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Post NaNoWriMo Report: Accountability Matters

Final word count: 52,683

yellow cartoonish castle on purple background with text that says NaNoWriMo Winner 2020
The official 2020 winner banner

I have often emphasized that writing is not a solo endeavor, but an inherently social activity. In fact, this is one of the reasons I chose to study writing instead of botany: I wanted something a little more social (I was very naive when I made that choice, so please forgive me, botanists with active social lives). And, despite the irony of not being able to have the usual fall writing-related social events, I think my relatively easy success with NaNoWriMo this year really reiterates the importance of the social aspects of writing, even and especially in the early stages of the writing process.

There isn’t much research on NaNoWriMo, despite its having been around for twenty-one years (and my best efforts, which have generally failed for procedural reasons), apart from mostly anecdotal personal narratives on the topic. The best study I’ve read on NaNoWriMo is a small study on a single write-in at a university library1, and its findings are pretty modest: write-ins result in words written for the participants. This is unsurprising, but nevertheless important.

This year, because of Covid-19, the NaNoWriMo Headquarters mandated that all events had to be virtual. However, from what I could tell in my position as ML, the result was about the same: participants who attended events had large spikes in word counts on the days of events, and generally were more likely to win. The write-ins for my region were held in an old IRC chat channel set up for NaNoWriMo use years ago, and that worked really well, both to facilitate some general chatter and to run word wars.

This year, I kept above par every day, even the one day I wrote less than a thousand words. This was, in short, an unusually easy year for me. I attribute this to three things:

  1. I was an Municipal Liaison for the first time this year
  2. I streamed my writing sessions live on Twitch
  3. The rhythm of writing a novel in the fall was comforting and escapist
Graph showing pretty steady writing progress over the month, approximately one day ahead of goal most days
My writing chart for the month. I make this look easy.

There are municipal liaisons who do not finish at 50k, of course, and winning isn’t a requirement for the job, but I do think that there’s an added pressure to “lead by example” in this position. One of the requirements, of course, is that you attempt NaNoWriMo yourself. The position is strictly volunteer, but part of its role is encouraging your local writers (which is really fun!), and one of the consequences of encouraging other people is that you wind up encouraging yourself. Another aspect is being available for events; I am the only one in my region who attended every single event our region had, because obviously I was “hosting” them. Since we know that attending events has a positive impact on word count and winning, then obviously attending every single event would have made it far more likely for me to do well.

Likewise, the streaming on Twitch created additional social pressure to do well. It was a commitment to the novel: stream every day, write every day, let people know when you’re writing. Sure, most days no one was actually watching, but there was always the possibility that someone might be watching. It’s a similar effect as happens when I’m writing in a café or library (in non-pandemic times), where the social pressure of being caught distracted results in more focus on the task at hand. In essence, I was turning my own home into a public space; that is, socially situating my writing process by sharing it with, potentially, anyone. In practice, just like in a cafe, no one really cares if you’re distracted, but the public nature of the setting still applies such pressure.

Finally, I do think in a weird way the pandemic made me more willing to write. I found myself looking forward to it every day. I’m working asynchronously and I’m struggling to stay motivated with no clear schedule or really any social pressure to work (at least in my office, I had an office mate and a sense of guilt if I got too distracted on university property). But the writing gave me a clear permission and schedule for breaks, as well as something to do that would have, honestly, been no different than if there were no pandemic. Every November, I write 50k of a novel. That’s not negotiable. Not even Covid could take it away from me.

I will note that all three of these things resulted in feeling very supported this year, too. I’ve heard horror stories and known too many people, especially women, whose partners actively discouraged writing and especially things like NaNoWriMo where the writing doesn’t seem to have any purpose (you don’t win prizes, you don’t get published automatically, and you don’t even necessarily finish the story). Along with the friends I’ve made through NaNoWriMo and the friends who know me as a writer and support me in that role, I have to give some credit to my husband, who every day asked “When are you writing today?” and made sure to stay quietly out of my way for that time each day, and also taught himself how to use streaming and image editing software to make me streaming assets for my Twitch writing streams.

Chart showing daily word counts, ranging from slightly under a thousand to about 2500.
My daily word counts for the month. Notice that I didn’t actually write 1667 words per day; some days I didn’t even hit 1,000 words. It’s ok.

Novels don’t happen on their own. Inspiration certainly does, but novels require regular commitments and various kinds of social support and pressure to happen. Getting big projects done requires some kind of accountability. Internal drive often isn’t enough to make significant progress.

I’m going to keep streaming this novel until it’s finished. It’ll only be 2-3 times per week now, but having put it on a schedule means I’m making renewed commitment. Is it the best novel I’ve ever conceived? Nah. But I like it well enough I want to see it through to the end. And because I’ve truly come to appreciate accountability in the past month.

1Watson, Alex P. “NaNoWriMo in the AcadLib: A Case Study of National Novel Writing Month Activities in an Academic Library.” Public Services Quarterly No. 8, pp. 136-145, 2012.

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