Why I Said No to NanoWriMo


Every November a fervor sweeps writerdom, an evangelical commitment to write fast and write more. This effort is called NanoWrimo or “National Novel Writing Month.”

The objective is to write a novel in a month, or at least the rough draft of one. For many it is a way to end procrastination, cut through resistance, and overcome stymieing perfectionism – to just get the words down.

The idea is radical, especially for writers who tend to fuss over every sentence as they are writing it. When I was writing for the web-based freelancing service Elance, I would see many jobs posted by writers who were 50 pages into a novel and wanted a professional to revise it before they moved on.

This is silly. Until you have your whole first draft written, you cannot know what the novel is going to need. The first 50 pages might need to be cut, depending on whatever surprising turns the novel takes during the course of writing it. Writers who are fussy about their first drafts tend to be under-confident and are eager for their words to flatter them even in the earliest stages of creation.

I used to be like that. As a result, I rarely finished stories. I was too caught up in the belief that writing should come out perfect on the first try, or I was not doing it properly. I felt dependent on a fleeting creative mood to fuel my effort, and If the initial mood of inspiration left me, I folded.

I know better now, so what is my problem with NanoWriMo? Doesn’t it discourage depending on inspiration? Or resorting to irrational perfectionism? Someone who is forcing herself to write quickly will be unable to fuss much over her original sentences, and being part of a group effort is motivating for some people.

So why not for me? I do have a novel-in-progress that I have neglected, not because I was blocked but because other activities commanded my attention. Recently I have begun writing on it again, but it is a challenge to bring my original vision back to life. NanoWriMo seems to offer a quick fix. Why not go for it? Because NanoWriMo seems like a diet to me.

I dislike the idea of NanoWriMo because I love writing. The finished product is important to me, but the process is what I treasure and enjoy most.

NanoWriMo only honors one stage of the process: the rough draft. I enjoy the rough draft stage, but I love the others, too. For me, revising is usually the point where time seems suspended and I cease to be aware of my surroundings because I am so absorbed by what I am doing.

Rough drafts are just raw material. Revision is when I get to shape them into something that resembles my ultimate vision. That is often where the real creativity occurs.

So many writing problems come from seeing writing as a linear one-step process. If a movie portrays a writer writing, he is always sitting at her keyboard pattering away, presumably generating new content.

Real writing is so much more than that. It is planning, revising, rewriting, editing, and polishing. Novels are designs. The best ones are too complex to emerge from an assembly line obsession with quantity.

When I accepted that writing had multiple stages, the quality of my writing improved dramatically. In fact, I believe that whenever, during reading, I become awed by something a writer has done, it is probably due to a hidden process that is layered beneath the visible text.
Rarely does magic “just happen.”

But NanoWriMo emphasizes word count to the point where some writers feel guilty if they go back and rewrite rather than adding to the overall volume of text. Which is another thing I dislike about NanoWriMo.

The emphasis on quantity takes away the fun. In my twenties, whenever I would sit down to write, I would be flooded with anxiety and self-doubt. I did not enjoy it.

Even when I told myself, “Write however you want,” I would find myself squirming in my chair, thinking about doing other things, and glancing at the clock. To discipline myself I would set hourly goals and limit my breaks severely. If I took too long, I would accuse myself of “cheating.”

I was forcing myself to write. I pretended that a teacher was standing over me, ready to give me a bad grade if I quit or reward me for continuing. The model of someone controlling me was one that I was used to, and it had usually worked, driving me to exercise or make good grades. But when it came to writing for myself, force seemed to oppose, rather than further, my creative efforts.

For me, forcing creates massive internal resistance. Anyone who has read my book “A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom” knows that I suffered from severe depression lasting several years and that with it, I was creatively blocked. I would only write in my journal, and even that was hard.

The turning point was when I relearned how to want to write, rather than imagining myself as being obedient to an authority. The shift occurred with a kind of rebellion. I thought, “No more rules, no more pleasing imaginary critics. I am going to go back to how I wrote when I was a kid, before anyone started telling me I should do it.”

To banish the idea that I “should” write, I used a strategy that is opposite of NanoWriMo. I limited how long or how much I wrote. Sometimes I limited it to 15 minutes. Or sometimes I even set a one sentence goal, so that afterward I was left wanting to write more. If I wanted to change my limit later, I could. These changes made the difference between writing because I “should” write and writing because I loved it.

But why does it matter why I write, as long as I write? Because writing because I wanted to meant no more fighting myself. It meant no longer needing motivational speeches to drive myself to the computer. It meant no more staring at the clock, since I was fully engaged with what I was doing. It meant that my imagination no longer ran away and hid as soon as I sat down to write, but instead peeked behind the sofa and made creative suggestions.

I dislike the idea of NanoWriMo because it would turn something I love doing back into a drudgery. The concentrated activity of writing is what I enjoy and why I keep returning to it again and again, even on weekends and during holidays.

NanoWriMo is all about word count. Group pressure takes the place of a boss or teacher. But letting others determine how I write would be a big step backward for me. I am able to write for long periods because I want to write. I love the process even more than exhilaration of delivering a finished product.

Not everyone agrees. I saw where someone on Reddit said that he considered NanoWriMo good for him because it turned him into a “serious” writer. I am so glad I never let anyone turn me into a “serious” writer. I would rather be a playful one who enjoys what she is doing.

If I enjoy what I do, I am far more likely to do it well. That does not mean writing is never hard. Sometimes writing is exceedingly painstakings, especially right before I share it with others. But I will go to any length to get it right, because my vision, desire, and process are my own.

17 thoughts on “Why I Said No to NanoWriMo

  1. I’m sooooo with you on this, Lisa!

    The line, “NanoWriMo only honors one stage of the process: the rough draft” is freakin’ brilliant.

    NanoWriMo definitely seems to be all about word count to me as well, and I think good writing could be likened to cooking – if it’s rushed and frantic, then the end result cannot be that good. I’m sure there are (rare) exceptions to the rule, but a month for write anything of substance seems ludicrous.

    6 or 12 months? Now we’re talking about a timeframe that would be much more likely for one to create a quality novel!

    • Thanks so much for your comment Dyane, which is awesome as usual!

      I love your cooking analogy! Very apt! I thought of some food analogies myself, likening the forced immersion in writing to forcing myself to binge on Thai food, which I normally love. It would be a quick way to ruin my love for Thai food.

      So glad you liked my post and the quote from it!!! 😀 Thank you!!

  2. If you don’t like NaNoWriMo, don’t do NaNoWriMo.

    This time of year it’s trendy for authors and aspiring writers to express in detail their disdain for NaNoWriMo. Maybe they’ve tried it, maybe they haven’t. But instead of just shrugging and saying “to each their own”, there’s this defensiveness that pervades this mindset, as if NaNoWriMo is a direct threat to writers who choose not to participate.

    I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo for 11 years, and to me it is more than cranking out a rough draft. It’s being part of a community, going to local meetups and sharing ideas with new people, encouraging my teenaged niece and nephew to try writing for the joy of it, and, yes, writing. For all the reasons you listed that you don’t like it.

    NaNo is a blast for me. Just because one person said it turned them into a “serious” writer does not mean that it’s serious. If you haven’t tried it, how would you know?

    Good luck with your version of writing. You have a process that you enjoy, why mess with it? And why so much disdain for others who are thoroughly enjoying their own processes and being part of something fun, creative, and social?

    • If you enjoy Nanowrimo, do Nanowrimo! While I am not a fan of the idea personally I have nothing against people who participate. That is why I limited the discussion to my own experience. I feel no disdain whatsoever towards those who feel that it benefits them. Everyone is different and I respect that.

  3. I’ve never participated in NaNo. In fact, I haven’t given much thought to do so, because November is typically a very busy month for me. Plus, I’m not much of a joiner, and I prefer writing to my own beat and schedule. But I think the concept of NaNo is good, at the very least because it gets writers to fill up the pages. Blank pages are so much harder to edit. 🙂

    As you mention in another comment–if writers want to do NaNo, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s great, too.

    • I love it when fellow introverts comment! Makes me feel understood. I’m not much of a joiner either. I’m beginning to think Nanowrimo is an extroverted approach to writing versus my more self-guided introverted style, which I am very attached to.

      But people who do Nanowrimo really seem to love Nanowrimo and I cannot deny that there is value in having a rough draft and meeting other people. I just can’t imagine myself ever participating. It seems so regimented and I am much too set in my ways to go back to habits of thinking about writing that never worked for me (i.e. forcing myself to write.) I enjoy writing so much more when I can set my own pace and revise whenever I feel like it 🙂

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, which are insightful as always!! 🙂

      • I guess I should also mention that Nano hit at exactly the right time. I was about ready to start writing on Nov. 1 anyway. Someone said they wouldn’t do Nano because they’re an introvert — but that’s the beauty of Nano. You don’t have to work with other people at all — or even tell anyone how much you’ve written. No regimentation. They have lots of “events” that look fun — but aren’t interesting to me right now. I wouldn’t rule them out, but they don’t sound like they’ll ever be quite my cup of tea. They’re very popular with some Nano-ers though.

        Sounds like we all have processes that work for us. And that’s the most important thing. Writing.

  4. I’m having fun with Nano. I wrote in huge letters on my calendar that I’m doing Nano. And my husband is finally respecting my writing time — because Nano sounds impossible to him. And, my friends are more understanding of my need to schedule things around my writing time. And, Nano suits the way I write anyway — plot ahead of time as much as possible, plow through the first draft, make notes, revise when the first draft is done. There are no prizes for “winning” Nano, and no punishment for not making the 50K word count. IMO, there are a bazillion ways to use Nano as a tool — and a bazillion other ways to get to 50K words. Like any other writing “rule” or “tool”, you use what works for you, now, with this project, and reject everything else.

    I’m doing Nano with some friends, which makes it more fun. We’re each writing our own book, but standing by to brainstorm when someone gets stuck. We already have an “after Nano” plan — we’re revising our Nano projects and then exchanging mss. But we’re not exchanging one word more that the number of words written by the participant who wrote the fewest words for Nano.

    The person who has written the fewest words has a great deal she’s juggling in life and work — but she’s written more this month and gotten more support than ever before — BECAUSE she’s doing Nano. And that’s something to celebrate. That’s winning. And we all share the belief that our first drafts are diamonds in the (very very) rough, which will require much polishing and careful cutting. Which is the general idea of Nano — get the words down — polish later.

    If Nano works for you, great. If not, great, too!

    • I really appreciate your nonconfronational style of disagreeing with me!!! The last two commenters called me disdainful and condescending, which was not the tone I was going for at all!

      If Nano works for you, go for it! And good luck!!! 🙂

  5. It’s so refreshing to read this! I’ve never done Nanowrimo because — though I appreciate how much it’s helped others — the concept personally turns me off, for the same reasons as you. I don’t want to be a wordcount churning machine. I want to enjoy it. I want to play.

    • I am so glad you liked the post Shannon! Thanks for reading. And I love your phrase “word count churning machine.” Exactly! 🙂

  6. NaNo has never worked for me, but I enjoy the excitement and camaraderie so much that I just throw the 50K part out the window and hijack it with my own snail-paced goal of 2pp per day. I get inspiration, some writerly company, and (if I manage it) 60 pages drafted – I’m happy to call that a win!

    • I can totally understand about the comraderie and meeting other writers Amelinda. Nano isn’t for me but if you enjoy doing it, that’a a good enough reason. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

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