Having Self-Discipline All Year (Not Just During NaNo!)

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

As most of you writers know, National Novel Writing Month is coming up. It takes place in November of every year. It's abbreviated NaNoWrMo or NaNo for short. The goal is to complete a full book in the month OR to write at least 50,000 (50K).

Whether you've ever participated or not, the month always generates a lot of enthusiasm for writing. Everyone everywhere is talking about how much they're writing, whether they've met their daily word count goal, the sacrifices they're making to write, and how they're feeling about the whole process.

I've watched from the sidelines and I've also participated. Both ways, I come away from the month inspired.

What I've realized is that NaNo is basically the one time of year when everybody decides to get disciplined about writing.

In some ways that's a really great thing. Most of us just don't have the time and energy to write 50K every month all year long.

On the other hand, I was struck by the realization that for many writers, NaNo is probably one of the only times when they set goals and work really hard to meet them. 

I recently read an article "How to Write Like Nicholas Sparks: 4 Tips" The very first tip was: Write 2,000 Words A Day.

Often when writers see a tip like that they shove it aside and say something like, "I don't have time for that." Or "I don't do well with daily word count goals. The pressure stifles my creativity." Or "I prefer to have weekly page/scene/chapter goals instead of word counts."

I see the validity in each of the above statements. Most people can't carve out 5 hours a day (which is what Nicholas Sparks spends on 2000 words). A lot of writers have a day job and do writing in their "spare" time (like me).

There are some people who freeze when under pressure and literally can't type a word. And there are some writers who can stay on track with chapter goals (versus word count).

But all too often, the above are just excuses. The truth is, keeping a daily word count goal is one of the most effective ways for writers of any level to complete a novel.

In fact the popularity of NaNo testifies to the successfulness of such a method. And it also debunks the myth that writing under pressure stifles creativity. In fact, I believe that writing larger amounts of words in a shorter time actually stimulates the creative part of the brain.


Well, the pressure to produce forces us to shut down that nagging internal editor and give free rein to the story. We just have to write, even if it's crap. We have to push forward, even if the words aren't flowing. And eventually we find that when we persist and persevere, the story starts to flow and come to life in ways we never expected.

So, yes, I believe in daily word count goals. But I would issue three tips of caution for anyone using the method:

1. Set a realistic daily word count goal. Know what you can accomplish, and then set the goal just slightly above that. When I wrote my first published book, The Preacher's Bride, I only wrote 500 words a day. At the time, I had a six month old, a toddler, and three other young children. 500 was a stretch.

Even though I can write more per day now that my kids are older, I can't hit 2000, especially during the school year when I'm teaching. For the book I'm on now, I've set a goal for 1500 a day on weekdays and 2500 on Saturday.

2. Back up your daily goals with a weekly total. I first heard this recommendation from writing guru James Scott Bell. And it's solid advice that's held me in good stead for the past eight or nine books I've written.

Even though I give myself daily goals and I work hard to meet them, there are days where I fall short. Any number of things slow me down–the need for additional research or further plotting. Or life. There are days when I just can't get in the amount of writing time I anticipated.

If I miss hitting my goal one day, I try to make up the words by the end of the week by writing more on another day. For the book I'm currently writing, my weekly goal is 10,000 words.

3. Finally, don't compare yourself to other writers! That's hard during NaNo when everyone is tweeting their word count minute by minute. But for the rest of the year, set your daily goal and don't let what others accomplish intimidate you. Know what YOU can accomplish. Do the best YOU can do.

The important thing is writing consistently. Writing on a consistent basis will keep your creative energy flowing and eventually produce a completed book.

So to all you NaNo writers, I wish you all the best! And I also encourage all of us to look for ways to be self-disciplined all year (and not just during Nano!).

So what do you think about daily word count goals? Any other tips you'd offer? And are you doing NaNo this year?

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