What writers can learn from farmers

Where did the year go?

Suddenly it’s NaNoWriMo again, that time of the year when would-be novelists around the world are scrambling to get 50,000 words of a novel written over the 30 days of November. I’m aiming for 20K. It’s my second attempt and last year I only got 10K written, which was still an achievement considering the crap that was on my family’s plate at the time.

For me here in Quorn this scribbling coincides with the wheat and barley harvest and while I’m trying to gather in words, the headers are out there day and night, weather permitting. There’s a lovely symmetry here, and even as I write this post I can hear the hum of harvesters.


For years I have thought quite often about what a writer’s life and farmer’s life have in common. The first one is, of course, the irregular income – both writers and farmers need either a day job, or a partner with a steady income, to keep them going in the months between payments.

There’s periods of intense activity during seeding time and harvest time interspersed with months where not much seems to get done.

Writing itself is a lot like planting seeds; what you do mostly is put your work out there and then wait. Months later something might come up. This work is not without risk because crops like books sometimes fail.

Farmers are a lot like writers when it comes to planning, and they can be a cagey lot when discussing what they plan to sow this season, much in the way a writer avoids discussing plot-lines out loud in case it kills the book stone dead.

We also have a solitary lifestyle which we would not have chosen did we not thrive on it, and we get to set our own timetables.

There also does no retirement age – think of the late Max Fatchen or the man behind the wheel in the above photo, Lawrie Fitzgerald, still cropping in his 80s.

Despite this, there are many things writers do which would have your average farmer shaking their head with the folly of it all.

Because the main life lesson a farmer teaches us is to sow on regardless. In Ecclesiastes it says, ‘He that observeth the wind will not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds will not reap,’ (11:4) and any farmer worth their salt sows seeds every year whether they’ve ever opened the Bible or not. No matter what the next growing season may bring, they will be out there sowing at seeding time whether the experts are predicting a dry year or not. The risk is taken every year.

And this brings me to the mistakes writers can make, especially the amateurs. The first one is procrastination. Instead of putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard we waste time wondering if these words we’re thinking about writing will ever see light of day, or whether what we write might suck or not, etc etc. Farmer don’t have the luxury of being able to procrastinate, or we would all starve. Have you ever seen a farmer polishing all the silver when they need to get behind the wheel of the tractor? I don’t think so. Or their crop yields would plummet!

Then there is the waiting for feedback, which I sometimes do when I’ve just written an awesome blog post. It would seem at times that the better the post, the louder the silence accompanying it!  But if a farmer ploughed one paddock then waited around for another human being to express their approval of it, we’d probably starve.

Another one is resting on success. This is when we’ve written that awesome blog post and someone else likes it, and maybe it will lead to a new opportunity or whatever.  But how many hours do we waste being in that happy little bubble instead of being like Dory from Finding Nemo and ‘just keep writing’. Have you ever seen a farmer take a year off because last year’s harvest was such a good one? Not around here anyway.

And have you ever seen a farmer endlessly self-promote? Okay you can probably think of at least one, but if they all did, we really would starve.

Study the habits of the writers who are successful and you will notice they are not unlike those of our agriculturalists. This is why they can write for a living and not starve!

(Originally published 12 Nov 2014 on ABC Open.)


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