Writing Process: NaNoWriMo and Me

I’ve been meaning to write about my writing process for quite a while now and am surprised, looking back through my blog archives, that I have not yet addressed it.

This post could alternately be titled “How NaNoWriMo Enabled Me to Write My Dissertation in Three and a Half Months” or “The Importance of NaNoWriMo for Academic Writing.” Or just “Do NaNoWriMo at Least Once, People.”

NaNoWriMo stands for “National Novel Writing Month” and has been going since the turn of the twenty-first century. I’ve done it myself since 2002, most years. No, I don’t have a published novel, and in fact I only finished two of them in that time. (And the first one didn’t even “win” — the only criterion for winning is having a file containing 50,000 words — because it came in about 40,000 words when it was done. Oh well. My best and first finished work, so I’m cool with it. In fact, I’m still working on revising that work and trying to cut a version of it into a 10,000-word short story.) But man, what I got out of it.

NaNoWriMo taught me how to write. I don’t mean how to write well, or grammar or mechanics or plot or anything like that. It taught me how to put words on the page. And, after all, that is the first step to writing something. You have to just start making words.

NaNoWriMo involves speed-writing about 2,000 words a day for the month of November, and turning off your “inner editor” and overcoming inertia are the two most important components in my experience. You cannot stop; you do not have time. You have to just put your fingers on the keyboard and go and not stop until you hit your word count for the day. And you have to do it every single day or else you fall behind in a way that you often cannot recover from. Sure, I’ve written 6,000+ words in a day to catch up in past years. But I don’t recommend it to anyone.

When I first started NaNo, I was still in the mode of starting things off and not getting very far because of my inner editor. I wanted to craft things into perfection. I would get about 5 pages into a story (or maybe 20 if I was lucky), or 4 issues into a graphic novel series, and just quit because I ran out of steam. I spent all that steam going over and over what I’d already made, crafting and enhancing, revising and adding and cutting. It was an endless circle. I was getting nowhere. NaNo taught me to just start running and not stop even if I was tripping over stuff every other step. Just ignore it and keep going. You can come back to it later.

To put it bluntly, it taught me to write a shitty first draft, and I’m really good at writing them now. A shitty first draft is the first step on the way to a good final draft, or a good-enough one, or a decent one. Your writing is never going to be perfect. I’m perhaps lucky that I’m not a perfectionist and I just want to have something done rather than be the best thing ever created. Good enough is good enough.

What does this have to do with academic writing, you may ask? Well, the first step in non-fiction is exactly the same as the first step in fiction. A 150-250-page dissertation is about the same length as a novel. You’re embarking on a major project with some notes and outlining and a blank page. It’s daunting. Where do you start? How do you start? Where are you going? And how do you make it sufficient for your committee to pass? There’s no other way to begin than a shitty first draft. So start writing like the wind.

I thought I was going to defend my dissertation in August 2012 when I began to finally embark on writing, which I hadn’t done in earnest until, yes, my last semester of my PhD program. Six months is tight, I thought, but do-able. Then my advisor casually mentioned he was going to Japan for the summer and I’d need to have the entire thing done and to the committee by mid-May so I could defend and then revise in time for the deadline to graduate by December; it was something like July 1 for everything to be deposited in final form. That means submitting in May, defending in June, getting about 2-3 weeks to do all my revisions and final formatting, and then having the thing completely done. Oh, and I was moving to Boston to start my postdoc on July 15. My movers would take all my stuff several days before. I was beyond a tight timeline. I was on an impossible course.

I don’t think I even started writing in real earnest until mid-January 2012. Then my fingers flew over the keyboard and didn’t stop until the end of April. I had a meeting with my advisor once per chapter (about once every couple of weeks) and spent a few weeks at the beginning of May making frantic revisions to what I was going to hand in: essentially a slightly-less-shitty second draft. Who cares? If it passes, it passes. And then I’m done.

That’s exactly what happened. I wrote a good-enough dissertation in a matter of months, blank page to final product, made a couple of revisions, passed, and deposited. The real work of ‘perfection’ has begun several years later in the articles I’m milking the dissertation for. It can wait. As my advisor told me, if I ever had a to-do list in a chapter, ‘save it for the book.’ I’m not writing a book, but point taken. No time. Just go. Save it. (If only I’d actually saved those to-do lists instead of just deleting them and moving on. Lesson learned.)

I couldn’t have done any of this without my 10 years of shitty-first-draft-writing experience thanks to NaNo. Sure, that was fiction, but it taught me to put my fingers to the keyboard and write as quickly as possible and save the revisions for, duh, the revision stage. Just do it, first; get your thoughts down on paper. It will lead you in directions you never expected, let you craft your narrative, and give your brain something to work on. I find that I don’t come up with even half my thoughts until I’m writing them down. Just write. Learn how to write shitty first drafts, and I promise you, your productivity will skyrocket — if only you can get yourself to sit in that chair and do it more days than not. Save the revisions, which your inner editor can happily do later. For now, just turn off your brain and write.

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