NaNoWriMo is overrated

Not to be a downer, but you’re going to have edit that monstrosity eventually.

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Writing is certainly a cool and attractive skill; nobody can doubt this. All the best human beings ever were writers. But if Homer saw that people were gathering in coffee shops the world-over to bang out words with no care for quality, he’d probably start swearing in whatever archaic Greek gobbledygook he spoke.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, the non-profit by the same name organizes a nifty-looking website and invites everyone to write and post their word counts there. It encourages creativity, goal-making and all that wonderful stuff that everyone would love to be better at. They have both general and regional forums for discussion, a shop for swag, and weekly motivational speeches. All you have to do is pump out 50,000 words (or less—recent changes make this variable!) by the end of the month. Sounds cool, right?

My problem with it comes from my experience as a writer. I’m not the type to go on and on about how hard being a writer is, but NaNo removes the hardest parts of the writing process. Anyone who just does NaNo is 1/12th of the writer that most other authors are, at best – inviting people to read your “novel” at this stage is kind of like holding a dinner party at the “beautiful new home” you’ve built, when all you’ve done is set up the frame. It’s telling that there’s no National Novel Editing Month.

Truth is, a great many of the works written in this time are not what we would call “good prospects”. There’s always that one week, usually before exams, when you know you wrote 10,000 words of filler just because your first plot was running out of steam. Maybe an interaction you’d imagined back in October just isn’t meshing with the direction the story is taking, but you force it in. There’s no recourse— if you don’t have 1,666 words by midnight you’ll fall behind. These kind of problems can be easily solved in the regular writing process – chop chop chop – but when it comes to this particular event, quantity is greater than quality, and so it stays. This is the nightmare that editors face in December when hordes of hopeful authors submit their works, maybe after a few hours of token editing.

The community aspect of NaNo can be a double-edged sword. If you’re the type to get demotivated by dropouts, you’ll want to avoid the early meetings, because the casualty rate is easily over 50 per cent at that point. But if meeting or talking to other writers is your jam, a meet-up once a week to talk shop and pound keys can be super refreshing. Big ups to the Halifax group; they treated me well when I participated.

NaNo does teach skills. I don’t mean to make it sound worthless. There’s good value in knowing how to just keep writing—to turn off the nasty, critical voice in your head that can lead to crippling writer’s block. For the novice, just trying to write even a fraction of the output of career authors (Stephen King once said he writes ~5000 words a day) with NaNo is a strong step forward. But ‘seat-of-your-pants’ writing, as encouraged by the model, tends to not result in the best results. It can be more enjoyable, but is writing about enjoying yourself? I say no, writing is about telling an engaging story. NaNo could be improved by at least pushing more for a pre-November period of planning, and they could probably offer resources for that on their site. Ditto on the post-November editing process.

Someone once said “Writing is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent elimination.” This is the best advice anyone can take if they’ve participated in NaNo and want to continue with their project. It’s a fun first step, but that’s about it.

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Dijay Savory

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