Using NaNoWriMo for Quality, Not Just Quantity

I want to write just a little bit about NaNo for people that might feel a little discouraged in the wake of the chaos whirlwind that is enthusiastic participants committing 800+ words to the page during a 15 minute writing sprint.

I’m a guy that gets maybe 300 words in 15 minutes if I already know what I’m trying to write about.  This is time spent actually writing, not letting the blank laptop screen and the click of others’ keyboards hypnotize me.


A lot of regional leaders for NaNo have outgoing, go-get-em personalities that help drive events and activities.  It kind of comes with the territory it seems.  I’ve known a few leaders that are a little more reserved, but they seemed to be co-leading with someone else that tracked the timer, handled word count prizes, did the spreadsheet to track the cumulative group total, ran the Facebook group, ran the Google calendar, etc etc.

I like these write-ins (write-outs?  Depends on where you’re from) for the social aspect.  If you come regularly, you are automatically just part of the crew.  You don’t have to talk about yourself if you don’t want to, you can just have a fun conversation between blocks of writing time and a bite to eat.

I am consistently a low word-count writer at these things.  The woman that handwrites her NaNo projects writes about 10 more words than me on average during a 15 minute sprint (allowing for word-count technology discrepancies, I guess).

People at some of these write-ins sometimes feel like they’re not keeping up if they’re at the low end like me—you can hear it in their voices sometimes when people sound off their word totals once the timer beeps.

The only thing that should have you down about your progress in the story is if you don’t like the story anymore.  Period.

There’s a bubbly obsession out there with word counts, not in a way that is judgmental of those that don’t have big numbers, but rather in terms of measuring their own performance.

Caring about what you write

The old standby advice out there is to “turn off your inner editor” and just get to writing.  They say, don’t backspace, don’t doubt yourself, just write.

Turning off the internal editor for me I guess means something a little different, because I have to love what it is I’m writing in order to keep going.  It’ll be a far cry from perfect, it’ll be lacking necessary plot fixes and foreshadowing and wordsmithing, but I will die on the hill of being asked to write something I don’t (at some level) love working on.

My 300-words-in-15-minutes experience is one that I’m proud of.  My progress is thoughtful.  If I don’t know where the story is going, I am in a sense “just writing” to find where it goes, but I’m not sneezing out five pages of dialogue that could have been said in five lines.

Vomiting huge numbers of words without backspacing is a way to treat a problem in your own creative drive, but it’s not remotely close to how I’m going to write a book, a chapter, or even a scene.  If you’re not happy with your story anymore, maybe the big word dump is what you need to find your feet again, but I personally would caution you against making it into your only tool for putting words to the page.

Find time enough to meet your word goal, whatever it might be.  If you get behind on a given day, you don’t necessarily have to break your back the next day doing double duty.  Just meet your daily goal, whatever it is.  I feel the zen of writing taking over when I’m in the regular rhythm of it, not strapped to the rollercoaster of 500 words one day and 2,800 the next and 1660 the next.  Sure, some days you’ll get more than your goal done, no problem, but don’t put yourself under the gun if you were low the day before.

The traditional daily NaNo goal is about 1667 words a day to meet 50,000 by the end of the month.  Despite writing only 300 in a 15-minute “sprint”, I will have so many blocks of writing time when I dedicate myself to it that I’ll be way over the monthly goal by the end.  I don’t do it because 50k+ words means I’m done, but because I loved writing this thing so much that I invested all of that time.  Because I was thoughtful about every section I wrote, I rarely come away from something ready to trash it.  Revising to actually make it great is another step, but at least I loved what I produced.

I write for the thing I produce at the end of it all.  I don’t want the exhilaration of the moment to be the drug that makes more words appear in my document that I’m not going to use.

All that good and bad advice

Try to categorize the advice you hear and read, try to figure out what works for you, what only sometimes works for you, and what absolutely never works for you.  I know that I’m working hard to produce something I want to hand to someone else and have them entertained or moved by it, so I’m going to pay attention to advice that I feel helps me accomplish that.

Here’s a piece of advice you should inspect and then make a decision on its utility to you:

Get excited about a project, and then strive to write some words every single day that you think are good enough to essentially make it to the final draft.

I don’t mean that you should spend an hour wordsmithing as if you’re on your final draft and it’s sink or swim—just put words to the page that you know essentially belong to the story.  Sometimes you’re going to find that what you wrote doesn’t belong, and that’s ultimately fine too.

If you want to up your writing game, make NaNoWriMo about the habit of writing and not just the passing mile markers.

And when November’s done, don’t stop.

4 thoughts on “Using NaNoWriMo for Quality, Not Just Quantity

  1. Thanks for this post.

    I am struggling with NaNo. I can write “goodish” fiction at about 5000 words/hr. There is no way I can do 50,000 good words in a month. My struggle is between what is “good enough” to go back and edit and “bad enough” i’ve ruined the story…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The “bad enough” to ruin something can be tough. Once I write the bad part, it’s stuck to the story and I have trouble figuring out what to replace it with. I once had to backtrack and toss nearly 20k words to find the last good spot and try again from there.

      That can be a pretty tall order, and it definitely takes my pride down a few pegs to do it, but when it works, my motivation rises and I can keep revising. When it doesn’t work, that’s usually the sign I need time to find some new inspiration to fuse into the broken story.

      Liked by 1 person

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