I Disagree with the National Novel Writing Month Naysayers — Here’s Why

NaNoWriMo provides a huge learning opportunity for writers

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Updated September 23, 2020

Have self-doubt, fear or perfectionism kept you from writing?

Then National Novel Writing Month, abbreviated as NaNoWriMo, might be the solution. NaNoWriMo is an annual writing challenge where participants publicly announce their novel, join communities of other writers and strive to reach the finish line of 50,000 words during the month of November.

After 8 years of participating in NaNoWriMo, I can confidently say that each November has provided me with a new lesson and in turn, made me a better writer.

Throughout the years, I’ve experimented with different genres— from fantasy to horror to young adult. I’ve also learned how to pace myself and set realistic expectations when it came to reaching word counts. Most interestingly, I went from being a pantser (someone who does little to no planning for their novel) to a plotter (someone who does quite a lot of planning).

Despite the many ways that NaNoWriMo benefits writers, there are some people who question the usefulness of the event — and I get why. It doesn’t work for everyone.

Some people can’t fit such a demanding writing challenge into their busy schedules. Others prefer to write in a more slow, methodical way. Some individuals might want the option of working on multiple projects at once instead of just one or they may be in the middle of a major writing project.

While I see people’s reasons for questioning NaNoWriMo, I’m very much a part of thedon’t knock it ‘till you try it” camp.

After taking part in NaNoWriMo for nearly a decade, I have several counter-arguments to make in favour of the annual challenge, especially when people doubt its validity.

Everyone starts out with a crappy first draft anyway

One of the main criticisms about NaNoWriMo I see is that writers will just create a lot of bad writing during the month of November. I’m no expert but after years of writing blogs, fan fiction, short stories, articles and novels, one truth I’ve discovered is that crappy writing isn’t a bad thing at all.

In fact, you need to write a lot of bad stuff before you get to the good stuff. None of us can knock out a perfect first draft (unless you have writing superpowers and if so, I’m extremely jealous). A messy first draft is not the finish line — it’s the first step in the process of writing. It’s also the first step to becoming a better writer.

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” -Octavia E. Butler

Your first draft will probably look unrecognizable from your final one. This has been the case for any short story or article I’ve written.

The best writing happens in the rewriting — not in the initial writing itself.

Talent helps — but isn’t enough on its own

Some people also seem to think that you need a natural talent for writing and that NaNoWriMo falsely misleads people to believe that anyone can be a writer. This line of thinking seems to suggest that only a certain number of people possess an innate talent for writing.

In their book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool argue that the belief that we’re limited by genetic factors (aside from height and body size) is a myth. In this Scientific American article by David Z. Hambrick, Ericsson and Pool say that “thousands and thousands of hours of hard, focused work” is what leads to top performance.

It’s only natural then that hours and hours of focused writing create a talented writer. While talent helps, talent is nothing without persistence and discipline — and that is exactly what NaNoWriMo encourages in writers.

Good writers are also good readers

Another argument I’ve seen is that instead of creating more writers, we need to create more readers. What better way to encourage people to read more than by championing the act of writing itself?

It’s only through reading that we become better writers.

I think anyone who writes during NaNoWriMo soon realizes this undeniable truth.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely…Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” — Ray Bradbury

Whenever I write and let my reading habits slide, I notice that the writing doesn’t flow as easily. I’m not inspired because I’m not letting myself be inspired by other writing.

Good writers not only read but also absorb and study what they read. One of the best pieces of advice I received was to read and dissect short stories, line by line.

I do a similar thing with books. I’ll stop in the middle of reading a passage that really catches my attention and re-read it to really take it in. I take note of literary techniques, wording, pacing, description, etc. Then I think about how I can apply the observations I’ve gathered to my own writing style.

Fifty-thousand words is a start — no matter which way you look at it

Yes, 50,000 words is not a typical novel length —but it certainly gives you a foundation, doesn’t it?

If you’ve participated in NaNoWriMo long enough, you know that you normally have to keep writing beyond 50,000 words to finish a first draft (unless your story works at a shorter length). I consistently see many of my NaNoWriMo buddies exceed the 50,000-word mark long before November 31.

It’s a lot easier to work with 50,000+ words of a novel than it is to work with 10. If you’ve progressed to 50,000 words you’re going to notice the unstable parts of what you’ve built: plot holes, inconsistencies, awkward writing, flat characters, etc.

And this is good! This means that you’re honest and humble enough to see your own mistakes and weaknesses. It also means that you’ve developed taste and because of that, you can do better. The author V.E. Schwab compares writing a first draft to starting with a skeleton:

“…You’ve read books, you like stories; you might not know every minor bone in a hand, but you know the big ones, the skull, and the spine, and the ribs. So go and make a body. There will be time to make it pretty later. But what good is smooth skin without a skeleton beneath?” — V. E. Schwab

With NaNoWriMo, you’ve got a bare bones outline. Those first 50,000 words might not be pretty…but if you read enough, you probably already know what makes a good story on an instinctual level.

Sometimes I think people are too particular about the word count too.

While novels are generally 80,000–100,000 words in length, 50,000 words is about the minimum. Despite these guidelines, words count still vary.

Here are some examples:

  • Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis: 46, 290 words
  • Cinder by Marissa Meyer: 70, 000 words
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: 587, 287 words

So does word count really matter here? It seems a non-issue when you take into account that if people are really serious about their novel, they’ll be writing and rewriting long past November.

Successful novels have come out of NaNoWriMo

Since 2006, hundreds of novels that started from NaNoWriMo have been traditionally published. Some notable examples include The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

Out of those four, I’ve read Fangirl and Cinder. I enjoyed Cinder’s futuristic take on the classic Cinderella story, and Fangirl’s modern relevance to the subculture of fan fiction and the social anxiety that a lot of young people face. Part of what drew me to these books were readers on YouTube who mentioned them and the high ratings of each book on Goodreads. Clearly, some very successful and unique books have come out of NaNoWriMo.

And you can’t go through a month-long process like NaNoWriMo and not appreciate the engaging writing, gripping plots and memorable characters that authors create. I would argue that NaNoWriMo makes you more appreciative of the craft of writing. As a participant, you put yourself in other writers’ shoes and realize how much hard work goes into the process.

There’s no teacher like experience

I can’t even count all the lessons I’ve learned from NaNoWriMo. One of the main takeaways for me is that writing is not a process to be taken lightly. It’s hard work, it’s a discipline, it’s a daily practice, it’s a willingness to learn, it’s having enough humility to take constructive criticism and it’s having confidence in yourself and your ability, despite what your self-doubt and others tell you.

I’m a much different writer than I was 8 years ago and participating in NaNoWriMo has played a big part in that change. I took steps outside of my comfort zone: I attended a few local write-ins (something I never did as a lone writer), wrote in the horror/supernatural genre, built up enough courage to submit two short stories to a literary journal, took a short story writing class and got an article featured on an award-winning online publication.

Writing has become a regular habit. I read every book and magazine on writing that I can find. I’m still learning so much about plot, character and conflict, and how those three elements intertwine.

In short, I’ve grown more into the writer I wanted to be.

Some final thoughts

People may have their doubts about NaNoWriMo but I believe it’s a rewarding and worthwhile challenge.

Writing is not a race but a marathon. And like any marathon, it will be difficult and it will push you but it’ll be worth it. You’ll gain a sense of pride whether you write 500 words or 50,000. The only important thing is that you’re writing.

I think that those who doubt NaNoWriMo’s merits underestimate the time, dedication and heart that people put into it. And I think some don’t realize the far-reaching impact of it.

NaNoWriMo also hosts the Young Writers Program, which helps teachers bring NaNoWriMo to schools, libraries and community centres around the world. I think they do great work because this gives young people the chance to exercise their creativity, imagination and potential.

And at the end of the day, aren’t we all trying to recognize our own potential?

NaNoWriMo is what you make it.

I choose to see it as a learning opportunity each and every year. I’ve created some bad writing but that’s the only way I learn. I’ve learned that talent helps but only goes so far. Dedication, curiosity and determination will take you a lot further.

Writing might be your passion but you can’t ignore the power of reading, of appreciating another person’s work and of losing yourself in a good book.

Instead of putting the focus on the end product — the novel itself, I think more of the focus should be on the lessons learned. It’s not poor writing that makes someone a bad writer. As long as a writer is willing to learn and improve from their mistakes, they’re not a bad writer but a writer who is learning.

Some years I’ve “won” and gotten to 50,000 words and beyond. Other years I didn’t get to 50,000 words. In 2018, I didn’t reach the 50,000-word mark but I did find areas in my plot that needed tweaking. This was just as much a win for me as getting to 50,000 words. I might not be 50,000 words into my first draft yet but I’m off to a good start and want to continue exploring where this character will take me.

Without action, there can be no result. And that is exactly what NaNoWriMo participants are doing — taking action. They’re stepping outside of what may be familiar and comfortable to them, and venturing out into new and unknown worlds through their novels.

Communications and digital marketing professional, interested in creativity, personal development and mindful living.

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