How do you write 50,000 words in 30 days? We’ve created the ultimate NaNoWriMo survival guide to get you through every aspect of National Writing Month – from initial ideas to muddy middles – we’ve included everything you need and more.
What is NaNoWriMo?
NaNoWriMo (or NaNo for short) takes place every November. It’s a free global writing event that challenges writers to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.
Shortly after its inception in 1999, it transformed into a nonprofit organisation, raising funds to support writing fluency and education worldwide, all thanks to the dedicated backing of the passionate writing community.
The mission of NaNoWriMo has always been the same: to promote creative writing and encourage writers to get their stories onto the page.
As its popularity has grown, NaNoWriMo has taken on a life of its own. Some writers draw inspiration from it for their personal writing challenges, while others fully immerse themselves in the NaNo lifestyle, embracing everything from online enrollment and forums to participation in competitions, writing sprints, and live events.
In its inaugural year, the writing challenge saw the participation of 21 people, including founder Chris Baty. By 2022, a remarkable 413,925 writers pledged to join in on their site. Out of all those who participated in 2022, 51,670 achieved their goals and earned the title of NaNoWriMo winners (you might be wondering, what exactly makes a winner – we’ll explain that later).
It’s important to note that NaNoWriMo isn’t designed for the creation of perfectly polished prose or flawless drafts. The primary focus is on dedication and progress, rather than perfection.
Famous novels completed during NaNoWriMo
Plenty of well-known authors have used NaNoWriMo to get their novels off the ground.
- Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
- Cinder by Marissa Meyer
- Wool by Hugh Howey
- An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
- Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy
- With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
- The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
- The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong
Are there rules for taking part?
Yes, and no.
The concept of NaNoWriMo is simply to get people writing, so by design the rules aren’t too convoluted.
- The timing. NaNoWriMo lasts for the duration of November.
- Starting early. To keep to the spirit of NaNoWriMo, there is no starting early.
- The word count. The general goal is 50,000 words – to ‘complete’ NaNoWriMo you must meet (or exceed) this word count.
- Taking notes. Any note taking, research or planning can contribute towards your word count. As long as the material is created during November, it doesn’t need to be included in your body of text to count. No material written before the start date can be used (unless it’s completely transformed/repurposed).
- Genre and theme. NaNoWriMo is open to writers of all genres, themes and forms. Want to write fanfiction? Prose poetry? You’re welcome to!
- You, and you alone. All writing must be done by an individual.
- Rebel. The sixth and unofficial rule is that the rules are there to be broken. As a self proclaimed ‘self-challenge’ NaNoWriMo exists to get you writing – if breaking the aforementioned rules works for you, if you start to feel held back or restrained, then bend or break them as much as you need. All that matters is that you’re writing.
Do you write within the NaNoWriMo website?
No, the site doesn’t provide an interface for writers to compose their text directly. To track your daily word count, you need to manually input your character count, and the system will calculate your writing statistics for you.
It’s recommended to stick with your preferred writing method, whether it’s Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Scrivener, or another tool, as long as you can easily access your word count.
What do you get for completing NaNoWriMo?
Most of the glory of completing NaNoWriMo is the sense of accomplishment (and of course bragging rights), however there are multiple opportunities for participants to win prizes. Each year is different, but you can expect sponsors such as ProWritingAid, WordPress.com and FirstDraftPro. There are usually free or discounted subscriptions, merchandise, manuscript reviews and physical copies of your project up for grabs. Check the NaNoWriMo website to see what new incentives they have available this year.
How do you win?
When your word count reaches or exceeds 50,000 words, you’ll be awarded a 50K badge on the site. Upon accomplishing this, your dashboard will display a notification acknowledging you as a winner. You’ll find all the necessary information to claim your winner’s rewards. There are no restrictions on the number of individuals who can be declared winners each year.
What happens if you fail?
There are no repercussions if you don’t hit that 50k word count. NaNoWriMo is an intensely difficult experience. Realistically 10-15% of writers who commit each year complete the challenge.
Even for the most seasoned writers, sticking to such a strict writing goal and writing every single day isn’t realistic. Life happens and sometimes it’s just not feasible to write such a large quantity in short space of time. The worst thing you can do is force your way through the challenge and emerge more stressed and unhappy with your writing. If you need to skip a day, adjust your goals or exit the challenge completely, that’s not a failure. That’s looking out for your own mental wellbeing, and it’s something us writers don’t do enough.
It’s time to cast aside that old stereotype of the tortured artist. Stop if you need to. It’ll be ready for you to start again next year.
Fans of NaNoWriMo have taken to referring to October as ‘Preptober’ in anticipation of the writing sprint. Like all marathons, it pays off to set a pace that works for you.
It’s a tale as old as time, some writers are notorious for planning while others prefer to fly by the seat of their pants; NaNo is no exception.
There’s nothing wrong with entering NaNoWriMo with nothing but an idea or a character, but if it’s your first time, sustaining that thread of a concept can be overwhelming.
Why not break down each week, giving yourself allocated time to plan and take notes, or take alternate days to work on your idea while the rest of the time can be spent writing? Not every day has to be spent writing prose. Be flexible and kind to your brain to avoid burning out.
What should your preparation include?
Every writer is different but we recommend having the following before you begin writing:
- Your cast of characters and their motivations
- The character development arcs
- The main conflict (internal and external)
- The stakes
- Your basic plot beats
- A theme or question that’s the driving force of your novel
- A basic outline of your novel and/or chapters
Struggling with ideas? Take a look at our 9 ways to boost your creativity blog for tips to jog your imagination.
Looking for advice from NaNo regulars? Our writers have been there, done that. Explore what our published authors think of NaNo, get advice for planning from an award-winning crime writer and don’t miss USA Today bestselling author Heidi Rice‘s 10 top tips for NaNoWriMo.
Set your writing goals
Before you start writing, consider why you want to take part in NaNoWriMo.
Keeping these goals in mind can help you if you hit any rough patches or need a boost of motivation. Setting small but achievable goals throughout the month is a fantastic method to keep yourself on track.
Procrastination is the death of productivity, but relying on self-motivation makes your writing journey considerably harder to navigate. Consider joining a writing group, forum or sharing your experience online to stay accountable and build a support network for when the words are harder to get down on a page.
If you’re aiming for the full 50,000 words goal, that’s 1,667 words per day. Consider how you want to spread out your writing – will you write less on the weekends or will you write more? Do you have any plans to consider writing around? Are there scenes you’re anticipating more than others? We recommend figuring out which days to dedicate to individual goals and build up your plan from there.
Having daily goals with tangible results can help you maintain momentum and keep your end goal at the front of your mind.
Use this nifty day-to-day checklist by First Draft Pro as inspiration for your own daily goals, or take a look at the writing routines and habits of previous NaNo winners.
Use story structure to guide you
Your focus for NaNo depends on you and your project. It might already be fully formed, you might be revisiting an old idea or developing a new one – either way, the same writing rules apply.
The structure of your story is the backbone of what you have to say. It’s the skeleton that upholds your characters, the sinew that keep it together and the breath that gives life to your words.
Think about your story structure, do you have a specific character arc or story line in mind? What scenes are pivotal and where do they fit in?
The fundamental three-act structure includes:
- Beginning Hook
- Inciting Incident
- Plot Point One
- Rising Action
- Plot Point 2
- Pre-climax and Climax
- Falling Action (Denouement)
Break down your structure as detailed as you prefer, and establish the stepping stones for your narrative to guide your characters to their destination.
If you find yourself stuck in the notorious “muddy middle,” take a step back, write another scene, and return to the challenging part when it becomes clearer. The feeling of muddiness often stems from self-doubt. Analyse what’s hindering your progress, and remember that even the most acclaimed writers encounter rough patches. Keep writing to break through it, no matter how rough or haphazard your words may be. Do whatever it takes to escape that sinkhole, and only look back once you’ve reached solid ground. Overcoming the muddy middle is about proving to yourself that you can reach the other side.
It’s essential to let go of your usual constraints and resist the temptation to edit or revise while in the throes of creativity. Disregard all the pressures and let your words flow onto the page, no matter how messy or imperfect they may appear. Release yourself from expectations and allow your writing to flow freely.
Remember that NaNoWriMo doesn’t have to be a lengthy and tortuous experience. Whether you prefer meticulous planning or spontaneity, do whatever brings you joy in the writing process.
Our tips and tricks
There is a plethora of writing resources available on the NaNoWriMo website to assist you through your writing journey. With built-in word trackers, pep talks from authors, prompts and more, you have everything you need at your fingertips.
If you’re seeking additional help or simply want to liven up your writing routine, we’ve compiled our top tips and tricks for you:
- Try the Pomodoro technique
- Take regular breaks
- Set up writing sprints for focused productivity
- Activate a ‘do not disturb’ mode for uninterrupted writing
- Create an optimal writing environment for yourself
- Establish rituals and routines to get into the writing groove
- Provide yourself with incentives for motivation
- Allow for extended writing sessions when you’re in the flow
- Keep a separate document for notes and content you may want to preserve
- Don’t force yourself to write everyday if you don’t want to; remember, there’s no NaNoWriMo police
- Utilise templates and outlines to streamline your writing process
- Have fun with writing exercises and prompts for creativity
- Build an inspiration board for visual stimulation
- Schedule dedicated writing time
- Use music and playlists to set the mood for your writing
- Discuss your ideas when you’re stuck to gain new perspectives
- Refrain from looking back and save editing for when you’ve completed your draft.
Harness the magic of a community
One of the delights of NaNoWriMo lies in the sense of community it nurtures. The website hosts online forums for writers of all genres, from various locations and languages. Here, you’ll discover tips, engage in discussions, and participate in conversations addressing any challenges you might encounter.
NaNo offers the chance to connect with individuals who share your passion for writing. The power of discussing your work with others and the creative ideas that arise from such discussions can be truly astounding.
As a global writing community, we recognise the strength that comes from writers uniting to support one another. When you enroll in our courses, you’ll become part of a lively online alumni network, where you can exchange goals, seek guidance, and serve as a source of inspiration for fellow writers setting out on this literary journey.
Still not convinced? Explore what our students have gained from joining writing groups.
Can I still sign up mid-November?
You can still join in at any point in November – just beware that in order to reach that 50,000 word count you’ll have a lot to catch up on! Sign up on the official NaNo website.
What happens after NaNoWriMo?
NaNoWriMo is about more than just word counts; it’s a celebration of creativity, dedication, and the power of storytelling. We believe that with the right support and guidance, you can achieve your writing goals and become a NaNoWriMo winner.
The essence of NaNoWriMo is to prove that it is possible to stick to a everyday writing habit and while it may not feel sustainable to continue writing so substantially, why not take what you’ve learned and change how you write for the better?
Can’t wait until next November? NaNoWriMo also run the ‘Now What?’ challenge for writers looking to move forward with their project in February.
Succeed during NaNoWriMo and beyond, join a writing course and keep your writing on track with regular assignments, peer-to-peer feedback and insight from award-winning writers. Refine your writing as you learn.
Want to keep writing? Take a look at our Jumpstart Your Novel course to shape your story and create an industry-standard synopsis.
Ready to edit your work? Explore our Edit Your Novel course to edit your project, finesse your synopsis and develop an agent-ready submission pack.