10 things to do if you want to win NaNoWriMo (and for writing on a deadline, anytime)

Friday, October 20, 2017
Maybe you're wondering why I'm still talking about that crazy NaNoWriMo thing. For those who missed me the first time, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. November is my favorite month of the year for 1,500 reasons, but one of those 1,500 is because it's NaNoWriMo. Even the years when I don't have the time to truly commit to NaNo, I at least try.

[my NaNoWriMo survival kit]

One thing that NaNoWriMo has done for me is give me the motivation and the skills to write whenever I have to write. The pressure to write 50,000 words in 30 days for a fiction novel does translate to several valuable skills – I am a very fast typer, I am a quick transcriber both of audio and handwritten notes (I would record voice memos for myself or write on the back of my school notes in high school) and I keep on pushing even when I don't have something to write.

So, even if you have no intentions of writing a book, NaNoWriMo is worth it for several reasons. Today, I wanted to share 10 things I learned over the past few years participating in NaNo. These tips that I've picked up or taught myself have made my life easier from writing political science papers to finishing a story on deadline for The Daily Tar Heel to writing a cover letter or essay for an internship application.

1. Get the words on the page.

This is the one thing Patrick and I argue about. I am adamant that the most important thing to do when you need to write – whether it's a novel for NaNoWriMo or a story about a football game – is to sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard and write what you want to say. Don't overthink it, don't panic, just write. And then... don't delete anything, not during the initial writing period. If you're just getting words on the page, you can edit out the useless stuff later.

2. Edit later.

Every single sentence doesn't have to be perfect. If you've used the word "happy" four times in one paragraph, you can find a synonym later. If you aren't sure if you're being grammatically correct, you can figure that out later. I don't advocate making stupid mistakes for the hell of it while you're writing, but you can edit later. I promise it will take less time than going off down a rabbit hole finding out if it's "sneaked" or "snuck."

3. You don't have to write in order if you don't want to.

If you have a lot of really passionate feelings and great ideas about one section of your political science paper, then start with that section. If you have the perfect line for the tenth chapter of your novel but you're only on Chapter 2, skip ahead and come back to fill in the gaps. I am notorious for writing the first chapter of setup, my climax and my resolution chapters, and then going back to fill in the gaps later.

4. Use placeholders.

Especially during NaNoWriMo, I am terribly guilty of this – but I also have found it to be a really useful way to focus on writing, not on researching, Googling or, inevitably, scrolling through my Facebook feed. If I need a specific fact, or need to come up with a name for a minor character (or a major character, because you never know during NaNoWriMo) or a statistic that I know will require some searching, I just throw in TKTK or XXX or THIS INFO HERE and keep going.

5. Break your writing sessions up.

It is way easier to write in 15 minute chunks than to marathon for four straight hours. Use a timer app on your phone, computer or Apple Watch. (I couldn't survive without @NaNoWordSprints, which is a Twitter account that hosts NaNo sprints all November long). Calculate how much time you have to spend writing and break it up into easily digestible chunks, with breaks in between. (Short breaks, like a walk into the kitchen for a glass of water, or a quick potty break with the dog, or call your mom.)

6. Do some math.

Just like you should break writing marathons into small chunks, do the math on how much writing you actually have to do and break that into small chunks. NaNoWriMo does it for you – if you need to write 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to write 1,667 words a day. If you know you need ten pages for your research paper for class, break that up into 20 half pages or 40 quarter pages. That's far more digestible and way less scary than 10 full 8x10 pages, I promise, and tackle each half page or quarter page or paragraph one at a time. You will feel so accomplished.

7. If you have writer's block, walk away.

Other NaNo-ers will tell you to keep writing even when you have writer's block – but I have found that stopping, getting up and walking away until I feel better about my skills or my idea or my work in general makes for better words later. I know it's hard to walk away when your paper is due at 9 a.m. and you're writing at 4 a.m., but take a break, clear your mind and then come back to it. Don't force yourself to stare at a blank screen if nothing is coming. (Although, hey, you might be overthinking it.)

8. Write when you feel the urge.

I do not advocate for scheduling time for yourself to write, although when you work from 9 to 5 or  have to handle kiddos after school, you can certainly feel the pressure to say you will always write from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. But some days, you may not want to write then, and you may instead want to write at 2 a.m. or on your lunch break or another time when you hadn't planned to be writing. Always be prepared to write. That's why I use cloud-based writing tools, Google Drive and Dabble, so I can write anywhere, on any device, and this allows me to get ahead. Because I tend to feel more motivated on Saturdays and Sundays than I do on Monday evenings after a draining day at work – during NaNo, I write twice or three times my daily goal on the weekends when I feel more motivated, so I can let myself slack a little during the week.

9. Have a plan.

I do recommend having some sort of plan. Again, I do say sit down and put the words on the page – but that's a lot easier to do with a plan and it makes the words better in the long run. I don't recommend analyzing your outline or plan so much that you spend more time on it than on writing, and I don't think you should be married to your plan. Let the writing process take you where it will, and let your characters tell their own story when they want to. And during NaNo, they will. I promise.

10. Reward yourself.

During NaNo, I reward myself with candy or snacks. (Yeah, I know, I'm an adult.) Every 100 words, I  can have a piece of clearance Halloween candy. Every 1,000 or 2,000 words, depending on what I'm trying to achieve that day, I let myself have a soda or a walk around the apartment complex with Theo. (Which isn't always a reward.) I know plenty of people who actually buy motivational gifts for themselves for NaNo – a new notebook or planner, a piece of clothing they'd been eyeing, a new pen to write with – that they can't have or use until they win or reach a specific NaNo goal. Find a system that works for you!


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What are your best tips for writing when all the odds are against you? Anyone trying NaNo this year?


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