Writing Habits: Life Lessons from Nanowrimo

Happy Halloween Listen Up readers. It’s hard to believe that October is nearly over and that it’s time to plan Thanksgiving and start buying Christmas gifts! I’m sure you’ve all got some fun plans coming up. This weekend my family is having a Halloween get-together. I’m in charge of making the mummy hot dogs and Mom is making a pumpkin-shaped veggie tray!

As fun as October has been, I’m excited for November which happens to be National Novel Writing Month. Commonly known as “Nanowrimo,” hundreds of thousands of writers around the world seek to write 50,000 words (a novel-length manuscript) in just 30 days.

Credit: Nanowrimo

Nanowrimo began in 1999 with 21 participants. Last year there were over 383,064 writers who took up the challenge. You may have been seeing signs appearing at your local library or coffee shops inviting Nanowrimo challengers to come in and write. Nanowrimo is a powerhouse of writing resources, community, and challenges.

Nanowrimo is a nonprofit organization funded by donations that go directly into the creation and support of writers. All services are free and the programs are run by volunteers. A few of the programs they have are the Young Writers Program, Camp Nanowrimo, and Nanowrimo. They also have a shop where anyone is welcome to donate or purchase items to support the programs.

I would not be the writer I am today if it weren’t for Nanowrimo. When I started writing, I was very sporadic. Some days I wrote a paragraph, other days I wrote several pages, and then weeks would go by where I wouldn’t write at all. I was making the same mistakes that all beginner writers go through, which is waiting for inspiration to strike or wasting time trying to phrase a sentence just right before putting it on the page. It’s a natural thing to do because we have an instinct to get things down “right” the first time.

In comparison, professional writers can sit down and almost immediately throw words on the page. Some writers refer to this as “word vomit,” referring to writing down first, unedited thoughts. These thoughts frequently have poor grammar, forgotten punctuation, or are a rumbling of disjointed ideas. In other words, professional writers’ first drafts are so horrendously bad and embarrassing, many vow never to let them see the light of day! I refer to my first drafts as a “dump doc” rather than a first draft.

Nanowrimo is essentially a 30-day marathon of word vomiting. There are other ways to practice word vomiting of course. For example, try setting a timer and writing nonstop until the timer rings. Nonstop as in your pen never stops moving or that there is never a pause in keystrokes. If you are new to word vomiting, I recommend starting with 3-5 minutes and working your way up to longer periods of time. It doesn’t matter if you spend the whole time writing the same word over and over. Sometimes I’ve tried word vomiting a story out, and I get distracted by my thoughts, so I write my thoughts down instead.

This particular exercise was a favorite of my high school creative writing teacher. We would do it once or twice a week. This was the same teacher that introduced me to Nanowrimo. That’s right—one of my high school assignments was to write a novel in 30 days, on top of my other homework. (Granted we were graded on an effort scale and I think there were only three students in the class that managed to get past 50,000 words).

My first Nanowrimo experience was terrible. I hadn’t planned anything out. I was required to write when I had no ideas. I had to write when I wasn’t inspired. I had to throw words on the page when I had a million other things to get done. Some days I wanted to quit writing altogether.

However, I finished the month with a glorious 36,000 word manuscript. It was split between two different stories and had a few random journal entries in which I vented my frustrations of writing. I was embarrassed about everything I had written since it was poor workmanship. I swore I would never, ever, under any circumstances, do Nanowrimo again.

Later on, I began to recognize the impact of Nanowrimo in my life. First off, I got a massive confidence boost from writing such a large manuscript. It was the most I had ever written at once. Then I began to notice other little things, such as writing essays. My friends would spend days thinking about possible topics, but wouldn’t start writing until the last minute. I, on the other hand, had an easier time with it by writing my first thoughts down and working out a topic from there. In general, I was less shy about wasting paper and words in writing classes. I decided Nanowrimo wasn’t so bad after all.

I took the same writing class again. When Nanowrimo came around, I got a total of 52,000 words. My third attempt was during my senior year where I reached a beautiful and golden 58,000 words.

In total, I have done Nanowrimo five times and succeeded twice. The last two times I attempted it, I was in the thick of college. Since November is the final third of the semester, it becomes increasingly difficult to balance schoolwork and life. I could not stay on top of everything while trying to write a novel. Sadly, I gave up on doing Nanowrimo during this time.

Since I have graduated this year, I am excited to once again take on the Nanowrimo challenge! (For this reason, my next blog post will not be until December.)

There are still a few days left before Nanowrimo starts! Writers can join the event through the website, track their progress, set their own word count goal (if 50k is too much or too little), stay informed of Nanowrimo events happening in their local area, get pep talks, free access to writing resources, and participate in an amazing community of writers. The newsletter alone delivers pep talks, writing tips, resources, and publishing advice. While Nanowrimo is in November, you can use the Nanowrimo event features throughout the year to set goals and track your progress.

Here are three tips of my own for doing Nanowrimo and getting writing done in general:

1) The golden rule of Nanowrimo is don’t edit. Forget the backspace key exists. Take it off your keyboard if you need to. If you want to rephrase how something is said, retype the whole sentence in the way you want it to be rather than editing the original. The first draft is to figure out the story for yourself. Revising it comes later.

2) Don’t get fixated on a single scene or sentence. Rewriting (as explained above) a sentence or two is okay, but if you find yourself getting stuck, try typing a summary of the moment instead. You’ll be able to come back and fill it in later while getting enough on the page to keep moving forward.

3) Remember, the goal is quantity, not quality. Everyone wants to be a good writer and so when we write something down that isn’t good at all, it’s hard and makes us start to doubt ourselves and our abilities. Writing is a unique art form in this sense. Every piece of literature starts as something terrible, but even the worst piece of writing becomes art through the practice of revision.

Think of it this way: every story you’ve ever read, laughed at, cried over, fell in love with, or threw across the room was once a terribly confusing, poorly-phrased, and disjointed first draft. Your story is going to be someone’s favorite and they aren’t going to care how bad the first draft is as long as it gets written. The first draft of anything is laying a foundation. It’s like building a house. First, you have to tear up the ground and dig a bunch of holes, making a big mess. It must be done in order to lay the groundwork for the building.

4) Be your own inspiration. Many people, not just writers, make the mistake of waiting for inspiration to strike before doing something. The truth is that motivation follows action. You have to act before you are inspired because acting on what you aspire to do is exactly what will give you the motivation and inspiration to keep moving forward. And this applies to everything in life, not just writing.

5) It is far easier to write from something than it is to write from nothing. That is the goal of Nanowrimo—to teach writers to get that “something” on the page. Once we get something onto the page, we are setting ourselves up for success because we have something to revise. That’s also why a good number of people find it useful to plan their story beats and fill out character sheets because it gives them something to start with.

We, as people, often hold ourselves to an invisible standard. We spend our lives trying to be perfect and beat ourselves up when we fail. We say to ourselves, “I should be better. I know better.” What we fail to realize is that the act of struggling with something is what gives us the experience to do it better. Struggling means you are learning. Struggling means that you are growing. Nanowrimo is not only about getting words on the page, but about working through the challenges we experience on the way. If you take on the challenge, you will become a better writer.

The last thing I’ll share is a personal motto of mine. I repeated it to myself frequently when I’m writing. I am a person that tends to doubt myself a lot. Anytime I feel overwhelmed or lost on a piece of writing, I say “It doesn’t need to be long. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be done.” This quote helps me to write but also to get up the courage to publish my words. I rarely feel like my blog posts reach a “finished” stage, meaning I have to publish them before I feel like they are ready, even though I spend hours rewriting. Each post gets rewritten between four to seven times before publication. I have to pick between meeting my deadlines or risk never posting at all. I like to repeat this quote to myself because it gives me courage.

I’ll see you guys in December! Happy Thanksgiving and happy writing!

Are you going to sign up for Nanowrimo this year? Let me know in the comments! Doing 30-day challenges have a lot of health benefits! Check out this Tedtalk to learn more!

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