Five tips for a successful NaNoWriMo (and how Scrivener can help)

Having successfully completed NaNoWriMo on a couple of occasions, I thought I’d provide a few tips that I found helpful during my efforts. Each time I completely NaNoWriMo, it was with the intention of writing at least 50,000 words of what would ultimately become a full novel. So these tips may not apply to folks who are just out to write 50,000 words for no reason other than to complete the contest.  Here you go:

1. Plan ahead

To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to write 1,667 words each day. For me, this required some planning. I spent a good deal of my writing time in October planning what I would write in November. This included a fairly detailed outline of my novel. My approach was to aim for chapters that were roughly 2,000 words1 long. I outlined about 45 such chapters, and I expected to get through about 30 of them during November. Planning ahead had the added benefit of letting me know what I would be working on each day. I never woke up and said, gee, I don’t know what to write today. It was always there in the outline, and I could often think about it the night before. That often allowed me to start faster.

Once I had the outline completely, I used Scrivener to a NaNoWriMo novel project and I created 45 chapters. On each chapter, I included my summary of the chapter from my outline. I didn’t worry much about naming the chapters at this point. I just wanted to make sure I had them all set up before I got started. Scrivener allows you to create a goal for each document, so for each document (and I had one document per chapter) I created a goal of 2,00o words. This comes in hand later when you are writing because you can see the progress bar turn from red to yellow to green as you get closer to your goal each day.

2. Start early

My favorite time to write is early in the day. This isn’t true for everyone, but it worked particularly well for me. During NaNoWriMo, I would write between 5-7am. During those two hours, I’d do my best to complete the chapter I’d planned. Starting early had several benefits for me (your mileage may vary):

  • My wife and kids were still asleep. I wasn’t interrupted by phone calls or email. And I knew I’d have 2 hours of distraction-free writing.
  • I have a day job and it wasn’t tenable for me to write during the day
  • While I often write in the evening, with kids and the day job, I am also more often to be too tired to get a decent amount of writing done.
  • Most importantly for me, I like an early win. It feels good to me to get 2,000 words written and in the books before 7am. For the rest of the day I am working off a success. I feel good on these days whereas on those days when I don’t get the writing done early, I don’t feel nearly as good.

Those early wins were critical for me. I think I wrote between 5-7am on 25 of the 30 days last year. And if you plan ahead, it is easy to start early. There’s no sitting in front of the keyboard wondering what you are going to write. You pop open Scrivener, open up chapter n (where n corresponds to the nth day of NaNoWriMo), read over your summary, start writing and keep writing until the progress bar turns green.

3. Aim high

To hit 50,000 words in 30 days requires writing 1,667 words each and every day. In laymen’s terms, that’s about 6-1/2 manuscript pages each day. But I always aimed higher. I aimed for 2,000 words each day and in fact, I often achieved more than 2,000 words in a day. The reason for this is that I anticipated there being at least a few days where writing, for one reason or another, would be impossible. The kids would be sick, or I’d be out of town, or there would be some reason that prevented me from getting that day’s writing done. Writing 2,000 words/each day means writing 333 words more than par. In just 5 days of writing 2,000 words/day, you’ve already gained an entire day. That means you could miss a day of NaNoWriMo completely and still finish on schedule if you write 1,667 words for the remaining day. Last year, I think I finished with somewhere over 60,000 words and was several days ahead of par by the end.

This means putting in an extra effort each day, but it pays off in less stress, and a feeling, each morning, that you are already ahead of the curve. Also, with good planning, I was aiming for chapters that were about 2,000 words long and that became my daily morsel. After just four or five days, I began to get the feel for how to get 2,000 words done in 2 hours. It become more like telling a small story within a larger story each day of the competition.

Scrivener allows you to not only set document targets, but set overall writing targets based on length and date. So you can tell Scrivener that you want to write 50,000 words (or 60,000 words) by November 30, and Scrivener will tell you how many words you need to write each day, based on how much you’ve already written. If you miss a day, those numbers go up. If you exceed your daily quota, those numbers go down. It makes it very easy to see where you are.

4. Do NOT rewrite

Rewriting is probably what kills a large portion of NaNoWriMo success. Remember that the competition isn’t for the best written 50,000 words, it’s simply to get to 50,000 words. It’s like running a marathon. It doesn’t matter how messy the running is, you are just aiming to cross the finish line. I didn’t rewrite a single word during the entire month of November and this is an enormous help because it means that every word you do write adds to your total.

But you are trying to write a novel and you want it to be good, right? Well, think of the 30 days of NaNoWriMo as a sketch of the novel. Get as much of the sketch as you can down on paper. But don’t worry about the details. Those can come later, in a second draft.

And what if you see things that need to be fixed or corrected? What if the story is starting to move off-book, or in an unexpected direction? Well, here is what I did:

  • After each NaNo writing session, I’d read over what I wrote. If there were problems, or comments, I’d make notes on that document in Scrivener. Often the notes were things like, “I haven’t established this character as the love interest yet, and it eventually needs to happen.” Or: “For this scene to be effective, I need to go back and plant a conversation with so-and-so back in Chapter 2.” Or: “This scene is crap. Cut it or rewrite it in the second draft.”
  • When NaNoWriMo was over, I read through all of the chapter notes, consolidated them into a single document and used that as a guide for changes that I wanted to introduce in my second draft.

I did not make the changes during NaNoWriMo.

Scrivener is great for capturing these notes and annotation. And when you are all done, you can take a snapshot of your NaNoWriMo draft before you start working on your second draft and compare your subsequent changes to the original. Often times there is a lot to learn about how to improve your writing in these comparisons.

5. Make it social and have fun

Writing is a lonely business, but NaNoWriMo provides an opportunity to have friendly competitions with friends and other writers. You can discuss your progress and struggles, follow along on the NaNoWriMo website, encourage one another, and even write posts about your experience. Other things you can do to have fun:

  • Group writing. My writers group reserved a few sessions for folks doing NaNoWriMo to write together. This year, Google+ Hangouts might be good for this.
  • Treat yourself to something special when you win. I ordered a NaNoWriMo winner’s t-shirt
  • Celebrate your success!

Those are my five tips for a successful NaNoWriMo. I wasn’t certain that I’d be doing NaNoWriMo again this year, but after giving it more thought, I  am leaning toward trying again. You can find me over on the NaNoWriMo site. My username is jamietr.

And for those curious about what it is like to go through 30 days in an effort to write 50,000 words, you can get some idea by looking through my NaNoWriMo blog posts from 2010. Click on the date to read the NaNoWriMo-specific entry.

Day Date Words Cum. Notes
1 November 1 2,625 2,625
2 November 2
2,132 4,757
3 November 3 2,504 7,261
4 November 4 2,288 9,549
5 November 5 2,240 11,789
6 November 6 2,338 14,127
7 November 7 2,879 17,006
8 November 8
2,408 19,414
9 November 9 2,125 21,539
10 November 10 2,115 23,653
11 November 11 2,562 26,214
12 November 12 morningafternoon 3,862 30,076 Best day
13 November 13 2,386 32,462
14 November 14 2,318 34,780 Part 1 of novel completed.
15 November 15 2,327 37,107
16 November 16 2,248 39,355
17 November 17 2,809 42,164
18 November 18 2,355 44,519
19 November 19 2,023 46,542 Passed halfway point for 90K word novel
20 November 20 morningafternoon 3,617 50,159 Wins NaNoWriMo!
21 November 21 1,875 52,034 Worst day
22 52,034
23 November 22, 23 52,034
24 52,034
25 November 25 2,146 54,180
26 November 26 2,153 56,333
27 56,333
28 56,333
29 November 29 2,755 59,088
30 November 30 2,043 61,131 NaNo over

  1. See tip #3.


  1. The one key piece of advice that this post provided me was: write a *detailed* outline.

    I already learned that without an outline, that is, a direction, I’ll fail NaNo. However, the outline I was going to write this month was going to be too vague. Now I’m going to summarize each chapter, just as you did. I think this’ll be incredible for me.

    Congrats on being publishing in Analog, and by the way, your site design is wonderful! So clean, so simple.

    1. Lauren, thanks for the kind words. Regarding the discipline: that’s probably the hardest part but finding someone to have a little writing rivalry with during NaNoWriMo helps a lot. I had a little rivalry going last year and it was a lot of fun. (I’d have an outstanding day, 2,900 or 3,000 words only to find out that the other person had written 4,800 words.) Good luck this year!

  2. I’m so glad Lauren (@PureText) tweeted the link to this blog. I’m not doing nanowrimo (I definitely don’t need the push and am currently working on 3 books, one of which I’ve got scheduled to release December 31st–I need my November!) but I did enjoy reading this post. The one time I did nanowrimo (2006), I finished on Nov 12 and found that yes, planning–or really thinking about it ahead of time–was the key.

    Lauren, I never ever used to outline. After doing nanowrimo 2006, I trashed the 95,000 words I had by December (I was finishing a totally different story than I’d begun on Nov. 1st) and finally, when I returned to that book, I outlined first. I had the characters and “world” all built from doing nanowrimo, but I needed to really outline the plot to make it a tight story. I wish I’d done that first! Life would’ve been so much easier.

    If you can spend October outlining and NOT writing until November, you’ll guaranteed finish and probably exceed the 50k mark. It’s not hard once you know what you want to write 🙂 The hardest part for most people is the self-discipline and focus. If you can outline in October, you’ve got the discipline and focus to write it it in November!

    Thanks to Jamie for the Scrivener notes, too. Sure do wish they’d get that Windows Beta released already!! I really want to try it out but am on a Win7 machine.

  3. Thanks for the reply!

    Outlining will definitely make NaNo easier, but honestly, I’m still worried about the discipline. Even if I know what I should be writing, there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to push myself to actually do so. Ha! That’ll be part of the challenge, though.

    I’m excited for this year. 🙂

  4. Part of the reason nanowrimo works for so many is the accountability to other nano’ers makes them feel more disciplined. Join a nano group or club and be sure to report daily on your word count to your buddies on the site. Don’t wait for others to see you; go see them and report in. Don’t spend hours doing THAT but make it the last 5 min before you sign off for the day–then you’ll have to have something to report, right?

    Good luck! Remember, even if you just get yourself to sit down and stick to a scheduled DAILY that’s “winning” in a way. It doesn’t matter how many words so much as that you write daily (or nearly so) for 30 days. The idea is to build a habit, to build a momentum, to build a level of self-confidence that you CAN do it. And you can ^_^

  5. Jamie,

    They allegedly were doing this beta last year with the Nanowrimo 2010 run but I’ll believe it when I see it. Since I’m not doing Nano this year and will be “in the heat” of releasing the a major series, it’ll kind of come too little too late for me to use until next year when I can get a different series setup in it. The tool sounds great if you use it beforehand, not after the fact.

    How does Scrivener do with importing MS Word files, do you know? Have you tried any? I hate Word and yet love it, mostly because I know it so well, having used it since its 1.0 release way back when it was still just called “Word for Windoze” excuse me, Windows 😉 It’s an automatic correction I do *haha*

    1. Sarah, I can’t speak to how well Scrivener imports Word documents as I haven’t used Word in a long time. I will admit, however, that my favorite word processor, before discovering Scrivener, had always been Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS, which I used pretty much all through college, before there was a Windows version of Word. That was a good word processor.

  6. LOL yeah, I remember Word for DOS and 5.5 was the last one just before Windoze IIRC. My first computer (not counting the Commodore 64 because that wasn’t really a computer *smirk*) was an 8088 with DOS and I’ll never forget when I first installed Word–as a writer, all I could think was to list off all the things it did NOT do for me. I still had my IBM Selectric II at the time and actually got more done with fewer errors on the typewriter than in Word. Funny, huh? I can’t imagine being without my copy/paste and delete keys now!

    I’ve followed Scrivener on Twitter and been to the Facebook Page so I’ll track when they actually release the full non-beta and try to get into that but I’ll probably have to wait until 2012, esp. if they don’t get it out til Dec 2011 LOL. Then again, Nov 7th is my bday so here’s to hope the lattes run free and they get it out in time for my birthday!

  7. I really loved this article. Thank you! Last year I entered NaNoWriMo late, without a proper outline, and it was disastrous. This year I’m spending October on planning. I’m using OmniOutliner for that (the iPad app), and I’m loving it.

    About Scrivener, it’s by far the best writing tool for desktop computers. Scrivener for Mac is still superior, but Wiindows version is coming closer, more stable, more refined. The last beta works wonderfully. It still has issues, but it’s getting better, and better.

  8. Jacqueline,

    Thanks for mentioning the OmniOutliner for iPad. I’ve been trying to find a good outliner app for my iPad. I like to do 3D outlines though (timeline on one axis, plotline on another, characters on another) so it’s been hard to find something better than color-coded stickies on my wall (haha)

  9. Jamie, thank you for writing this article. This year will be my 2nd attempt at Nanowrimo. The first time in 2008 was a complete fiasco. (Think I gave up after a couple thousand words.) At least this year I have a much better handle on the story I want to write.

    I had already decided that outlining was the way to go but hadn’t realized how I could use Scrivener to keep track of my progress. Great tips!

    Thanks Lauren (@PureText) for tweeting this link!

  10. Thank you ever so much for this post. I took part in NaNoWriMo for the first time last year and failed. I was not sure if I wanted to take part this year but you have made it all sound less scary. You are right, being organised is the key. Good Luck I will look out for you.

  11. So, fyi, I use a product in microsoft suite called onenote. It’s a fabulous product which allows you to create within one document tabs and subtabs. So, you can subdivide. Plus, instead of having a bunch of little documents, everything is already inside of one document. I began using this program while writing research papers in graduate school that were large – 100+ page – projects. It helped me to organize my thoughts and to subdivide ‘chapters’ into sections.

    I’ve never used Scrivener, and I’m pretty sure there’s no ‘progress bar’ on onenote, but it is a fabulous program, especially for organization. This will be my fourth or fifth year attempting nano. I’ve never finished before, but I am DOING IT this year lol 😀 Good luck everyone, and I hope you all find whatever works best for you!

    Oh, and for some rivalry (I’ll need to kick ;-D) you can add me – jamiekins

    1. Jamie, I’ve used OneNote in my day job and it is just too overly complicated for my simple brain. I prefer Evernote for general note-taking, OmniOutliner for organizing thoughts, and Scrivener for my fiction writing. Good luck on NaNoWriMo this year!

  12. I’ve recently started using the snapshot feature and found it incredibly helpful. It’s nice to be able to save a copy where you can view it while doing the re-write and easily retrieve it as needed. Much better than printing it out and then potentially having to retype long passages if the newer version doesn’t work.

  13. Great tips! I’ve also found that early in the morning is good because if you don’t make your goal, there’s still time in the evening after taking some time throughout the day to think about where the story is going.

    And, that’s also another good point, aiming high. I always try to aim for at least 2,000, especially in the beginning. That way there’s a bit of a cushion when life gets in the way.

    I’m looking forward to another NaNoWriMo year!


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