October 27, 2016

How Can We Make NaNoWriMo Work for Us?

Close up of custom flames paint job on a car with text: Customize Your NaNo Experience

After my last post with my collection of tips for planning and starting our NaNoWriMo stories, a couple of comments on social media asked what was the point of just writing a lot of words. A common assumption about NaNo is that people write gibberish (or close to it) to meet the word count demands of 50K words in one month.

To be sure, some people do write messy stream-of-consciousness rambles that don’t add up to a story. But NaNo writing doesn’t have to be poor quality.

I’ve participated in NaNo for four years, and twice I’ve “won”—meaning I successfully reached 50K words. (And the years I “lost,” I participated as a NaNo Rebel and finished the books I was working on, so those are still a “win” as far as I’m concerned. *smile*) Every NaNo book I’ve written is published (or will be published), so I know what the quality of NaNo writing can be.

But if NaNo isn’t about the quality of our writing (for good or bad), what is it about? Or to put it another way, how can we make NaNo work for us?

Step #1: What Are Our Goals for NaNo?

The first step in making NaNo work for us is figuring out our goals for the experience. There’s no right or wrong answer, but pursuing someone else’s goals is likely to lead to frustration, so it’s best to figure out what we want.

Let’s take a look at some of the many reasons—or goals—people might have for participating in NaNo. We might want…:

  • the camaraderie of “group” writing, when everyone cheers each other on
  • to finally write that book we’ve been thinking about for months or years
  • to prove we can write or finish a book
  • to challenge ourselves to meet the word count
  • to earn the winner badge and sponsors’ “winner goodies”
  • to prove to ourselves or others that we’re serious about writing
  • an excuse for setting aside the distractions of life to focus only on writing
  • to challenge others in a writing group to see who can write the most words
  • Etc., etc.

If we review that list, we can see that some goals are focused on word count and some aren’t. Some participate just for the fun or just to be part of something. Others are very serious about winning and focusing on word count.

That list should make it obvious that there’s no “one right way” to NaNo. And again, there’s nothing wrong with any of those reasons.

Step #2: Do Our Goals Create Good or Bad Pressure?

The second step of making NaNo work for us is deciding what those goals mean as far as the pressure we’ll put on ourselves to win. Once more, there’s no wrong answer.

Some people enjoy the pressure of trying to write 50K words. Some writers don’t want any pressure at all. Some writers would think writing 50K words in a month is taking it easy compared to their usual word counts. *smile*

Many of those who say they don’t want to participate in NaNo fall into the “I don’t want the pressure” camp, and that’s fine. But I just want to point out that NaNo pressures us only if we let it.

I’ve participated in NaNo sometimes knowing I wouldn’t win, and those times, my goals were all about the fun, camaraderie, and trying to finish up a project. Rather than being focused on winning, my attitude was all about how some words are better than no words.

That said, there is one group who shouldn’t participate in NaNo unless they want to win. Some writers (especially those of us who are perfectionists or hard on ourselves) can’t ignore the pressure, even if we want to. We might feel guilty for low word counts, no matter our goals.

If people with that trait want the pressure, they’ll probably win. However, if they don’t have the goal of winning, they might feel the pressure to win anyway, just because the challenge of NaNo inherently exists regardless of the goals they’ve set for themselves.

But other than for those types, we can make our NaNo goals match the amount of pressure we want for our writing. From no or little pressure to swimming in a lake of it, we can determine what works best for our goals.

Step #3: What Do Our Goals Mean for Writing Quality?

The third step of making NaNo work for us is deciding what those goals mean for the emphasis we want to put on writing quality. And I’ll say again, there’s no wrong answer.

Some writers want their NaNo experience to result in publishable writing (after normal editing). Some writers prioritize word count or other goals more than quality. Some writers just want to come up with something they can be proud of.

Many of those who say they don’t want to participate in NaNo fall into the “I don’t need to waste my time writing crap” camp, and that’s fine. But as I said at the beginning of this article, there’s nothing inherently part of NaNo that requires crap writing.

One year in NaNo, I broke 61K words and yet managed to revise and edit that story into something of quality. One of my other NaNo stories won the National Readers’ Choice Award for Paranormal Romance—definitely quality! *grin*

I’ve written before about how fast drafting—which is what NaNo often requires to win—doesn’t have to create editing nightmares. In fact, fast drafting can encourage us to tap into our subconscious and improve our writing.

As I delved into in that post, how much we struggle with writing quality during NaNo will often depend on several factors:

  • What’s our natural drafting style? Clean or messy? Detailed or bare bones? Filled with clichés or deep into our characters’ point of view for unique descriptions?
  • How fast are we typing? Do we correct typos as we go? What kinds of typos do we usually struggle with?
  • How deep in the “writing zone” are we? Are we tapped into our subconscious and our characters’ point of view? Are we deep enough to feel the threads of subtext, themes, and layering? Is our writing naturally flowing? Is our voice stronger?

In my experience—because I am a naturally clean drafter—fast drafting can result in slightly more typos but deeper layering of character arc, character attitude/voice, theme, foreshadowing, etc. In fact, my fast-draft scenes often require less editing overall.

Obviously, my experience doesn’t match everyone else’s, but my point is that NaNo does not have to result in crap writing. This is especially the case if we prioritize quality over word counts and winning.

As I mentioned above, we could take the attitude of using NaNo for the fun and camaraderie while we’re getting in our words, figuring that some words are better than no words. Or given that fast drafting can result in more words and more quality, depending on our drafting skills, we might discover that we don’t even have to give up one goal for the other.

In other words, we can get out of NaNo whatever we want. We can make it work for us and our goals and just enjoy the experience, but only if we stop listening to what others think we should be doing or prioritizing and instead focus on what we want. *smile*

If you don’t participate in NaNo, what are your reasons? Has this post changed your mind about what NaNo can mean for our writing? If you do participate in NaNo, what are your reasons and goals? Do your priorities match how you approach NaNo writing?

Available for a Limited Time!
Grab Access to Jami’s Popular Workshop:

Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

Pin It

Comments — What do you think?

Click to grab Treasured Claim now!
  Subscribe to emails for Comments/Replies on this post  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Mary Kate

Great post!

I have never done NaNo mostly because I *know* I’ll never complete a novel in a month (also, that pesky time factor). None of my first drafts have ever clocked in under 100K words (my latest first draft finished up at 125K!). However, this year I decided to give it a shot–not to finish the novel, but to see if I can draft while silencing my inner editor and bang out 50K words in 30 days. If I manage that, I will consider it a win for me!

I *just* finally decided to do it and signed up. I need friends 🙂


I mean, if it makes you feel better, I did 201k last year. I just submitted the second of the three novels I worked on to a publisher (edit edit edit!). I’m planning *cough* 500k *cough* this year, all of which I plan to either self-publish or submit to a publisher. If you have any interest in going past that lovely 50k mark, I’m there under my name, JayceEllis. Have a blast!!

Robert Doucette
Robert Doucette

Thank you for your viewpoints on NaNo. It seems like NaNo has similar goals as other challenges, like running a race. There is “winning” and then there is staying in the race to the end. Or doing better this year than last. Or doing better than you thought you could. These are all commendable goals.

On a similar subject, first or rough drafts are generally portrayed as “write hard and fast and don’t look back.” But I’m sure some errors can be fatal. As a “clean drafter” how do you complete a fast draft without completely losing the plots, theme, and character arcs.

Kassandra Lamb

As a pantser, fast drafting works well for me if I’m in the zone. If not and I’m having trouble motivating myself, the commitment to myself and others to do so many words a day tends to get my butt in the chair. Whether or not the words flow is another story, but they usually do once I get started.

I’ve done fast-drafting with a group before but never NaNo. I’m going to do it informally this year and see how it goes. I’m one of those don’t like the pressure types.

Roland Clarke

I’ve done NaNo four times and won three, with all four completed but not published. Last year I was a rebel as I used the month to rewrite an old draft novel with new characters and setting – still being revised as needed extra research and adapted plotline, even though I’m a plotter.

Previous attempts were new novels and a chance to get an idea on paper that had been with me for months. Same again this year, although I don’t expect to hit 50k this time for various reasons, mainly health related.

Deborah Makarios

I’m at the point of needing to get myself into gear and finish the redraft/rewrite of my WIP. So my goal for November is to write 50,000 words, which should about carry me through Act II (Act I already redrafted). This time round my focus will be quality, not quantity.
It’s not an official NaNo, but I’m hoping it proves a fruitful time, both in terms of words writ and disciplines learned.

Laurie Evans

I might do my own mini-nano and write a novella…that seems a lot less stressful.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Yeah, Nanowrimo speed is actually slower than my usual speed. (My current “usual speed” is about 2000 words per day.) As for the quality of my drafts, I would say it’s in between clean and messy. I do basic proofreading as I go along, so there aren’t many spelling or grammatical mistakes, and my sentences are coherent and understandable. Content-wise, I really like how my characters and plots turn out; I adore the dialogue exchanges, especially! And gosh, I wouldn’t be able to plan the humorous moments and jokes. All the funny parts came up spontaneously! (I do write comedy, so.)

(Seriously, I don’t understand how anyone can plan jokes! But maybe that’s just the way my mind works.)

It is sad that some people assume that if you write fast, you must be writing crap. Uh, no. Most of my novels were written at faster-than-Nanowrimo pace and they are quite structured, developed, and richly complex. That doesn’t mean I can’t fine-tune everything and strengthen my stories much more during the editing phase, though! As we’ve talked about before, pantsing can be very powerful and effective for some authors.

Glynis Jolly

Until I read this post, I was feeling there might be some questions about me really being a writer. I know, ludicrous, but my emotions govern me. Now I clearly see that I am a writer, just not one who would benefit from NaNo. Sure am glad I read your posts, Jami. 🙂

Julie Glover

Great points! I’m taking a very relaxed view toward NaNoWriMo. If I make 50k words, wonderful; if not, I’ll still end up writing more than I would have otherwise. It’s really more a kick in the pants to get me writing on this story six days a week!


[…] make NaNo work for us, we need to figure out our goals for the experience—and there’s no wrong answer. […]

Click to grab Ironclad Devotion now!