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NaNoWriMo 2020 Update #2

Today is 20k day.

As of writing this, I’m at 20,945 words. I haven’t written for today yet. So it’s safe to say I’m doing all right this year.

2020 NaNoWriMo participant badge: a pencil on a red background with rose vines and the words NaNoWriMo 2020 Writer

Today I want to talk about accountability in writing. Accountability is, in fact, part of the magic of NaNoWriMo. Part of the reason that more words get written in November than any other time.

By far the largest part of the magic of NaNoWriMo is the magic of numbers. It’s basically a standardized SMART goal: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. 50,000 words, 30 days. 1,667 words per day. Write for ten minutes, measure how many words you get in that time, and you have a pretty accurate measurement of how much time each day you’ll need to set aside for NaNoWriMo (for me, it’s about 45 minutes).

But that doesn’t explain why the same formula doesn’t seem to work as well for me in months that do not begin with N. Rhythm, which I discussed last week, has something to do with it, of course, but that doesn’t fully account for the thrilling experience of the first two years I did NaNoWriMo (2005 and 2006). One ingredient that probably makes the difference here is accountability.

Accountability means that you feel like someone cares if you fail or succeed. Accountability means you know you’re answering to someone. Sometimes that someone is yourself, but to make that work, it’s necessary to use some kind of measurement tool. The NaNoWriMo website has a lot of great tools for that, but the tools don’t have to be My first five years or so, my primary accountability tool was actually a printed out chart to color in with 1,667 word increments, like those big fundraising thermometers non-profits use for fundraising drives. It was extremely satisfying, and it make a tangible, visible declaration of my wordcount.

Screenshot of stats tools, including a bar graph of daily word counts, circle graphs of total and daily goals, a list of progress updates, and a streak count
Accountability Tools

But accountability comes in myriad other forms. I have writing partners: my sister, my friends that I’ve made through NaNoWriMo over the years. I have other obligations too: I’m a municipal liaison this year, which means that I’m actually a designated representative of NaNoWriMo to my region, so I have the responsibilities of a leader on top of the goals of a participant. I’m streaming my writing sessions this year on Twitch, to simulate the sort of panoptic effect of writing in a cafe or library. When you work in public, you feel a pressure not to get too distracted, so you won’t be judged for it. Although very few people are watching my stream (I usually get maybe one person who isn’t probably a bot), the possibility that anyone might drop in is a similar pressure. It’s the sense of being watched, so you’d better be doing what you’re supposed to be doing. And it’s honestly been working quite well.

This magic exists elsewhere: it’s the same magic that makes it so you can clean your house from top to bottom in the two hours before guests arrive, but not one dish gets washed on a slow weekend. It’s the same magic that makes papers for classes happen the night before, but self-directed research take years. Accountability matters a lot. It provides motivation. Doing a thing for its own sake sounds nice, but the fact of the matter is that humans generally require some kind of feedback to keep doing a thing: some kind of response that says if they’re doing it well or poorly and when they should stop.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, you’ve got some built-in accountability for your writing goals right now. But it’s also an opportunity to build community that can provide you accountability later.

If you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, consider your goals, writing or otherwise. Are they SMART? How will you keep yourself accountable? An easy strategy is to enlist a partner in your goal, but there’s other ways: wall charts, rewards, timers, phone reminders, etc. No matter your strategy (you may need to use more than one), it’s important to keep yourself accountable, or it won’t really get done.

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