Evaluating NaNoWriMo: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Like thousands of other writers around the world, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo). During NaNoWriMo, writers commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November.

Since this was the first time I joined the big event, I didn't really know what to expect. But now that I'm on the other side, having successfully completed my 50K goal and my book, I've taken some time to analyze the experience.

The bottom line for NaNo is that you have to concentrate and write fast. But I've always wondered if forcing yourself to write fast is helpful. Can any good come from a novel (or half of a novel) produced under such pressure? Or do most NaNo books end up being garbage?

Now after having gone through the experience, I can safely say that I have found several benefits of writing a LOT of words in a SHORT amount of time. But on the other hand, I see the drawbacks too.

The Good:

*The story has the chance to flow.

I'm the first to admit that most of my "writing" time is filled with countless interruptions, and just when I get going, one of my kids needs me for something, or the kitten is climbing the Christmas tree, or the dog is eating another stray glove.

I've learned to write no matter the circumstances. And the slow steady pace works well. A little bit every day eventually adds up into a completed book. But . . .

Through NaNoWriMo, I pushed myself to write more, to go beyond my usual comfort zone and steady pace. And since greater proportions of my story were unfolding in my head every day, the story stayed with me better. I found myself thinking about the plot and characters more often during my non-writing times. And when I came back to the manuscript the next day, the story continued to flow and pick up speed.

*The inhibitions begin to fall away.

Because the story was flowing stronger and faster, I found that I had less "wasted" time trying to pick back up on where I'd left off the previous day. I could more easily jump back into the raging river and let the story spurt me away in the fast current, rather than drifting lazily along the way I was accustomed.

My characters' needs became more urgent, their problems more real, and the conflict more consuming. The story became paramount, and the nit-picky issues fell away.

*The creative part of the brain has the chance to operate at maximum capacity.

Once the inhibitions fall away, then the creative part of our brains has the freedom to come out and play. One of my favorite aspects of being a writers is experiencing the new developments that happen during the writing process, when the creative part of the brain comes up with something unique and totally unexpected. It might be a brilliant new plot twist or an interesting way to round out the character arc.

When we reach that place of uninhibited creativity, we begin seeing and embracing ideas that we didn't know existed.

The Bad:

*Allowing for potentially sloppy writing mechanics. 

But . . . fortunately, this is something we can always go back and fix during the editing stage. In fact, after I finished, I wrote a self-editing checklist to help guide me when I go through the book again. The story's potential is down on paper, but now the hard work begins of analyzing every scene and trimming and honing it to its fullest potential.

*Neglecting other things in your life. 

Yes, my exercising was very inconsistent (almost non-existent) during the month. I pared down my blogging and social media to the bare bones. And I spent my Thanksgiving "break" practically glued to the keyboard. But . . . it was just for one month. And surprisingly, I even had time to beat my oldest son in a game of Scrabble or two.

My Summary: To my surprise, NaNoWriMo had no ugly sides to it, and I would definitely participate again. I think it's something we could do any month of the year, particularly if it doesn't work with our schedules to participate in November. However, if I was going to challenge myself to write a lot in a short amount of time, here are just a few of the things I would do to make it successful:

*Have the story well-planned or perhaps even partially started before beginning the month-long challenge. I always find the first chapter more difficult to shape, and so having that done already (or several chapters) can help the rest move forward more smoothly.

*Get an accountability partner, someone you can check in with, who knows what you're doing, and can keep tabs on your progress with you (and maybe even participate too).

*Take a mini-break from social media. I actually wrote up some of my blog posts ahead, reposted a couple of older posts, and even took a day off (for Thanksgiving).

What about you? Have you ever participated in NaNoWriMo or wrote a LOT in a short amount of time? What was your experience like?


  1. I finished NaNoWriMo a second time this year!

    Another "Good" for me that it let me take a closer look at my writing habits, so I can work on fixing them this month and during 2013.

  2. Hmm ... thanks for sharing your perspective of NaNoWriMo. I've never done it, not officially, but focusing for a short, set period of time and writing for dear life is one of my favourite ways to launch a writing project. I find that I can edit - quite extensively - in bits and pieces, but I find it hard to write a first draft that way. Writing a first draft as quickly as possible is hard, but rewarding. Thanks! :)

  3. While NaNo definitely won't work for everyone, it has far more pros than cons. At least, as far as I can see. And while a majority of the words written that month will be changed in the editing process or never ever be read by anyone other than the author, sometimes you get lucky. This year I barely made it past my 50,000 word NaNo goal, but last year I ended up writing 106,000 words and that novel was sold to a publisher this summer. Sing, Sweet Nightingale, my NaNo2012 novel, is now die out in March of 2014 and I'm still having a hard time believing it!

    1. Wow! Congrats, Erica!! That's a wonderful testimony to NaNo!

  4. I LOVE big writing sprints. Havne't been able to do nano though. My local writing group usually does one a different month in the year since November always seems to be a hard month for us!

    Most of my books, the majority of the words have been written in short amounts of time. I get on a roll and it flows.

    Yes, a TON TON TON of editing is needed. But it's how I get the story down best for me.

    So glad you enjoyed nano this year! Can't wait to ready your next book. :-)

  5. I did it in 2009 and lasted a week. It's not a system that works for me, but I'm glad it did for you!

    This year I participated in Picture Book Idea Month, which has left me with 35+ ideas, around a dozen of which I'd like to further develop.

  6. The main hang up for me has been NaNo is at a TERRIBLE time of year. My professor husband is the very least supportive at crunch times in his semester (April and November). I do think I'd like to set aside a sprint month over this coming summer though, though not a calendar month, but five consecutive weeks. I like the idea of getting just a partner or two. That could work well for me.

  7. Hey everyone! Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts today! It's always fun to see the diversity and to know that there is never ONE right way to do things! :-)

  8. I like doing it because of the story flow. Yeah, a lot has to be rewritten, but I actually hate the "get the words down" part of the writing process the most. I'd rather think about it or mess with it. :)

    Seekerville does a Book in a Month usually in March, so if November didn't work, finding a group challenging you to do a Book in a Month might help.

    And I love the #1k1HR group on facebook. You can do one hour sprints of writing (most trying to get 1k written an hour but others are editing etc) and it's like accountability because when you comment back on how you did, it's not fun to say "81 words, I played on the internet" at least for me anyway, I hate to lose face. Twitter evidently has it in a non-closed group.

    1. I think it's powerful to do the book in a month with a group. The energy and enthusiasm from the others doing it with you help spur you on! The NaNo energy is contagious and so helpful! I'm sure the Seekerville book challenge would be the same way.

      I find that I operate SO much better when I have an accountability partner for a book. I usually try to find someone else who is also working on a WIP and we hold each other accountable with daily word count goals, similar to the #1K1hr.

  9. I have mixed feelings about Nanowrimo. I completed my goal in 2010 and about a year later (after I was finished writing my first book) I took it out, shaped it up and added about 45K more words. Of course, that took about 8 months. :) I finished it in October and thought I would try to do Nano again, you know, to get a kick start on my third novel which I'd already planned out for the most part. What I didn't take in account was the fact that I'd come to a point of finding out what works best or me, and it's writing slow and meticulously: one chapter a week. I would take pages and pages of notes on what I needed to write, would spend one day writing it, and then the rest if the week editing it multiple times. So, yeah--Nano about killed me this year. I do have 50K usable words now... I hate the experience. I love to write, but I do not love to write like this. :D

    1. Hi Dawn,

      Everyone definitely has to find out what works for them. I've typically been a very slow writer. With each book, I've gradually increased my daily word count goals, so that I've been able to push myself to write a little faster (sort of like we do when we're pushing ourselves to run just a little faster!). Anyway, I don't know that I would have been ready to attempt NaNo in the past! And it may not work again. But it was fun to try it this once! :-)

  10. Congratulations on your NaNo-ing success, Jody. I've participated in NaNoWriMo since 2006. I've only "won" once from an official perspective, but every year was rewarding.

    While their rules state that it should be a complete novel written between the parameters of November 1 - 30, I think the benefits were only reaped when I personalized the experience. One November I finished a novel that I'd unsuccessfully puttered with for two years. Another time I used the month to completely rewrite one. This year I intended to race through a brand new idea but slowed down to focus more on fleshing out the scenes as they came to me, even though that meant not finishing the complete story.

    The value for me is in having an excuse to immerse myself in thirty days of concentrated writing. I print out a flyer, put the icon on my blog and tell everyone it's a special project and they won't see much of me until the other side of November. I shouldn't need it, but putting a title on the endeavour legitimizes the time I spent squirrelled away writing. :)

  11. I played NaNo for the first time this year. While I didn't quite make 50k, I did wind up with a completed first draft. You're absolutely right about the story flow. It was practically all I thought about, even when I wasn't sitting at the computer.

  12. Congratulations on meeting the NaNo challenge, Jody! This year, for the second time, I participated and met the challenge again. Despite the frantic pace, I love NaNo because at the end, I have a very rough start to a new book.

  13. I did it for the first time in a few years this year. I won, as I did the previous years. This was the first time I used an outline, though. Previously I had one idea and just went with it. Two different experiences, and both have drawbacks and advantages. I'm not sure which, if either, is superior.

    In none of those cases did I finish the narrative, but in only one (this year's) do I have a specific intention to finish. The other times I did Nano were for the sake of doing so. This year was to jump start my second novel, which I planned to begin in the next few months anyway.

    I have fairly clean first drafts. Yes, I know, all of them are in theory garbage and mine is no where near publishing quality. But I have found through Nano that I get further in a first draft than I used to think I could before I started doing it.

    And amen to the editing comments here. If one wants to, they can edit their Nano and make it real. Edit something that, before November, never even existed. That, in the end, is the power of Nano. Getting it done. You need to clay before you can make the vase.

  14. This November was my tenth NaNoWriMo, and I think your experience sums up the pros and cons pretty well. There's something exhilarating about pushing through the rough draft of a story fast--you get it out there, get to see how the idea in your head will translate to paper. It does lead to sloppy mechanics, but editing is a task we all tackle anyway. (I love Ty's comment that you need the clay before you can make the vase.)

    Now that the organization is running Camp NaNoWriMo sessions in April and July/August, people who can't do NaNo in November have chance to use that energy to write a novel.

  15. I have to plan better for Nano next year. I just jumped in and got in way over my head, and for me something tragic happened at Thanksgiving that halted my progress further, but no one died or anything, this was emotional trauma on my part, and I'm still on the mend.

    I've been on a sabbatical from my own blog months before Nano, so I thought I could do it this year, but I've never finished a whole draft, however bad, in a month DURING Nano.

    BUT, there have been times outside Nano I could bang out a few "fast" drafts of other things, they just weren't novels, but little stories (Saying Short Stories is hard because my short stories are too long to be in most magazines, being 2,000 words or as long as 10,000), and (practice) query letters.

    Personally, I really find more stressful than writing the actual books, bad as the first drafts are.

    Trying to be as gripping and irresistible in under 200 words (For QUERY LETTERS) as you are in 50,000+ (Or less since I primarily write children's books in the middle grade category) is seriously like doing my own root canal.

    I don't even have a spouse and children to account for, and writing with that kind of wild abandon is HARD for me, as others who've commented before who are parents, so please pray for us non-parent writers, Jody. We have our crosses to bear, too.

    Take Care All,

    1. Hi Taureen,

      I wasn't able to respond to your other comment about writers who don't have children, but I do appreciate you sharing your perspective. Since I'm in my life stage with kids I often times get tunnel vision! :-) But I need to remember that there are LOTS of writers without kids who are struggling to make the time to write, who are just as busy with their lives in different ways. Thank you for that reminder! :-)

    2. Thanks for replying, Jody, and for understanding I meant no disrespect to parents at all, just offering my perspective, as you said, and while this year overall was a rough patch for me, things are getting better after a long rough summer.

  16. Jody, I agree with you in that there's more good than bad in NaNoWriMo. I also reached the goal with 50,029! This was my second time participating and the first time I barely reached 28 or 29K! I wish the statistics and graphic software would remain the entire year!

    If I could add a "bad" to this contest is that after it's over, you sort of lose that momentum (it's what's happening to me right now). Since the "Big Day" on Nov 30, I haven't written a word, and the first draft is still not done!!!

    On a side note, I don't know how you can keep up with your blog, twitter and finish books at the same time! I'm a lot slower. I could barely handle Nano!


  17. New follower here...Like you, this was my first year doing NaNoWriMo. I know what you mean about writing uninhibitedly but yes, the drawback is the bad grammar...So I eventually made it a rule not to go back to edit if I couldn't beef up my text (for the word count). I'm happy with what I'd accomplished and would do NaNo again. =) Yay to you for doing this!

  18. I completed NaNoWriMo this year and last year and, I have to say, I adore it (and I analysed it to death on my blog with a spreadsheet and everything). It's a great excercise in writing discipline and writing from the heart. I'm paraphrasing here, but I read that Virginia Woolf once said if she'd stopped to think about what she wrote, she'd never have written it at all.
    Now all I have to worry about is the editing. I'd love to know what your self-editing checklist consists of!

  19. This was my fourth year participating, and having your novel well-planned is a definite must for me. I really enjoy NaNo. I love the camaraderie of thousands of other writers participating in the same crazy challenge!

  20. Can you say more about your self-editing checklist?

    1. Since I've gotten some requests about it, I think I'll plan to do a post about in soon! Maybe next week.

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