An American Editor

May 10, 2021

On the Basics — Knowing why and when to let go

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

There comes a time in every person’s life, no matter what their career, to at least think about letting go of the work life, or some portion of it. For those of us in the editorial field, that can mean anything from finding a new full-time job to not renewing an association membership; dropping a certain client, project or topic; changing freelance service offerings; taking a vacation from social media; or retiring. It can be a challenge to know when to take such actions, especially because what we do — or want to do — in the heat of a moment can be very different from what we wish we had done after some reflection.

Boredom and burnout

It happens to all of us at least once: A previously interesting topic or type of project becomes dull and deadly borrrrring. Maybe you’ve written about, edited or proofread the same topic or the same organization for the 100th time — that feels like the 1,000th — or one year too long. Maybe the material was always dry and unexciting, but you kept going because the money was good (or desperately needed). You could just be tired of dealing with a routine, a commute (well, in pre-pandemic days) or certain co-workers. Burnout takes many forms.

Either way, you kept going because it was your job, it was a freelance gig that paid well, you thought it might somehow become livelier … Whatever kept you plugged in, it’s no longer working and you need a change; maybe even the drastic change of changing fields or retiring entirely. Before going that far, though, look at where you are and see if there are ways to make it more interesting. You might be able to switch departments or handle different aspects of what you do now. Ask, and you might receive.

If making a major change is nerve-racking or somehow not possible, you might be able to use volunteer or hobby activity as a counterbalance to the draggy work situation. Create time to do things that are fun and fulfilling, and the dreary routine might become more bearable.

Working isn’t working

One sure sign that it’s time to think, or rethink, a career is when you find yourself missing deadlines even though there’s no real reason for that to happen. You aren’t sick (thank goodness), there aren’t family crises to handle (also thank goodness), you’ve done the research and interviews, you’ve reviewed the latest style guide, you have the information and tools you need … but you just.can’ You know that even long-time clients will only put up with so much delay on their projects, but you’re sabotaging yourself, and you don’t know why.

That could be one aspect of burnout, but whatever we call it, it’s a bad sign. And it means you need a change. You could try convincing yourself that there are rewards for getting these things done as needed, or setting false (early) deadlines to trick yourself into doing the work, but this kind of situation is hard to fix. Sometime just switching to another project or a non-work activity that is more fun can reset your interest in finishing whatever is stuck.

Age is kicking in

We also will all reach a point when we’re ready to — or must — retire due to age, among other considerations. Younger colleagues might want to keep this in mind as a reason to put money aside regularly to support yourself at that seemingly far-distant point (also worth doing just in case you get injured or ill). I hope that those of us who are approaching that point, or already there, have a healthy financial cushion in place so you can apply the brakes to your work life without worrying about how you’ll pay the rent or mortgage, and eat something other than cat food.

The good thing for many (I hope all) of us is that a certain age means Social Security income, and that might just be enough to call it a day and do something new. Or nothing!

Networking not doing the job

We join professional associations to meet colleagues and leaders in our fields, and many of us — both freelance and in-house — join one solely for its work-finding value: access to postings of job openings, often before or instead of such opportunities reaching the help wanted ads or recruiters. 

As most of you know, I’m a big fan of belonging to and being visible/active in professional associations. I belong to almost a dozen and hold leadership roles in six at the moment. I’m at the stage of my career where I don’t need them for training; in the two-way, give-and-take nature of networking, I’m usually giving more often than taking. I remain active, though, in part because I do continually learn new things from colleagues through association forums and discussion lists; some of my groups provide opportunities for members to make a few bucks through presentations and publications; having that network of colleagues to turn to when I do need help or advice is invaluable; and — as the poster child for extroverts — I love interacting with colleagues.

However, if belonging to an association isn’t working for you, it might be time to look for a new one to join. Don’t base the decision on whether you’ve gotten work by being a member. Some organizations are so large that you can go a full year or longer without nailing a listing from a standard job service post or message. The value is often more in the colleagiality, advice, resources, support and events. But again, if none of that is resonating, look into other places to get those benefits. There are a lot of associations. There should be at least one that works for you.

Just keep in mind that the people who get the most out of association memberships are the ones who participate actively. If you’ve never contributed in any way, even just by asking questions, you might want to give it a little more time, and effort, before leaving. 

More aggravating than energizing

Not quite the same thing as retiring or changing careers, but it’s probably time to leave an online group or discussion list when:

• You’re really, really tempted to say things like, “How does someone who calls themself a writer/editor/proofreader/whatever not know that?” or “Have you never heard of a dictionary?” in response to a question.

• You are beyond tired of seeing the same questions again and again. And again. Even though you know that many times, the askers are new to either the group or the profession.

• You don’t bother to respond to questions or comments because you’re so tired of repeating the same advice, no matter how useful it is and how helpful you want to be.

Whatever your work niche might be, there are lots of other places to meet, learn from and interact with colleagues. If a given group or list is more aggravating than enjoyable, look for a new community to join where you might feel more comfortable and energized.

Preparing to leave

The most-important aspect of leaving a job, project, client or organization is the how: how you leave, and what you leave behind.

The ideal is to be the one who controls that moment or process, although we can’t always do that. Like most people in any field, not just publishing or editorial work, I’ve been in one of those “I quit/You’re fired” situations with no time to prepare myself or my co-workers for my departure (luckily, though, with everything I was responsible for in good shape, and a colleague eager to step into my shoes; too eager, in fact).

I try to organize my projects so someone else could step in fairly easily if I were to leave. My computer files are pretty easy to understand. I also have a strong base of colleagues whom I could recommend for most of my current projects. I can afford to stop working whenever I’m ready. I’m not sure what I’d do with myself if I weren’t working, but I do have hobbies I could spend a lot more time on and a few other ways to fill my time when that moment arrives.

On the personal side, whether you plan to job-hunt, change careers or retire, be sure you have that financial cushion in place so you can make the decision that makes you happy.

What aspects of your editorial career are pushing you toward making a change? What do you think your next life will be like?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning creator of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide. She also created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and An American Editor. She can be contacted at or



  1. Hi Ruth,

    Interesting topic. You are the third writer I have read TODAY who is musing about their future. I think the pandemic lockdowns – mine is so severe that we can be fined between $500 – $10,000 for leaving our home county – are showing some of the ugly side of retirement. If we didn’t work, what would we do? For my male friends the question is: without work, who am I? I have not heard my female friends express that, but many of my former publisher colleagues deal with this. This hasn’t been an issue for friends who have emotionally-crushing comfortable corporate or government positions. They couldn’t wait to run out the door.

    One of my books is about the challenges of families in business together. Half of it is about succession. One man said when he handed his company over to his children he went from “Who’s Who to who’s that?”

    Some people have been surprisingly productive during the pandemic, others, like me have not. I have a 10-month research project, from which I also spun off a second four-month research project. Financially this is a better year, but without constant weekly and monthly deadlines I feel like I’m in some weird limbo. I have had at least one weekly deadline from the time I was 18. Not facing the volume of deadlines I normally would have is unsettling. I feel less productive, yet the shorter project people are amazed at how quickly the project progressed and speed with which questions are answered.

    One of the other people writing about this career/life future topic went to a cabin in the woods for three days without electricity, running water or internet. She thought about contracts she signed, and a book project she has worked on for two years. She realized she is no longer interested in it. She’s ditched the book and severed relations with several low-paying clients who provided volume work, but who had become too comfortable and uninspiring. Then she thought about what did excite her. She also waded through a number of unanswered emails on her laptop and compiled a new reading list. Fortunately before she went to a bookstore or library she discovered that a significant number of those books were already on her bookshelf at home, untouched for three-to-five years.

    I sympathize. Early in the pandemic I downsized. After 34 years I went from a four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom garden flat. That meant getting rid of a lot of things. I have hundreds of unread books. Once I had a place for everything, my sorting stalled. I literally spent six weeks shredding paper – I had extensive files because I had the luxury of a separate file room. I learned to let go. This weekend I realized there were more things that I didn’t need, want or use, so am ready to repurpose them to other family members. I’ve also decided to use what I have and not save things “for good”. This is my “for good” period. The more files I ditch, the faster my research becomes and the more productive I become.

    It’s a great sense of personal and professional liberation. My current projects are passion projects. The research has spurred three book ideas. So while the last 14 months have been a weird, seemingly unending rollercoaster I’ve realized I don’t have to be as frenetic as I usually am to have the career I want. Be bold, but be targeted. I don’t have to be all things to all people. It’s time to indulge myself with the work I want. And I do want to work. While I still identify myself based on my work, that’s not because of a lack of life, it’s a life choice.

    Be well.


    Comment by Allan Lynch — May 11, 2021 @ 1:39 pm | Reply

  2. Wow, Ruth, does this column strike a chord.

    When I decided to retire from my freelancing job a couple of years ago, I could barely bring myself to use the word “retired.” I kept saying, “I’m retired. Retiring. Retired. Retiring.” It was difficult to give up the working part of my identity, even though I could see all of the signs that it was time.

    The same thing happened with my professional association. It’s been difficult to accept that I’m burned out, and need to step aside from what used to occupy a lot of my time and bring me joy. But I’m learning to do it.

    I wish I’d read this column a few years ago. It might have given me new ways to think about letting go, which might have made it easier to actually do it.

    Thank you for sharing this wisdom. We don’t talk about this enough.


    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Anne Brennan — May 11, 2021 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

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