NaNoWriMo: What You Need to Know Before Committing

The flurry of clacking laptop keys. Coffee rings staining our notebooks. Refrains of “I can’t! I’m writing!” filling every cafe, library, and living room.

It’s here. November and National Novel Writing Month. What we affectionately call “NaNoWriMo” challenges writers to complete a novel of at least fifty thousand words in the month of November.

This can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never finished a novel, or if you’ve never written that much in that short of a time frame, or simply if you’re not used to maintaining such a rapid writing pace. For some, even thinking about keeping up makes the palms sweat.

So… is it worth it? 

NaNoWriMo can be useful …

NaNoWriMo is especially useful for drafting. Because it requires a high output of text, the challenge is great for encouraging creation and churning out words fast.

The month-long challenge is also useful for building a writing practice. If you want to hit that 50k mark by the end of the month, you have to be disciplined.

More specifically, NaNo participants need to average over twelve thousand words a week, or over sixteen hundred words a day, to keep up with the word count demand.

Even if you don’t write every single day during the month, the challenge naturally requires regular dedicated writing time. In this way, NaNoWriMo presents a great opportunity to build the habit of carving out time in your schedule to write.

If you tend to self-edit a lot during drafting, this challenge can help kick the habit.

We’ve all been there: attempting to make sentences and paragraphs perfect before moving on can really slow the drafting process. Trying to finish a draft and fighting that compulsion to self-edit can be frustrating.

But because of NaNo’s emphasis on writing a lot and writing quickly, we don’t have the option to go back and revise—we’ve got to keep moving forward.

And learning to keep moving forward no matter what is a great skill to build for any writer.

… But it has its limits

Because of the emphasis on churning out a draft, the NaNo challenge doesn’t reward other writing-related activities, even ones that are crucial to crafting meaningful stories.

Developmental work—like research, brainstorming, free-writing, planning, outlining, etc.—makes up an important part of every writing process.

But because these aspects don’t always result in tangible word-count output, it can be tough to create space for them during the NaNo month.

By that same logic, NaNoWriMo also doesn’t naturally promote revision. Yes, the goal of the month is to create a first draft, but what happens after November?

Something I’ve observed is that NaNoWriMo tends to encourage a “one and done” philosophy—the idea that once the first draft is finished, the novel is finished. It can also encourage words for word count’s sake—needlessly flowery descriptions, excess adjectives and adverbs, scenes that go on to long, etc.—that would benefit from a robust editing process.

The writing process is recursive. Even if we’re drafting, it’s often useful to step out of drafting mode to work through ideas or reassess the big picture of a project.

If we’re too focused on cranking out words, it can be easy to ignore the writing activities that we usually equip to produce our best work.

Some things to consider:

There are plenty of things we can do to make NaNoWriMo work for us and our individual writing practice, without sacrificing quality of work.

If your goal is to complete a draft during the month, as the original challenge invites us to do, try to brainstorm, outline, and plan before NaNoWriMo begins. Take advantage of the challenge month and use it to push yourself to finish your draft without distraction. Lean on other participating writers for community and support, and have fun!

When November is over, continue cultivating your novel with healthy revision practices. Maybe we can start a trend of December as National Novel Editing Month? NaNoEdMo, anyone?

If your goal is more about developing a regular writing practice than about completing a project, consider including parts of your writing process that go beyond the draft—free-writing, outlines, brainstorms—in your word count.

That way, you still nurture your writing practice without abandoning your writing process.

You can even do this if you’re not working on a novel. Include all of your writing for the month in the NaNoWriMo word count, and challenge yourself to meet the 50k mark, even if it’s not all from the same project. (This is what I will be doing!)

No matter your goal, there is always something to learn from challenges like NaNoWriMo. After the month ends, take time to think about what worked for you and what didn’t.

Most of all, use the momentum from NaNoWriMo to your advantage, and carry the practice and habits you developed over the month with you into your writing future.

After all, we don’t start being writers on November first and stop being writers on the thirtieth—we were writers before and we’ll be writers long after.

And we always reserve the right to shout, “I can’t! I’m writing!”

Keep moving forward no matter what! Check out these 10 Strategies for Defeating Writer’s Block so you can make this your best NaNoWriMo yet.

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