Ready for NaNoWriMo?

It’s that time of year again! Time to hang up the skeletons and put out the tombstones, but also time to brush off the Word documents and start a new novel. It’s time for National Novel Writing Month!

Banner reading National Novel Writing Month Writer 2021 with a stack of books between a diverse group of people seated on pencils.
2021 NaNoWriMo writer’s banner, via nanowrimo.org

If you’ve been around here for a while, you may know that I’ve done and won NaNoWriMo every year since 2005. I can’t count, so you can figure out how many 50k+ drafts that is for yourself. (Please don’t ask me why they’re not published yet, unless, that is, you’re offering to help publish them)

As you may know, National Novel Writing Month is a now-global challenge in which writers attempt to write 50,000 words of a work of fiction in 30 days during November. That comes out to an average of 1667 words per day. It’s not easy, but it’s quite doable.

While I love participating in NaNoWriMo every year for a lot of reasons, I am nevertheless constantly accompanied by a sense of doubt. Although participants in NaNoWriMo often speak in basically evangelistic terms, and participation does seem to be increasing over time, I’m not sure it’s working well for everyone who tries it, and I’m worried that for some people it may even be a harmful challenge.

I teach writing for a living; not fiction writing, but writing. I have a PhD in rhetoric and composition, a field entirely devoted to understanding writing processes and other phenomena associated with those processes. The research is very clear: there is on one-size-fits-all writing process.

NaNoWriMo culture (and it definitely has its own culture) does offer a number of paths for participants. There’s specialized vocabulary in that culture for talking about how a writer approaches invention (planners, pantsers, and plantsers), for instance. And I think there’s a lot to be done with researching that culture; it’s grown organically, although there is a central organization that runs the website. Obviously the way the NaNoWriMo community works is good for a lot of people.

But at the same time, a lot of people just drop out. I’ve been in this community long enough to know the rhythm of November: there’s a lot of excitement in the first week. Everything settles down a bit in week 2. And then people start disappearing.

What happens to the people who disappear? Do they go on to find a way to write that works for them? Do they just conclude that they just aren’t good writers and abandon the craft entirely? Obviously there’s a lot of stories there. But we don’t hear those stories very often. And I think, as someone who professionally has to do a lot of work helping students remediate their relationship with writing because of negative past experiences, that we ought to be concerned about these experiences.

NaNoWriMo is fun for me, but is it harmful for some people?
Image via StockSnap

I don’t have answers for it. Some people have written about why they abandoned the challenge, and I’m thankful for their stories. But there’s not enough data yet.

The problem is that I don’t know how to get that data. I’ve scrapped a number of studies at this point because I couldn’t get the data. I’m not trying right now because it would be a conflict of interest (I’m currently in a leadership role for my NaNoWriMo region), but as I’m prepping for my own novel this year, I’m also wondering, as I do every year, how to get that data once and for all.

At any rate, if you are doing NaNoWriMo this year, please come along with me! I’ll be doing sprints on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings from 8-10am (EST) on Twitch. My favorite part about both my job and my volunteer positions is encouraging writers; I want to support you!

And if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, that’s ok! I won’t try to convince you. If you’ve tried it before and dropped out, I want to assure you: your story matters.

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