The Middle Ages were rough for European farmers. They were trying to grow crops on fields that had been used for hundreds or even thousands of years. They knew farming “exhausted the field,” but they didn’t know why. As a result, nearly half of the fields had to be left fallow every year so they could rest.
Leaving half the fields fallow was terribly inefficient, and Europe had frequent famines as a result.
How fruitful is the field of your writing?
- Do you feel tired?
- Does your mind feel tired?
- Do you feel like a field that just can’t yield what it used to?
How can you prevent writer burnout?
If so, I have good news. Our ancestors made a discovery in the 1700s that massively increased crop yields, and the same method can work for your creative writing today.
In fact, prolific author Brandon Sanderson uses this method to outwrite and outsell his competitors.
If you want to write better and faster with a rested mind, you need a primer in crop rotation to prevent writer burnout.
Before discussing Sanderson’s crop rotation method, we must review the problem. Why did those European farm fields become exhausted?
To produce crops, soil needs three primary nutrients: potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus.
Cereal crops, like wheat and corn, are particularly hungry for nitrogen. If you plant wheat in the same field year after year, eventually, the ground will run out of nitrogen, and wheat won’t grow.
Pests and Weeds
Additionally, many critters like to eat wheat. Wheat-eating weevils and microbes will poison the crop. Every year the field is planted to wheat, more pests gather to devour and destroy the crop.
The Solution: Crop Rotation
Crop rotation can solve both problems with crop rotation.
Legumes like peas, beans, and peanuts don’t take nitrogen from the soil. They actually put nitrogen back in the soil. If you grow a nitrogen-fixing crop like beans for a year, the soil will have more nitrogen than in the year prior.
That’s right. A nitrogen-depleted field is more rested after a year of growing legumes than after a year of being left fallow. With some experimentation, 17th-century agriculturalists found the ideal rotation of crops called the Norfolk four-course rotation.
In Britain, farmers rotated crops in this order: legumes, cereals, root crops, and barley. The specific crops varied by region depending on soil and climate.
With this new system, a British farmer could grow twice as much food as his grandfather could grow on the same field. And that farmer’s grandson could grow twice again on the same land. This British Agricultural Revolution laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution, which was just around the corner.
When hands were freed from working fields, brains were freed to invent new machines.
Famines became a historic relic rather than an annual threat. Instead of experiencing famines, British schoolchildren studied them in school.
How does the crop rotation method improve the productivity of your writing and prevent writers from burning out?
Cereal crops, like wheat and corn, were the glory crops. Cereals were the primary source of calories and a reliable source of cash. With the constant threat of famine on the continent, there was always a market for surplus wheat.
An author’s “glory crop” is the actual writing. Your written words are your sustaining cereal.
Root Crops: Editing
After a year of cereal crops, wheat-eating pests got comfy and invited their friends to the field. But cereal-eating pests don’t typically eat root crops like carrots and turnips. When farmers rotated to root crops, the cereal-loving pathogens died off throughout the year.
The year of growing root crops also gave the farmer a year to wage war on the previous year’s weeds.
For most authors, editing uses a different part of the brain than writing. Think about your own experience. After an intense editing session, you’re fatigued in a different way than after an intense writing session. Switching up your writing tasks will help prevent writers like you from burnout.
Finally, farmers planted barley, which was mainly used as animal feed. This four-course rotation produced more food for humans and animals. Before crop rotation was introduced, many farm animals had to be slaughtered in the fall because farmers lacked adequate feed to last the winter.
But those animals were necessary to run the farm in the spring. Oxen pulled plows. Chickens turned kitchen scraps into eggs and fertilizer, and cows turned barley into calorie-dense milk. Keeping the farm animals alive through winter was important for human survival.
In this metaphor, your farm animals are your marketing. You don’t want to kill your marketing between books.
Most authors are introverts who find interacting with strangers to be exhausting.
But spreading the word about your book involves interacting with people. If you want more readers than you had for your last book, you must interact with strangers.
Even if you are introverted, you’ve probably been locked in a room writing and editing for a long time, so you’ll probably feel more ready to interact with readers.
Marketing requires a different part of your brain and a lot more social interaction. Marketing is a great break from editing and writing, and can help prevent burnout. By the time you’re done with your book launch marketing, you’re probably emotionally tired and ready for solitude, which is fine because next up in the writer rotation is solitude.
Legumes: Planning & Education
After a marketing season, most authors need a break before they jump back into writing. But if they “rest” by watching TV, they rarely feel emotionally rested. Watching TV is like leaving the fields fallow. It’s better than nothing but not as restful as planting nitrogen-fixing legumes.
In this metaphor, a writer’s legumes are Education and Planning. Or, if you want a single word, “preparation.”
Have you ever noticed that reading a craft book sparks ideas you’re eager to try when you start writing again? Most authors read craft books with a pen and notepad nearby to capture the great ideas they’re reading about. Preparation is one more tool in your rotation that can prevent writing burnout .
Planning can have the same effect, especially for more experienced authors. Your planning might include research, outlining, world-building, or character-creation. The more preparation you do, the more nitrogen your soil will have, which makes for an unbelievable harvest. By the time you’re done planning, you’ll be chomping at the bit, ready to jump back into writing.
And now our crop rotation cycle is complete. Each phase fires you up for the next phase, and ‘round and ‘round it goes.
If you follow this method, each book you write will be easier than the last.
Brandon Sanderson’s Crop Rotation
Brandon Sanderson rests the writing side of his brain by editing a different project. Sanderson rotates between four different books, each of which is at a different stage of development.
Here is an example of his rotation in 2016:
- Oathbringer: first draft
- White Sand: proofread
- Edgedancer: first draft
- The Dark Talent: copyedit
Once he finished the Dark Talent copyedit, he would return to Oathbringer to start on the second draft.
Sanderson switches books and phases, which allows his mind and the book to rest. He rests by working. He just rotates what he is working on, so his work is restful.
By the time he’s done working on the last three books, he’s eager to return to work on the first book.
On Brandon Sanderson’s website, you will see progress bars for the four books he is working on. He doesn’t work on all four at the same time. He rotates between them in a way that is restful and invigorating.
His method of work rotation is one reason he can out-produce his two biggest competitors combined. You could make the case that his competitors, Patric Rothfus and George RR Martin, are nitrogen-depleted fields. They are leaving their fields fallow, hoping it will help the yield. They don’t realize that working on more projects on a rotating basis would rejuvenate their writing faster than not writing at all.
The James Patterson’s Industrial Farming Method
Let’s compare Sanderson’s method with James Patterson’s. Patterson is also a prolific writer, but he uses a different method to prevent burnout (and to make a lot of money).
Modern farmers don’t rely on crop rotation anymore. Instead of planting legumes to fix nitrogen, they buy nitrogen fertilizer. Instead of planting root crops to fight weeds, they buy pesticides.
While Patterson rotates between projects, he also works with a team of authors to produce his books. He outlines the story, but another author writes the rough draft. Patterson makes notes for changes, but another writer implements them. He has marketing ideas but employs a team of marketing people to promote his books.
The industrial approach is very productive but also very expensive. If you want a million-dollar team developing and promoting your books, you need a million dollars to pay them. In reality, Patterson’s team costs more than a million dollars annually, especially if you include everyone in the publishing house working on his projects.
This industrial approach only works for authors who are already successful.
You don’t have to use Patterson’s method to succeed. Just as modern organic farmers rely on crop rotation to fight pests, modern authors who happily do everything themselves can also be productive. However, they can continue doing things themselves because they don’t do everything at once.
Winter Grass: Email
Besides the four-course rotation, farmers also plant winter grass. Most crops are planted in spring and harvested in fall, which leaves the land barren in the winter. Barren land is vulnerable to erosion and doesn’t produce anything. Many farmers plant winter grass to reduce erosion between the fall harvest and spring planting.
Before planting in the spring, they plow up mature winter grass, mixing the plant into the soil and turning it into green manure. The decomposing plant adds nutrients to the soil. Between each crop rotation year, the land reaps the benefits of winter grass.
Winter grass grows in the coldest season when nothing else does. If you plant winter grass in the spring, it will compete with your main crop and reduce your yields.
As an author, your winter grass is your email.
Do Email Last
The easiest tip to implement in this episode is to do email last. Write, edit, market, or plan before you check your email. Saving email for the end of your workday will dramatically improve your productivity.
Many traditionally published authors have their email notifications turned on. Throughout the day, email dings. It’s distracting and takes them out of the zone. Email habits tend to form in the early days of a traditional author’s career when they were waiting to hear from agents and editors.
Answering emails all day long is like planting winter grass in the spring. It chokes the good writing you’re trying to do.
The best time to check your email is in the winter of your day when you are too tired to do anything else.
For the love of productive writing, turn off your email notifications so you can focus on the task at hand and prevent the depletion of your creativity keep you from burnout.
Write So You Can Write More
If you are slowly depleting your mental soil, writing will get harder and harder, despite the fact that you’re becoming a more practiced writer. Depletion is frustrating and causes many writers to burn out and give up.
On the other hand, if you leave the soil more revitalized than the year before, you can cultivate an incredibly productive field. With this crop rotation method, you can increase your creative fertility by doing the right things at the right time.
Ideal crop rotation depends on the climate and soil. The four crops vary from place to place. Some soils are not suited for wheat, even with ideal rotation.
Your soil and crop rotation will differ from Brandon Sanderson’s, who has tweaked his rhythm over time.
How do you find the right rotation to prevent writer burnout?
How do you find the rhythm that works best for you? Experiment. Some authors rotate within a single day. They draft book #1 in the morning and edit book #2 in the afternoon. Others work on the draft of book #1 for a day and then edit book #2 the next day. Brandon Sanderson works in two-week or eight-week sprints, depending on the book’s length.
Experiment to learn what works best for you.
Remember, the more you focus on your work, the more you can focus on your rest. Every day can be a rest day if your work is focused enough.
Bodybuilders know that leg day is also the day they rest their arms. But they also have days where they rest everything.
Even with good crop rotation, leaving a field fallow occasionally can be a good idea. Sometimes you just need to take a break, and that is ok. But if you need a lot of breaks, it could be a sign you need to add more rotation between projects to make your rest more restful.
Sometimes, the best rest is working on something else.
Find Your Rhythm with The Five-Year Plan
If you want more help finding your rotation schedule, check out the Five-Year Plan. The course is built on a five-year rhythm of writing, editing, marketing, and education. It also guides you to the best craft books at the right time so you can develop your craft faster.
I crafted this plan with bestselling and award-winning author James L. Rubart.
The Five-Year Plan is a step-by-step guide for your writing career. Learn what to do in each quarter of the year to avoid the mistakes that hijack success for most authors. Set yourself up for success. After five years of following a prescribed rhythm, you will know enough to create your rhythm moving forward. Learn more at NovelMarketing.com/courses.
Derek Doepker, author of Why Authors Fail
Becoming a massively successful self-published author can be challenging. Even one missing link in an otherwise perfect plan can kill your results. In Why Authors Fail, award-winning author Derek Doepker reveals the 17 biggest mistakes authors make that sabotage their success, along with practical steps to fix each mistake.
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