Writing targets and burnout

How many words does a professional writer type in a day? What if they get burnout? How do I set a writing target? These are all going to be answered in this article.

Sometime a few years ago, I stopped being an unemployed person who also wrote a blog and I became a writer. It was a gradual process and it’s still not a bombproof career – it only works if I keep releasing books, writing blog posts, and sharing these on social media and in my author newsletter. I believe this is the case even for James Patterson although his income is obviously several orders of magnitude greater than mine.

That means I have a target for how many words I write every day.

It started when I was living in China and I was contracted to a publisher to get 1 book to them every 3 weeks. On top of that, I had my own projects I wanted to write and self-publish. A lot of the time these days, I don’t have enough words left over at the end of the day to write my blog which is a shame.

At the height of my productivity to date, I was writing at least 4000 words a day. In fact, four thousand was a bad day. On a good day, I could do 8k or more and I worked 12-16 hours a day, taking long breaks only to cook or shower. After about forty published books, I am working at a point where those words usually only need one or two rounds of edits to be publishable.

It all got a bit too big and unmanageable around late 2018, when I found out I was pregnant. The first trimester hit me especially hard. Due to pregnancy concerns, and the hormones making it impossible to think clearly, my productivity plummeted to about 2000 words. It felt like I was working through treacle. At the time, with my bipolar misdiagnosis (I don’t have bipolar, I have ADHD and PMDD), I thought my productivity was linked to mania/depression, although I now know that’s not the case.

After I had a baby, I thought things would get better, but then I was lost in a mist of severe post-natal depression that kept coming in waves, so every time I thought it had lifted, it came back again. At first I thought this was writer’s block, but I had no shortage of ideas, I just couldn’t execute them.

There were weeks at a time when I couldn’t write anything at all. Not a book, not an article, and I withdrew from social media completely. I became a recluse because I couldn’t handle the pressure from all the things I’d been so good at, which were now on fire.

I. Was. Burned. Out.

The trouble is, like depression, it’s hard to recognize true burnout until you’re so deep under the weight of failed commitments and broken promises that you’ve drowned and they’re fishing your blue corpse out of the river you used to float on top of.

I had to get rid of every pressure, every target, every expectation, that I or anyone else had of me. I had to stop doing and just be. Lockdown didn’t help. I took up running. That helped.

Like a snowdrop poking through the snow I finally started to emerge after about a year. The storm was over. I had survived even though there were many times when I thought I hadn’t.

For about six months now, I’ve been writing again. Some days, more words come out than others. There’s also the constant pressure of needing to drop everything whenever my baby needs something. And trying to hash out a fair arrangement between my husband and I, since we are both working from home.

I have realized that even 1000 words a day is enough to release a 30,000-word book a month (luckily the romance genre supports this length of book), and 1000 words is about an hour of effort (a little over an hour). So now, my target is 1000 words a day. This means at the bare minimum I am writing enough to pay the bills, and if I have time to write more, then great, it can be a more satisfying book.

Even releasing one book every two months will pay for the bare minimum, as we have no mortgage or other big loans (and we are ninjas with a food budget), but to save for bigger and better things, a book a month is optimal (Craig Martelle, founder of Twenty Books to 50k, suggests that rapid-release brings in more money for all the books in a series than releasing on a slower schedule).

I don’t have the luxury of writing that mystery that’s been on the backburner for about 9 months, yet, but if I keep plugging at 1000 words a day, I will get there. And one hour of work time a day is really not that much to ask of my family. In an ideal world, that would be one undisturbed hour in a room of perfect silence, but as anyone with kids knows, that’s not how life works as a mother.

Usually, that’s an hour while my little jellyfish watches car videos on Youtube. I make up for it by taking him outside for a walk and to splash in puddles before or after (or both. He loves splashing), and playing cars with him when it starts to go dark. I was worried about letting him watch TV when he was a lot younger, but now I realize that was unrealistic. As long as the shows are chosen with care, the television is a key weapon in the parenting arsenal. Like any weapon (such as an adjective, adverb or flashback scene) it must be used sparingly.

My point is, if you want writing to be a career, rather than a hobby, you have to set yourself an achievable, realistic goal and make yourself stick to it. Recognize your limits and go easy on yourself. Don’t do what I did and push yourself past the point of not being productive. “Pushing through” burnout is nonsense. It’s a lie spun by people who want you to fail, or who never experienced genuine burnout.

No one ever wrote a book by… not writing.

Goal setting advice for finding your word count and making it stick:

  1. How many other commitments do you have? How much free time do you have? Don’t overestimate all the time spent in between other things. If it’s dead time, such as sitting on public transport, you can use that to write. If it’s time spent driving or similar, don’t count it as free time.
  2. How many words can you realistically write in an average (not perfect) hour? 200? 500? 1500?
  3. Now do some math. Don’t fill every waking hour of free time with writing, unless your lifestyle supports this. Your laundry still needs folding (although I use speech-to-text when I’m doing tasks like this in a quiet house). A good rule is to start by setting yourself half an hour or an hour a day of absolute ringfenced time to write.
  4. You can’t control other people or their interruptions, problems etc. You can tell them that if it’s not bleeding or on fire, not to bother you, but they might still, especially if they crawl or toddle and don’t understand words yet. Embrace the distractions when they are unavoidable, be present with the people who need you, and come back to writing. As Barbie says, positive attitude changes everything. If you spend all your interruptions stressing, you will return to your desk stressed. If you spend your interruptions generously, with the intention of helping people, you will return to your desk feeling good.
  5. Have a dedicated work space. Actually use it. I have a terrible habit of working on the sofa. I am more productive at my desk. You are too. It’s basic psychology. You spent all your youth being conditioned to work at a desk by schools.
  6. Plan your work before you start writing. Know what you want to say. Whether you’re a plotter or pantser, this is going to help you stay focused during writing sessions. You don’t need to know every fine detail, but some vague info will mean you spend your writing time typing rather than thinking.
  7. Never edit until the book is finished. Don’t waste your writing time stumbling over what you want to say. Write cliches, misuse the subjunctive, use twelve adverbs to a sentence. You can unpick it all later.

You can do it! The main thing is to get writing and keep writing.

The worst tests for bipolar

UPDATE October 2020: I’m just putting a little update here as people keep finding this post, I conclusively found out I have ADHD and PMDD, not rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, and since starting treatment for PMDD, my moods have been completely stable, after years of misdiagnosis and taking mood stabilizers. Don’t give up looking for your answers and if the meds don’t work, question your diagnosis.

So this question of bipolar disorder has reared it’s head again and I *still* don’t know if I actually have it or not. It’s very frustrating to not know what’s wrong with you except that you know you don’t function properly. I had post-natal depression 100% but when I look at the mood scale from Bipolar UK I literally only fluctuate between a 7 and a 3 most of the time.

Which I don’t think is necessarily clinically significant to necessitate a BD diagnosis. I also don’t have underlying “phases” (usually… that PND really brought this home to me). There’s some evidence that ADHD’s hyperactive side can look a lot like hypomania and there’s little to separate them.

As a side-note, I feel like that mood scale linked above ought to be mandatory for everyone who is trying to mood chart because without it you’re trying to draw a map without a key. I now know why I failed at mood charting back in 2015.

While I’m waiting to get hold of a psychiatrist (again… RIP salary), I looked online and basically all the “test yourself for bipolar” quizzes go like this:

  1. Have you had mania? (well, duh, if I knew the answer to this I’d surely know if I had bipolar)
  2. Have you had hypomania? (gosh golly, if I knew the answer to this surely I’d already have a diagnosis… the nuances of hypomania and the difference between hypomanic symptoms and a hypomanic episode are utterly lost on some people)
  3. Have you had depression? (again, what counts as clinical depression and if it’s very obviously Post Natal Depression or Complex Grief, do those count or not?)
  4. Insert a bunch more questions to make it look like we didn’t half-ass this quiz
  5. Give us your email address so we can harass you forevermore send you your results.

The cyclothymia tests are actually nonexistent. Indeed, it seems no two clinicians can agree upon what cyclothymia actually is. I did read a really good chapter on it in “The treatment of bipolar disorder” published by Oxford University Press. That chapter is basically the only thing I’ve seen that actually makes sense of cyclothymia as a clinical entity.

The best part is, cyclothymia is milder than bipolar disorder (but still comes with suicide impulsivity) yet despite the fact that it’s generally agreed these days that people with bipolar don’t always need lifelong meds, the NHS guidelines say people with cyclothymia need to be on meds (that aren’t even approved for use for cyclothymia because literally nothing is) for the rest of their life.

Whut?

“In case it develops into full-blown bipolar.”

Riiiiiiight.

So they’re proposing I take very serious meds that will take years off my life when I don’t actually need them, despite the fact that the latest research says people with cyclothymia have a distinctly different set of debilitating symptoms than people with bipolar, it’s not just “soft bipolar” as some idiot clinicians call it, and never mind that people with cyclothymia are very sensitive to meds in general.

Frustratingly, the NHS can say whatever they want about cyclothymia because there are no NICE guidelines for it. That’s right. NICE recognizes cyclothymia but couldn’t be bothered to actually write any guidelines for how to define, diagnose or treat it, and they clearly state multiple times in their bipolar guidelines that they are not dealing with cyclothymia.

My current therapist is adamant I have bipolar, she doesn’t seem to know what cyclothymia is, she has dismissed ADHD as “not relevant” to my problems, and she seems to think I have no insight which makes no sense because everyone else I’ve ever seen always tells me I have lots of insight into my condition.

This whole thing is such a mess. And my husband, the biggest voice of doubt, keeps saying “I don’t think you have bipolar” like, do I need to borrow an elephant with “she has bipolar” written on the side of… of… those rug things elephants wear?! And does anyone know what those rug things are called?

Arrrgh how did I end up here again with the bipolar stuff? Should I be on meds? Who knows! I wish Blahpolar was still here because I know she would have talked this through with me and helped me work out where to go from here.

Or maybe she would have just made an appropriately-timed bipolar vegetable joke.

That would also help.

To be fair, I wish she was still here even if she never liked or commented on anything I ever wrote again.