I did Camp NaNoWriMo (NaNoWriMo, but in July) for the first time this year and won. I had flirted with the idea of doing NaNo before but had never felt ready. Turns out, you’ll never be fully ready—you just have to do it. Here are seven NaNoWriMo tips that will help you navigate this writing challenge.
1. Try to plan beforehand—but don’t stress about it.
You’ll likely want to have some idea of the story you’re writing before Nov. 1. Having something to go off of makes it easier to start typing when you sit down to write the first day. It doesn’t have to be much—a story arc, the relationships between the main characters, or a captivating setting where anything could happen. Or even just the name of your main character (finding the perfect name can take hours!).
If you haven’t prepped as much as you’d like to, though, don’t worry: You are allowed to continue planning during NaNoWriMo! Set aside time to work on outlining, fleshing out characters, or brainstorming ideas during November so that you won’t run out of steam halfway through the month.
Don’t stress if you want to work on a project that’s not brand new for NaNoWriMo. It’s okay to work on a project that you’ve already started. At the start of Camp NaNoWriMo in July, I had about 14,000 words written from a writing sprint during Jami Attenberg’s #1000wordsofsummer. I printed those pages off and retyped them in a new document as part of my Camp NaNoWriMo writing, filling in gaps and moving scenes around, improving the writing line by line, getting to know characters as they said different things in the second draft than they did in the first draft. This is a perfectly legitimate way to use NaNoWriMo.
2. Make writing for NaNoWriMo part of your routine.
Pick a dedicated time to write—for me, it was the morning, before I started work. I couldn’t start work or check email or social media until I had reached my word count goal for the day. This was just the right amount of pressure to make me focus on writing so that I could get that sweet sweet dopamine rush of checking Twitter notifications.
I don’t necessarily recommend writing every day at the same time in your non-NaNoWriMo writing life, but during the writing challenge, I think consistency is helpful because it’s such an intense period of writing. You have to trick your brain into not freaking out each time you sit down to write.
But when you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, don’t stress if you only write on the weekends, or on Monday nights when your partner is at a night class, or on Thursday mornings when your kid is in daycare. Or if you don’t write for nine months and then do Camp NaNoWriMo unexpectedly. You’re not a failure if you don’t write every day.
3. Pomodoro it.
It can be intimidating to sit down in front of a blank document or a white piece of paper and start creating, especially when you know you should write 1667 words. That seems like a lot of words!
Try focusing on time rather than word count. Set a timer for 15 minutes, 25 minutes, or an hour. Surely you can sit at your desk for 15 minutes and write, right? Reframing your goal can help you get started.
When I sat down to write for Camp NaNoWriMo, I used Focus App to work in 25-minute Pomodoro sessions. In between sessions, I stood up, stretched, and grabbed water or coffee. This ensures that you’re taking breaks, resting your eyes a bit, and resetting before diving back into your story.
Using the Pomodoro technique is a great way to focus less on word count if you (like me) obsessively check word count after every sentence to see whether you’ve hit your daily goal. Put on the timer, and promise yourself that you won’t check the word count until the timer goes off. Then do as many Pomodoro sessions as it takes to hit your daily word count.
4. Put writing advice and inspiration nearby.
When I did Camp NaNoWriMo, I had just finished two weeks of writing 1000 words a day for #1000wordsofsummer. During #1000wordsofsummer, I’d start each writing session by printing out Jami Attenberg’s daily email and reading it, highlighting the parts that stuck out to me. As I wrote, I had these emails on my desk to turn to in case I started to freeze up or get imposter syndrome.
Find some writing advice that resonates with you, whether it’s the #1000wordsofsummer email archive, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, or quotes posted daily on Twitter or Instagram throughout NaNoWriMo. Print out or write out the lines that stick with you most and put them where you can see them as you write. My line was “The only way you can fail at a first draft is by not finishing it,” which is Attica Locke’s rephrasing of a Jane Smiley quote. I wrote this on a piece of paper and had it propped up on my desk while I wrote.
5. Get ahead on word count.
Your energy will likely be highest at the beginning of the month. Use this. Get ahead on your word count while you’re still riding that high and have the stamina to write more than 1667 words each day.
Later in the month, you will be busier as the holidays approach, and you might be traveling or cooking or spending time with family for Thanksgiving. You will thank yourself for getting ahead earlier in the month.
6. Edit later.
Write now. Edit later. It really is that simple. Allow yourself to write bad words, terrible words, words you know you’ll need to fix later. Guess what? They all count toward your word count. Write them down, and fix them later.
7. Talk (or journal) about NaNoWriMo as much as you need to.
Figure out what kind of mental and emotional support you need from others and seek it out.
As an internally motivated person, I didn’t want to talk about this project much with other people. During Camp NaNoWriMo, I was in a private Facebook group with other writers doing the challenge. I looked at the daily prompts posted each day but didn’t participate much. I didn’t even tell my best friend what I was working on during the month. (Best friend commented “Booooo” on the Google Doc when she reviewed this.)
What I did do was talk to myself about my project. Sometimes, this was out loud, but mostly it was in a journal. I’ve found that journaling while writing is a great way for me to internally discuss what’s happening—both in my story and to me, as I go through the writing process. I journaled about how hard writing was and how exhilarating it was. I wrote out character details, story arcs, and themes I wanted to explore. Throughout Camp NaNoWriMo, I filled pages with scribbles about all of these things, and it helped me stay excited about my project and ultimately reach 50,000 words.
But if you’re an externally motivated person and you need that accountability, talk about your novel! Talk about your word count, your struggles, your wins. Find people who will listen to you and encourage you, whether that’s someone you see in real life or a group of fellow writers on social media.