50,032 words later: what I learned from National Novel Writing Month

2013-Winner-Facebook-ProfileReaders, I DID IT. I wrote fifty thousand words in thirty days! I feel like I ran a marathon, albeit one of a most sedentary nature.

I am still squinting as I re-enter the sunshine of this unseasonably warm December day, but here is

What I Learned from National Novel Writing Month 

(Some of this came as a surprise. Some of it was more like a gentle reminder.)

Don’t look back, no matter what.

The only way I could get to 50,000 words in thirty days was not, under any circumstances, to look back.


See? Looking back = easy and relaxed. But to drive Greased Lightning, one must look forward.

Editing what one has already written is the fun part. That’s why I worked on twenty pages for twenty months. (I wish that was an exaggeration.) That’s also why I needed NaNoWriMo to make me finish Chapter Two (and start Chapter Three).

Perfectionism and productivity are inversely related. 


My usual working mode– typing a sentence, backspacing back out of it, then typing something else, then deleting that, then biting my fingernails– was incompatible with the task at hand. If I was to get the work done on time, I needed to heed the words of the incomparable Chuck Wendig:

If you want to be a writer, then write. And suck. And write your way through the suck.

That can be painful, too, but it’s also a lot faster.

Keeping track of my productivity helps me write more efficiently.

Knowing I had to write at least 1667 words a day, I used Scrivener and my phone’s timer and all sorts of metrics to monitor my productivity. Turns out, I write a lot more words when I’m doing a thirty-minute sprint, or when I have a specific word count goal I must meet before I can go to the bathroom

Reviewing my metrics also taught me when to write, and how long my blocks should be. I’m a morning person, and the numbers bore that out. I didn’t even try evening; I am useless after the kids go to bed. Whether it’s organizing backpacks or outlining a chapter, I’d rather get up early than stay up late. Knowing that was my best time to work probably made it even more productive– I was living up to my expectations.

I can write much more quickly than I thought I could.

Rachel Aaron’s ebook 2K to 10K was very helpful here– she has concrete suggestions that I turned to whenever I hit a wall.

Her best tip: sketch out the day’s writing before you begin. I had done an overall outline, but the sketch-to-start each day helped me focus on why the particular scene I was writing was there in the first place, and what I needed it to accomplish. Even if I took 30 minutes to do that before I typed a word, the *next* 30 minutes would provide tons of words, because I knew just what I wanted to say next.

Writing can happen anywhere. 

First-draft writing, “writing your way through the suck” writing, at least. I prefer solitude and silence and an afternoon free of distractions- who doesn’t? But when I became hungry for my word count, I also became hungry to write, and I got 250 words done waiting for an audition, 400 more waiting for my son to come out of band practice. As long as I had headphones and Simply Noise, I could focus and work.

Writing doesn’t require as much time as I thought it did.

It took me about 80 hours, over the course of the month, to write those 50,000 words. About two-and-a-half hours a day. Not nothing, but I was able to find those hours more easily than I expected. I had to get up and out to the library on weekend mornings– no reading the paper in my pajamas– but when I got my words done by 10:30 am, and had the rest of the day free to feel accomplished and calm and present with my kids, I was actually a better parent than usual.

But it did require tons of focus.

For the past thirty days, my writing was non-negotiable. I’m usually so willing to let it come last. With a deadline, each day I had to schedule three hours of writing (which included time for fidgeting, coffee, and a bit of self-flagellation). And so I did. Stuff fell away (working out, hanging out). But everything that needed to happen for my life and my kids still did. I just had to trust that it would all work, and I found, just like my friend Laura Vanderkam says, that I had more time than I thought I did. In Laura’s words:

You have to be bold enough to do work you find compelling first, trusting that life will fill in around it the way water poured into a glass surrounds the ice.

So here I am, left with 200 pages of a book that might not be any good. Who can say? I’m going to wait until January to go back and take a look.

I’m trying to tell myself it’s okay if my first draft stinks. Jennifer Egan writes fifty or sixty drafts of all her novels before she lets the rest of us read them.

But what if my book REALLY stinks? What if fifty drafts wouldn’t help it? In that case, why did I bother?

Either way, I learned a lot about writing. And about embracing the imperfect. For me, that was hella worthwhile.

What have you learned about your own productivity? 

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