Hey Pro Writers: Stop Bagging on NaNoWriMo

I’ve seen a lot of hate over National Novel Writing Month lately, some of it coming from my pro writer friends.

This confuses me.

Not because I don’t understand their reasoning – yeah, NaNoWriMo can sometimes be a little annoying to the paycheck and/or royalties writer.  Suddenly everyone’s talking about the novel they probably won’t finish, swapping advice they won’t follow themselves, and we all just know that after November they’ll stop being writers until the next NaNo.

Okay, I get it.  We do this all year for pay and it’s a little tiresome to see our friends trumpet how they wrote for a whole month.  And it’s true that the whole “word count over quality” thing seems wrong – even insulting – to those of us who have to keep our writing top-notch to put food on the table.  To some writers, NaNo must feel like a little league  team touring the Yankees dugout, touching all the bats and asking annoying questions during the game.

But my point is: So What?

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret.  My wife is a teacher.  Most of our friends are teachers too.  As a result, I hear a lot of teacher talk.  Like, a whole metric crapload of teacher talk.  Enough that my wife and I talk about needing to make friends that aren’t teachers, since the unrelenting school chatter drives me nuts.  And you know what all those teachers keep saying?  That kids have sucky written communication skills.

That’s right – most kids lag behind on writing, especially boys.  Since moving to Hong Kong, I’ve had no less than four teachers ask me to talk to their class.   Some want me to pass around my notebooks, showing students that the daily journaling and note-taking has a real world application.  Others want me to talk about video game journalism so the kids know that they can write about what excites them.  Mostly teachers just want me to get them to put pen to paper in some – really any – context.  As any writer knows, the only way to get better at writing is to do it more.

And that’s what raises my eyebrows when the pros sneer at NaNoWriMo.  Will most of these novels get published?  Hell no, most will end up as unfinished first drafts.  (And let’s be honest, pro writers do that too – I could build a fort out of my abandoned manuscripts.)  But that’s beside the point.  NaNoWriMo might not vault participants to stardom, but it does encourage people to write – and therefore learn – in a fun environment.  It’s voluntary education, a time when over 200,000 people choose to become a wordsmith rather than watching videos of cats falling off furniture.  And that’s pretty great.

Look, we’re entering a digital age where written text – whether in emails, blogs or tweets – is an important medium for communication.  Despite that, according to a recent study* only one in four American eighth and 12th graders displayed well-developed writing skills.

With that kind of achievement gap, why stomp all over a free event that encourages people to practice their craft?  What are we worried about, that someone might – I don’t know – take pride in their work and associate it with joy instead of schoolroom drudgery?  NaNo participants aren’t enemies to the English language.  Hell, the fact that they at least try to jot down 50,000 words a month proves that they care enough to give it a whirl.

And that’s just it – these people aren’t apathetic non-wordy types, NaNo participants generally write because they like to read.  After all, it only stands to reason that the people self-selecting themselves for this process have an interest in fiction and want to become more involved with it.  And hey, writers like to read, so maybe after playing in the word processor for a month, NaNo participants will get the urge to read more books.  Writing tends boost your appetite for reading, after all.

And really, my pro writer comrades – are more readers ever a bad thing?

So let’s take NaNo for what it is: A worldwide writing exercise where people have fun while improving their language skills.  Sure your Twitter account may get a little cluttered with NaNo Non-News, but hey, at least people are having fun, engaging with the craft and learning something – and I think that’s worth it.


*Note that the essays were first drafts – the kids didn’t have time to edit.  Also the Daily Mail let a typo slip by in the third paragraph, which is pretty hilarious in context.

2 responses to “Hey Pro Writers: Stop Bagging on NaNoWriMo

  • Andrew H

    As someone fairly young slowly making my way through film school and with the hopes of eventually entering some form of creative entertainment industry, the two NaNoWriMo’s I have attempted have been hugely beneficial. Currently I’m trying to work out a script for a short film, simply as a portfolio piece, and what NaNoWriMo has allowed me to do is basically throw a great deal of information at a page and parse through it at a later date. My first NaNoWriMo persuaded me that literary fiction certainly wasn’t my strongest suit, while the second featured test runs of short scripts with varying ideas. Neither produced something wholly successful nor cohesive, but it was an excellent, fertile testing ground for ideas. While I didn’t commit to a finished product, I committed to exploring my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and work I do outside of that solitary month will hopefully be stronger and more focused for it. Ironically, it even helped me understand to cut down on words and work harder on aspects like storyboarding which I had neglected to study.

    Personally, I find the idea that anyone is going to produce a masterwork come NaNoWriMo a little silly, but NaNoWriMo feels less like a culture designed to birth that and more to make people feel safe and encouraged to commit to an idea and put that idea down. Even if someone only writes 5,000 words, that’s 5,000 words they can bring away in December and into the New Year, taking the time to learn something from them. Maybe they hold onto those for next year as a foundation for more words come November, or maybe they use them to start being productive in January or February. I see nothing poor coming from it either way.

    NaNoWriMo, then, feels like a beginning. Building blocks for something more successful. Given the cutthroat nature of both entertainment writing, critical writing and journalistic writing, I think it’s important we have a place that’s controlled yet encouraging so that amateur writers can simply write whatever the hell they want and come away from it just a little bit wiser and a little bit more introspective with their own craft. If someone fails to hit that golden, perhaps even mystical 50,000 words – they shouldn’t look at it as a failure, but instead take what they’ve written and use it to write thousands, if not millions of words more.

  • Opinionated Man

    Good post. I think the encouragement from the month is great. I warn bloggers though to be prepared to edit their projects and not to think they will create a best seller in a month. I agree with Andrew above, it is a great movement but should be taken with a pinch of salt. -OM

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