning out on your writing topic.
Really, it’s the same idea as watching cat videos, you just tend to get more done this way.
As a theatre person, I can’t watch a show without thinking, “Wow, I love the set design” or “Um, do they even have a stage manager?” It’s impossible to turn off the analytical part of my brain.
I do the same with a lot of writing, especially non-fiction work. I read something amazing and part of me wants to gush about it while part of me wants to pick it apart and learn from it.
Wanting to learn from other writers isn’t a bad impulse. Often, it’s the best way to learn. But I’m a writer in part because I like to tell stories and sometimes I find stories that I want to roll around in, not pick apart. There are times when I just want to be a fan and enjoy something without having to connect it to “work.”
As a professional writer, we all have dream publications or gigs. We are already loyal readers or fans of the company, and to write for these folks would be the cherry on the top of our writing career. Or there are specific topics within our overall subject area that we would give anything to write about. One of the reasons we write is that we love a subject or a story so much we want to share that love with others.
But when you start to look at the subject you love as a potential line of work, you may find yourself always in work mode. For example, if you write about beer, you may not be able to go to a bar just to enjoy a drink. Or if you’re a movie critic, you may not be able to watch the latest Marvel flick simply as a fan.
If everything you love becomes work, you may stop loving it.
The best way to fight this battle is to save some part of your favorite subject for yourself, just for fun. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you’re a beer expert, maybe you choose never to write about whiskey and that’s what you drink when you’re having fun. If you’re a movie critic, maybe you save one weekend a month for binge-watching TV shows.
Saving a subject for fun doesn’t mean you don’t think about it or talk about it. It does mean that when you talk about it, you get to be a fan because it’s your choice, not your work.
I belong to a book club (where we actually read the books, thank you) that started out as a group of women who all happened to belong to the same work field. It’s how we knew each other. So the first 45 minutes of any book club discussion tended to be all about work.
We talked shop, shared industry gossip, passed along opportunities—it was great, but it was an extension of every other conversation each of us was having during the week.
The best thing to happen to our book discussions was when one of our members started inviting her neighbors, who were all in wildly different industries. Suddenly, we couldn’t talk shop because we’d leave people out of the conversation.
Instead, that time became a much-needed refuge from work for all of us. We all need a place where everybody knows our name, but at the same time, we need a place where we don’t have to talk about work.
If you’re a doctor, the last thing you want is everyone you know coming up to you at a party asking about that twinge in their shoulder or vague pain in their big toe. If you’re a writer, the last thing you want to do is talk about your writing or area of expertise All. The. Time.
For example, if you write novels and the only people you know are other writers of novels, happy hour might descend into plot untangling, advice on agents, places to send manuscripts, and all the side gigs you’re taking in addition to writing the novel.
You know, the same thing we do every day.
This action is really a variation on taking a break, it’s just the type of break that involves other people. Almost everyone needs some level of social interaction, but if that social interaction is simply an extension of your work focus, you don’t actually let your mind rest.
By cultivating friends and acquaintances who don’t work in your subject area and seeking out opportunities to converse outside your expertise, you give your brain a chance to do something different. To drop some science here, you’re giving your brain a chance to build new neural pathways.
In other words, talk about different things and not only do you save yourself from subject burnout, you also strengthen your brain.
It’s okay to fall out of love with your area of expertise from time to time because it gives you the opportunity to fall back in love with it.
It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about your favorite subject or your best job; everything has its annoying quirks. Maybe the thing you geek out about doesn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink or forget to put their shoes away, but the minutiae of a regular writing gig will eventually get to you.
It’s also worth noting that when it feels like the world is a terrible place, it’s hard to write about things you might consider less important, even when they’re serious things. One of the questions people ask about the American space program is, “Shouldn’t we spend all that money on feeding people/world peace/education instead?”
It’s not a zero sum game. You can care about the serious things and the fluff, too. But it can get hard to stay in love with a topic when you don’t feel like it’s contributing to making the world a better place, especially when you pair that feeling with the daily grind of the business side of professional writing.
If you’re not feeling it, try getting a different perspective. Or doing something that makes you remember why you once thought it was magic. Even better, find a way to engage your subject area without making it about work.
For example, even when I couldn’t stand another space-related story, watching the International Space Station streak across the night sky as people stopped and looked up made me remember why I loved space in the first place. Waving up at the six people behind that bright spot of light was a moment of sheer joy and it reminded me of just how much fun my favorite subject could be.
Falling in love is fun, and finding that love again can be just as much fun.
As writers, it’s our job to delve into a subject, to get overly familiar with it so that we know it inside and out. Even if you’re a writer for hire covering a bunch of different stories, you’re probably doing it from a certain perspective (for example, writing for a lifestyle or entertainment brand).
Spending so much time with a subject or perspective means that at some point, you’re going to burn out on it. Recognizing the potential burnout and practicing a few strategies can help you keep from growing to dislike your subject area.
Remember to take breaks. And if you can’t break from working, then remember to break from your subject and focus on something else. Save one thing for yourself and just be a fan. Talk to people who aren’t in your field. And finally, if you fall out of love, that’s okay; you can (and will) find your way back
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.