5 Tips for #NaNoWriMo I’ve Learned from My 464-Day Writing Streak

As of today, my writing streak has hit 464 consecutive days. Overall, I’ve written for 607 out of the last 609 days. (I missed two days in the summer of 2013 while attending the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in Laramie Wyoming.) But I haven’t missed a day since July 21, 2013. I have also successfully completely NaNoWriMo twice in the past. During the streak, I’ve learned a few things that may help out folks attempting NaNoWriMo this year. Keep in mind that these are things that work for me, given how I work. Your style and word counts may vary.

1. Baseline your metrics and understand what they mean

National Novel Writing Month is like a marathon for writers. It’s designed to be hard, and designed to push you to write every day. That isn’t an easy thing. Like anyone training for a marathon, it helps to know how fast you can run a mile, and how long you can sustain that pace. The same is true for writing in NaNoWriMo.

I have a full-time day job, two little kids, volunteer activities at my kids’ school, and all of the other commitments that come with life. One thing my writing streak taught me early on is that is useful to throw out your assumptions about what you can and can’t do, try new things and measure them. For instance, I always thought I needed to write at a set time of day for a set period of time, say from 5 am – 7 am. But things happen. Schedules change. Life intervenes. So I decided I would write whenever I had time, even if it was only 10 minute here and there–but I would write every day.

What I’ve learned:

  • I can write a page (250 words) in 10 minutes.
  • I average about 40 minutes per day.
  • That means I can generally find time to write about 900-1,000 words per day.

This is helpful information for a marathon like NaNoWriMo. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. To do that requires writing 1,667 words per day.

If you know what your baseline is, you can pretty easily decide how much of your life you will have to adjust to make your goal. Take me for instance. I generally don’t have a problem finding 40 minutes throughout the day to write. That means I can usually count on 900 – 1,000 words/day. (A little more if I am writing nonfiction). In order to meet the pace for NaNoWriMo, however, I need to write an addition 600 words/day. For me, 600 words is about 25 minutes worth of time. That means, I need to find an additional 25 minutes somewhere in my day. Put another way, I need a total of 65 minutes in a given day to get my NaNoWriMo quota in.

Outside of NaNoWriMo, it doesn’t matter much, but if you are trying to run the marathon, you need to know your pace. It varies for everyone. So how did I figure out my pace?

I use a tool called RescueTime. This runs on all of my computers and tells me how much time I spent in various programs and websites. Since I do all of my writing in Google Docs, I wrote a script that pulls how much time I spend in Google Docs each day. Here’s what the past 30 days of my word counts and time-spent looks like1:

Time Spent Writing

There are few days where the time-spent is missing or unusually low. The former is when I wrote on a machine that did not have RescueTime installed. The latter is a data issue. My script couldn’t access the server that night. The point is, the tool collects the data automatically, and I accessed it to establish a baseline.

You don’t have to be this sophisticated, however. You can even make an educated guess. The important thing is to make a realistic guess of how much you can write in an hour (or half hour). Knowing this will help you decide how much extra time you need to carve out of your day.

2. Plan ahead, when possible

I tend to be a “pantser” when it comes to writing fiction. I don’t formally plan ahead, I don’t use outlines, or character sketches. But, when I was doing NaNoWriMo, I did plan ahead. There are two different ways to plan ahead in NaNoWriMo, and depending on how you work, one or both can be of benefit.

Planning what to write

During NaNoWriMo, when time is at a premium, I always started faster when I knew ahead of time what I was going to write about. If I was working on a novel draft, I’d list out 30 days worth of scenes. Usually, these were just one line long, and if I thought a scene would take more than one day, I’d list it as “part 1”, “part 2”, etc.

This helped in a couple of ways:

  • It told me what I was going to write about. I could review the list before going to bed at night, which allowed me to think about it before I set in to write the next day.
  • If I missed a day, I still knew what I had to write, and could adjust accordingly.

Planning when to write

Planning is more than just about what to write. Planning includes when you are going to get that writing done, and more importantly, how you will work around distractions. Some of this goes back to knowing your baseline, which I spoke about in #1. But some of it can be really helpful in a tight spot. Look at your calendar for the month of November and do the following:

  • List out all of the dates on which your schedule will make finding time to write a challenge.
  • For each item you list out, come up with a plan. The plan can be simple: WRITE EARLY IN THE MORNING. Or Skip this day, and write for 2 hours tomorrow.

For example, here is part of my list from back in 2010 when I successfully completed NaNoWriMo:

Nov 25: Thanksgiving - No work today so write early before everyone wakes up.

Nov 26: Black Friday - No work again. Write early while everyone is still asleep and overstuffed.

This plan will help to fight through the inevitable days in which you are time crunched. But having the plan ahead of time will alleviate the panic, and allow you to follow what you’ve decided on ahead of time.

3. Do not rewrite, do not delete

The point of NaNoWriMo is not to produce a polished and publishable novel. It’s to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I can’t emphasize enough these two points:


Why not rewrite? Well, you have a limited amount of time during your 30 days, and you can always rewrite later. Rewriting takes time away from new writing. What if you are writing crap? So what? Nothing in NaNoWriMo says you need to spin golden prose. Trying to do so would be like trying to run a marathon in a tuxedo without breaking a sweat. There’s no point.

Tape a note to your screen: DO NOT REWRITE.

Why not delete? I never delete anything I write. There are two reasons for this:

  1. All writing is practice. Even the crappy stuff is worth learning from.
  2. Not deleting doesn’t mean cutting from the story. I cut things all the time, but I put them in a “deleted scenes” folder. The words still count because I wrote them with the intention of moving the story along. I may decide later they don’t belong in the story, but they still count as writing. Besides, keeping them may be useful down the road.

By not rewriting and not deleting, your word count will grow faster. Mark passages that you want to rewrite or delete with a note, but don’t rewrite or delete until after you’ve completed the 30 days.

4. Don’t fret if you miss a day

One of the most frequent questions I get asked about my writing streak is: what happens when you finally miss a day? It’s an easy question to answer because I have missed a day. I started trying to write every day back in late February 2013. I wrote for 140 consecutive days, and then I missed a day. How did I react?

I was a little bummed, but I put it into perspective. And I got right back on the horse and started the streak over at 1 the very next day. I missed one more day, a few days later. That was July 21, 2013. I haven’t missed a day since. But if I do, well, you have to take these things in stride. Missing a day will mean I have a bigger challenge. Instead of trying to beat a 140 day streak, I’ll have to beat a 464+ day streak.

For NaNoWriMo, missing a day can sometimes lead to missing another day. It’s like a pitcher giving up a hit in late innings after maintaining a no-hitter. It stings a little to have the streak broken, but the important thing to remember is the big picture: you are trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Don’t let missing one day stress you out or knock you off your game. Keep writing.

5. Hold back an “emergency” scene

I’ve written about this tip before. Sometimes, there are days when I have plenty of time to write, but little or no inspiration. One trick I’ve learned for dealing with these days is to hold back one scene that I am particularly eager to write. For shorter fiction, this tends to be a climactic scene that I am excited about.

Back when I would do NaNoWriMo, I’d hold this scene back, and plan to write it either the last day of the contest, or sometime after. My intent in holding it back, however, was to be able to use it as an emergency scene for those days on which I felt little or no inspiration.

When such a day cropped up, I’d pull that scenes and write it. This usually did 2 things:

  1. It got me to write on a day that I might have otherwise flagged, because it was a scene I was excited to write about.
  2. The thrill of writing the scene usually replenished my inspiration, and I had no more trouble writing on subsequent days.

This requires some discipline, of course, but it has saved my bacon on several occasions.

Bonus Tip: Distraction-free mode!

Over the course of my writing streak, I’ve learned that I can write anywhere, in almost any conditions. Before my streak, I thought I needed a silent room and 2 hours of time stretched out before me. Today, I know that I can write a couple of pages in 20 minutes with the TV droning in the background, and the kids shouting and playing loudly with one another.

One thing I do need, however, is a distraction-free screen.

In Google Docs, it’s pretty easy to go into full-screen mode, so that all I see is the page of text I am working on. This is also possible in Scrivener, a great writing tool, and especially good for NaNoWriMo. Other word processors have distraction-free modes as well. I highly encourage their use. For some reason, having nothing but my text on the screen frees me up to write without flipping back to a browser window, or some other application that will distract me from the task at hand.

If you use a word processor with a “distraction-free” mode, I encourage you to take advantage of it in November.

I won’t be participating formally in NaNoWriMo this year, not because I don’t believe in it. I think it is incredibly valuable. But I have now developed the habit of writing every day, and while I don’t generally write 50,000 words in a month, I have written 471,000 words in 464 days. And I don’t see that streak ending any time soon.

That said, if you have tips that might help others make it through NaNoWriMo this year, please leave them in the comments.

And if anyone wants to follow my own progress as my writing streak continues, all of my writing stats are available in real-time over at open.jamierubin.net.

Good luck with NaNoWriMo this year!

  1. These stats are generated automatically from a set of scripts I wrote myself that are also available on GitHub. The nice thing is that the process is entirely automated. All I have to do is write. The scripts gather the data and produce the charts automatically. My time is spent writing, not gathering data.

One comment

  1. Great tips here, especially the planning scenes one. I also have a full time job, and have noticed that if I only have 10-20 mins to quickly get some words down, having an idea of what to write REALLY helps. It lets you hit the ground running and get your word count up much faster. Spending 5 minutes out of 10 figuring out what you want to write is a big waste and not the most efficient way to get words on the page. Having a look at your scene(s) for the next day or two also preps your unconscious brain to start coming up with things to write, and interesting ways to attack those scenes – this all while you’re doing other things (talk about efficient).

    On a similar note to tip #2, this post from Rachel Aaron on her blog has some other ideas to increase your productivity and increasing word counts. Not sure if people have seen it, but here’s the link.


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