My Problem With National Novel Writing Month

I love National Novel Writing Month! It’s fall, so it’s time to start thinking about what I’ll write in November! (so far I’m as far as “no idea,” “probably fantasy but idk,” and “definitely not my main fantasy series”)

NaNoWriMo participant badge from 2017
Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

I’ve done NaNoWriMo every year since 2005. I’ve won NaNoWriMo every year since 2005. That’s at least 50k (one year it was 100!) every november since 2005. That’s… a lot of words. And that’s not even counting all the non-November NaNo style events I’ve done in the meantime (my record for those is… not a great. I don’t know what it is about November that works better for me).

NaNoWriMo is popular. According to the official website for National Novel Writing Month, there were over 307,000 writers participating in 2017. Moreover, it is increasingly being used as a tool for teaching early drafting strategies, narrative structure, and writerly discipline in schools of all levels. The same data claim over 95,000 participants in the Young Writers Program, which is a scaled down NaNoWriMo challenge for writers in K-12 grades. Many of these participants are engaging in the program at their teacher’s behest, either through simple encouragement or through structured, graded classroom activity.

Obviously, we need to know if this is working. And given that NaNoWriMo turns 20 this year, we probably should know by now, shouldn’t we?

I have attempted conducting formal research on NaNoWriMo several times since 2012. As a teacher of writing, albeit primarily academic writing, I’m keenly interested in knowing the effects of participating in NaNoWriMo on developing writers, especially given its popularity. I say attempted, though, because despite having been able to secure IRB approval and participants several times, my data has been… not very useful. It’s been small samples, sometimes compromised by timing, and otherwise not really worth writing home about (or, you know, writing journals about).

This is the data that got me curious. Yes, it’s a little old–but what is going on with the plateau of winning?
Image by the author.

This is not my problem alone. There is very little objective research on NaNoWriMo available. We have, of course, the nonprofit organization’s own annual reports, which tell a very interesting story of growth in participants, but a curious plateau of winning recently. And we have just one peer-reviewed study that I can locate that does indicate that the write-in model of writing often used by NaNoWriMo participants is especially effective at boosting word count, in comparison to simply doing NaNoWriMo without a write-in. (Watson, 2012) (If I am missing any significant studies, please comment and let me know!)

Most published material on NaNoWriMo in the scholarship seems to be personal anecdotes, such as Larry Burton’s “Lessons from NaNoWriMo” (Burton, 2009). And while there are now some naysayers about the event speaking out, such as this by Angus Kidman, the majority of personal narratives regarding NaNoWriMo (including the naysayers) seem to be fairly positive.

In fact, although I admit that this is largely a sense I’ve gotten overall and I haven’t done the specific discourse analysis (yet!), many of these personal narratives take on a sort of evangelical tone, resembling in some way religious conversion narratives. This may account for what I suspect is the largest barrier to understanding if NaNoWriMo does net good for writing students, or if there may be some harm in it. That barrier is:

What happens to the people who disappear?

We know what happens to the people who try and win. They often go on to do it again, and they are often quite vocal about it. They often try to recruit others, too.

But generally, you start with a lot of interested people, and about halfway through the month, people start just disappearing. When I ran write-ins on campus last year, attendance dropped to less than half of initial participation by the end of the month. When I attempted a pre-test and post-test survey of participants recruited online through social media, I received about 20 initial participants, and only about 10 post-tests, all from people who won the event. What I was hoping for was to hear from people who didn’t.

So what happens to the people who write perhaps ten thousand words and disappear? We don’t know. They disappear. They don’t go around talking about their experience. Do they come out of it convinced they can’t write, they just aren’t writers, and should never write again? We don’t know.

We do know that NaNoWriMo definitely works well for some people, and those people should continue participating. But if, in fact, NaNoWriMo only benefits a certain kind of learner–likely those who already identify as writers–are we in fact doing harm to the other kinds of learners when we push it in the classroom?

We don’t know.

And that’s the problem.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure at this point how to design a study that can identify and describe the experiences of the people who disappear from the sample. I’m working on it. And I’d love to hear your suggestions or experiences if you have anything that might help!


List of scholarly sources cited:

Burton, L. (2009). Lessons From NaNoWriMo. Journal of Research on Christian Education : JRCE.18(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1080/10656210902752006

Watson, A. P. (2012). NaNoWriMo in the AcadLib: A case study of national novel writing month activities in an academic library. Public Services Quarterly, 8(2), 136. doi:10.1080/15228959.2012.675273

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