What I learned by winning my NaNoWriMo trophy badge

You may have heard of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writers Month.

NaNoWriMo is also the name of the nonprofit that hosts a writer’s contest every November, in which they encourage writers to write a 50,000-word novel in a single month.

As I announced in October, I’ve committed to writing and publishing a novel by March 2015.

That means I have to write fast. So I decided to join the NaNoWriMo craze and see if I could finish the novel in a month.

And on November 30th at 8:03pm, I typed the 50,003rd word of my new novel, tentatively titled The Dreken.

During a grueling month of cranking out an average of 1,667 words a day, I learned several things about myself and the writing process:


1. I make far too many excuses for not writing.

A while back, I wrote an article about the myth we all believe, of “I’m too busy.” And yet, I had been using that exact excuse to not get my writing done.

It’s been months since I wrote consistently, citing all kinds of reasons (read: excuses) why I wasn’t hitting my writing goals.

But then November rolled around – a month where I have just as many commitments as any other month, plus a major American holiday – and it turns out that I’m able to write almost every day.

In fact, as I wrote this article, I hit day #29 in a row of writing at least 500 words a day.

I use the Commit app to track my goal
I use the Commit app to track my goal

That’s my longest streak ever!

At this point, I have wisely concluded something important.

Writers write.

They don’t just think about writing. Or plan to write. Or hope to write. Or come up with new writing ideas. They actually write.

So if I want to be a writer, I must write.


2. Short-term, concrete goals are much easier to achieve.

“Write a novel” feels too overwhelming.

“Write every day” can also feel like too much when you’re starting out.

However, I can commit to something that is short-term (30 days) and concrete (1,677 words a day).

I’m not worried about whether I’ll keep writing past November. I’m not worried about whether my novel will be any good or not.

I’m just focusing on the short-term, concrete goal directly in front of me.

Today, I just have to write my 1,677 words. That’s all.


3. Do not edit during the first draft.

A friend and fellow author encouraged me to write the first draft straight through, without editing anything.

This reminded me of Anne Lamott’s advice about “shitty first drafts” from her fantastic book, Bird by Bird:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.

I took this advice very seriously.

I wrote straight through. I didn’t correct grammatical errors. I didn’t worry about using the same word over and over. And over.

I even turned off the spell check to get rid of those little red squiggly lines under typos that are crying out to be fixed.

The only times I looked back through my manuscript was to:

  • Remind myself of a name or event I had forgotten
  • See where I’d left off the day before

Otherwise, I wrote straight through.

Whenever I realized I had just created a conflict with an earlier part of the story, or came up with a good idea to incorporate into previous chapters, I simply made a note of it in the text in ALL CAPS and kept typing.

I’ve done enough writing by now to know what self-editing while writing the first draft really is: procrastination.

The truth is, when you’re really in the zone and just trying to get the story out of your head as fast as it’s coming, you don’t think to stop and tweak your grammar to make it perfect.

But when the words are coming more slowly, and you’re not sure what to do next, it suddenly becomes all-important to go back and read through for misuses of “to” vs “too.”

Don’t do it. Stay the course. Focus.

When you’re writing the first draft, write forward only.


4. My advice on how to get your writing done works.

A couple years ago, I wrote this short article outlining my three steps to get your writing done.

I wrote it in response to the many questions I’d received from readers on this subject.

The article emphasizes writing pre-planned or previously researched content in the morning, at a pre-scheduled time.

I’d found that if I pushed my writing off until later in the day, or sat down to write with no clear plan for what happens next, everything came out stilted, without the right flow of energy and ideas.

The 3-step formula solves that age-old problem.

The interesting thing about NaNoWriMo?

It’s not about writers competing against other writers. It’s about writers competing against their own procrastination.

If you’re putting off writing your book until you have time or feel inspired, it’ll never happen.

Now’s the time to set that short-term, concrete goal and start making the time to write.

I know you can do it.

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