NaNoWriMo and The Problem of Process



So November was National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and yesterday, for the 4th year in a row, I upoaded 50,000+ words to the NaNoWriMo website and earned a winner’s badge for writing a novel in a month. (I cheated this year and wrote a screenplay instead, but who’s counting?) It is SO satisfying.

NaNoWriMo has been gold for me as a creative person. It breaks me out of perfection mode and into production mode, and because I’m producing so much more than usual during NaNo, it’s helped me learn a few things about my process. Among them:

1. I write a lot more if I write in short, manageable chunks, like 10-15 minutes at a time, than if I sit down for an hour and think “I must fill this hour with writing.” It’s easier to psych myself up for a 10-minute sprint because it feels like there’s less at stake. The upshot is that I spend that 10 minutes ACTUALLY WRITING instead of thinking about writing, planning to write, checking email, etc. And if I do 10 10-minute sprints in a day, I’ve spent more than an hour and a half actively writing that day. There are downsides to this approach too – there’s less of a feeling of continuity, and more than once I accidentally introduced  something twice in the same scene because I forgot that I’d already written it 2 sprints before, but that’s no biggie.  That’s what editing is for.

2. It’s more motivating to write in community. The image of the writer alone in her hermit cave is iconic but also fictional. I do by far my best writing when I have writer friends writing with me. During NaNoWriMo, the Twitter account @NaNoWordSprints sponsors round-the-clock cheerleading, check-ins, sprints, and friendly competitions like the #NaNoHouseCup (think Harry Potter – claim your house and write for points).  It’s really motivating. I have the same with my writing accountabilibuddies and my writer’s group, but they’re more occasional big-picture check-ins. The more I have of this, the more I write.

3. I can’t outline to save my life. Every year, I try outlining my project, and every year the outline turns to dead wood within in a week. I don’t know why I seem to think this will work with noveling. When I wrote papers in college, the papers that did the best were ALWAYS the ones that I wrote off the cuff, often in one sitting, with no outline. The figuring-it-out process is what made the prose crackle. One of those papers got me a “Best Undergraduate Essay” and $100. The papers that I outlined, on the other hand, always struggled. The pieces never fit together in the paper the way they did in the outline. I gave up on outlining a few weeks into freshman year. It just wasn’t my thing. I am still learning this lesson in creative writing though for some reason.


The Point

So – the point is – how do we encourage our students to do this work of discovering their process? And I mean this in writing, in math, in science, in any kind of problem-solving work.

Some of your students will need short sprints of work with lots of breaks, and some will need long hours stretching before them in order to bring themselves to a difficult project. Some will need a table of cheerleaders, some will need a private closet with a Do Not Disturb sign. Some will need a plan so detailed it practically does the work itself, others will do their best work when they’re improvising.

I don’t have answers to this – I’m asking you. In a school culture of metrics and data and making square pegs fit round holes, how do you create small spaces for your students to find their process?


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