The downsides of writing too much too fast (or why I don’t do NaNo).

Tuesday is the 1st November, and, as such, marks the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – although it’s actually totally international). NaNo is a fixture in many a writer’s calendar. The idea is that you commit to writing 50000 words during the month of November. It’s all about getting the words out, and it has become a valuable annual kick up the butt for many  writers. Some, such as Julia Crouch, have even gone on to get published with books they started during NaNo.

NaNo can be great. As a creative writing teacher, I get bored out of my brain from hearing, “I’d love to write a book but…” NaNo gets rid of the fatal ‘but’ and forces you to just get on with it. 50000 words in 30 days is 1667 words per day, or somewhere near the 2400 mark if you allow yourself weekends off. 50000 words still isn’t  a full-length novel (although it’s not far off one of the shorter formats, such as a Mills and Boon romance), but it’s an awful lot of white paper that you’ve killed off and an excellent starting point.

But I don’t do NaNo. Here’s why; it’s because I know I can write 2-2500 words per day. I’ve done it before. I wrote an 80000 word first draft of my current work-in-progress in jut under 8 weeks, writing 2000+ words per day Monday-Friday. I didn’t go back and correct. I didn’t edit as I went along. I just got the first draft out and onto the screen. I didn’t allow myself to leave the computer until at least 2000 words were done, and I did them every single weekday, whether I felt like it or not.

And that draft was terrible. Really truly terrible. Sure – there were odd sparkles of diamond amongst the manure but overall it was Not Good. And that will be true of most people’s 50000 NaNo words too. It’s not necessarily a problem. Editing and rewriting are a massive part, probably the main part, of writing a novel. I suspect that most writers’ actual first drafts are never seen by another living soul. The thing they call a “first draft” and send to critique partners or editors has had at least one vigorous tidy up before it’s deemed fit for other human beings to take a look.

But for me, where I feel I need to develop my writing is not in the area of just getting going and banging the words out. It’s in banging better words out. That’s why I’ve decided to write my second novel more slowly, to read back yesterday’s writing before I start todays, to make obvious revisions as I go along, to plan the outline of my plot and my different character’s transitions a bit more clearly. The first draft will still be terrible, but I’m hoping it will be marginally less terrible and feel a little tighter and more rounded.

So if you struggle to get started with your writing and maintain your motivation, then NaNo can be a brilliant spur. You can use the target to force yourself to get your words done every day. And it’s only a month so if the housework slides or you miss some overtime or your sleep patterns go out the window or you eat a lot more takeaway than is good for you then the sky won’t fall in. The only caveat is to remember that what you have at the end isn’t a novel. It might be a strong starting place for a novel, but you’ll need to find your own ways to maintain the motivation through the months of rewriting ahead.

For me getting the words out isn’t my particular writing problem. So, for my novel-writing at least, I’m trying a new mantra. Write less. Write slower. Write better. What do you thnk?

Author: Alison May

Writer. Creative writing teacher. Freelance trainer in the voluntary sector. Anything to avoid getting a real job... Aiming to have one of the most eclectic blogs around, because being interested in just one thing suggests a serious breakdown in curiousity.

7 thoughts on “The downsides of writing too much too fast (or why I don’t do NaNo).”

  1. You’re right that NaNo is appropriate or not for writers based on what stage they are in their writing development. When I first started out, I needed that kick to get going. Then I skipped NaNo a couple times because I too wanted to write better words. Now I’m going back to see if I can writer words both better and faster. I don’t know if I’m at that stage yet. But we shall see. . .


  2. I’m the same way. My first book, “The Mandolin Case” took several years to write and the second novel will be about the same. I guess my writing is like soup, it has to simmer a while for me to get it right.

    Dr. Tom Bibey


  3. I’m like you, I have to edit periodically. I can just see myself having spent blood, sweat and tears to drag those 50,000 words out of my little brain and then find out that a quarter of it I can’t use because of a decision I made back in the first chapter. If I use it I have to rewrite the entire beginning of the book…if not all that work is for nothing…
    That would be my luck. I work better to keep checking myself as I go along. I might take longer to get there but like the Turtle who passed the Hare, I’ll be in much better shape when I get there.


  4. Hi Alison, like you I wrote the first draft of my first book very quickly. Going to writing classes and reading ‘how to’ books helped me restructure the plot, come up with subplots and learn how to write without trying too hard. I think everyone overwrites at first then we find our voice when we cut out those words and sentences (and scenes) which aren’t needed. I have started to plan my second book and this time I hope that I won’t spend as much time rewriting because I’ll have more of an idea of what I’m doing. Even though I have rewritten my first book several times (and I’m nearly there), the main plot has more or less stayed the same. I think editing as you go can stifle creativity and I expect with your next book your first draft will be better than before because of what you’ve learnt. Best of luck, Anita


  5. Hi Alison, yes I agree with your thoughts and at the end of last years nanowrimo I wrote a post along similar lines to say that I might not do it again for the reasons you outline. This year I am working on my 2nd nano novel and improving it. It’s taken me a whole year to get the structure right and I wonder is it because I just chucked stuff down last year. However, despite that, I am still going ahead this year. The main reason is that while being a hard worker I don’t actually produce much unless there is a deadline, I fiddle about with stuff for ages. Secondly with 4 kids there is always a reason not to write. Part of Nanowrimo for me is getting others on board to acknowledge that writing is an important activity. During the month of November they know that something special is taking place and the kids become cheerleaders – the older ones asking me if I managed to do my quota of words each day. So I will do nanowrimo but I will also take a sensible approach and if I feel I am destroying my book by going too fast as you say, I will ease back. In fact doing Nanowrimo but not winning, might, for me be the best compromise! Thanks for your useful thoughts.


  6. Oooh – so many lovely comments.

    I think aeliusblythe has an interesting point about different things working at different stages. Perhaps there are two distinct stages to being a writer. You start off wanting to do it but not knowing where or how to start, and you need a kick (either external or a kick to yourself) to get you to just do it. Then, maybe you develop into finding a working pattern that works for you. I think a lot of the “rules” we get told like “You MUST write everyday” are useful to break the initial fear of doing it wrong, but once you’ve broken through those barriers maybe you’re better off finding your own set of rules that work best for you.

    I absolutely take Alison’s point about NaNo effectively giving you permission to write – and to tell those around you that it’s important. That’s a really big deal when writing is competing for your time and attention with a hole heap of other responsibilities, some of which, like kids, will inevitably take priority a lot of the time.

    Neets – I’m glad you finally got to comment! It sounds like our first novel experiences were quite similiar. I’m not sure whether I agree that editing as you go along stifles creativity. That used to be my concern but it doesn’t worry me as much now. Ask me again in a couple of months time when I know how novel no. 2’s going!


  7. Interesting post – I tend to write and edit as I go along and then the next I re-read what I’ve done the day before which often entails more edits and then I start writing. So my first draft isn’t *too* bad. When I rewrote my last novel I actually really enjoyed it, in a way more than writing it in the first place because now I knew what wasn’t working and what needed attention.
    I did toy with NaNo but only for about an hour, decided it’s not really for me plus I am working on something at the moment. I get the impression with NaNo the key is to plan, plan and plan before writing.


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