A few weeks ago, I wrote two posts recapping my experience as a first-time participant in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. Most of that was dedicated to the lessons I learned, but I started off stating that above all else I found NaNo to be a worthwhile endeavor that I enjoyed very much.
It even brings out my absolute least favorite internet think piece trope: “The Problem.” This is when a post or article uses the phrase “the problem with ____” in either the title or the lede. I find it’s often a way to make you feel bad and/or ignorant about something that probably initially struck you as innocuous, such as NaNo. Here are a couple examples of those, and I’ll refer you to charming curmudgeon Drew Magary for more, and funnier, writing on the topic.
Without further adieu, I will now swoop in with my laptop of justice, crashing through waves of misplaced internet rage to come to the defense of NaNoWriMo. Because if we’ve learned anything in the last twenty-plus years, it’s that we mustn’t rest when someone is wrong on the internet.
Mountains and Molehills
The complaints about NaNo seem to fall into a few buckets. I’m sure this list isn’t exhaustive, but it represents the critiques I’ve seen the most.
- NaNo is responsible for loads of terrible writing, stuff that should never see the light of day.
- It encourages bad and/or unsustainable habits.
- It sets people up to fail.
- It misrepresents what it really means to be a writer and/or real writers don’t need it.
I’ll tackle each of these individually, but to my reading the common thread that runs through each of these complaints has less to do what might work for you and more to do with what the author thinks is The One True Way Things Must Be Done. I’m not sympathetic to such protestations. My threshold for tolerating the argument that there is a right or wrong way to write, purely in terms of process, is low. If you’re curious, I use the workflow at left to determine whether someone has written “properly.”
Please note! This is not the same thing as saying “write well.” That’s a different beast altogether. Which leads, rather nicely I might add, into the first criticism above.
1. Bad Writing Is Preferable to No Writing
So you think lots of NaNo writing is terrible. Well, yeah? So? It’s likely that NaNo is responsible, in one way or another, for a lot of bad writing. Entire Tumblr pages exist as tribute to some of the more easily snarked things people say, do and write as part of the event. It’s also probably true that a lot of this writing might never happen if not for NaNo. For the editors and agents that might end up losing some time to ill-advised submissions, manuscripts that have no hope of redemption, I have some small amount of sympathy. I’m sure it’s a drag to get stuff that is poorly written and/or was never properly revised.
But I think the good outweighs the bad. Not necessarily in terms of actual quality, mind you. It might be that the majority of stuff that comes out of NaNo is not particularly good, but I see that as beside the point. Above all, NaNo encourages people to try. I can speak from experience when I say it’s pretty easy to let days, months, and years go by finding new excuses for why you can’t try something. I’d rather have people trying to be creative, make art, whatever, and failing to do it well than have those same people spare us their terrible efforts and die regretting that they never tried. I can write as much and as poorly as I want, and you are welcome to not to read any of it.**
2. Your Habits Are Your Own
There is a thread of criticism that endeavoring to write 50,000 words in a single month is unreasonable, that the pace is too fast, the expectation to be creative that quickly unreasonable. The thinking goes that trying to art your ass off as fast as NaNo requires will make you sloppy and mistake prone. As a result, you’ll end up writing inefficiently. You should be editing more frequently and planning more diligently.
Like the point above, there probably is some truth in that for at least some people, but again I think it’s missing the forest for the trees. If NaNo is someone’s first real attempt at a long writing project, I can almost promise that not every aspect of that process will be optimal for how that person works best. Bad habits can be a real bitch to break, but they are not absolute. We’re talking about a rewarding creative outlet here, not heroin. Whatever compulsion exists to continue bad writing habits, I suspect it’s very different from other types of bad habits.
If you enjoy writing and work to get better at it, chances are your habits will change with you. NaNo is a learning experience, and that might include figuring out that it does not work well for how you write best. I learned that not every aspect of how NaNo functions was ideal for me, but I am grateful for the existence of a framework that helped me get started learning about myself in that way. My habits are ultimately my responsibility, not NaNoWriMo’s.
3. Failure Is an Option
An extension of the argument above is the notion that NaNo’s rapid pace means lots of people will fail and become discouraged, thus giving up on writing altogether. It’s sort of the opposite end of the spectrum from the “spare me your terrible novel” logic in the first point.
You may notice a commonality to my counterarguments at this point. Again, I’m not sure what we’re really worried about here. Yes, lots of people will fail. The 2014 recap message on the NaNoWriMo website suggests most who signed up did “fail,” at least in terms of the 50K goal. I don’t know exactly how they tally it, but it says there were just over 175,000 novels but only 40,325 over 50K.
Failure is an important part of life, critical even. I’m not interested in a “get off my lawn, kids these days” rant about participation trophies, but I do buy the argument that losing is good for you. As I said above, my habits are my responsibility, and that goes for my reaction to “winning” or “losing” at NaNo as well.
There are any number of possible reactions to failing to meet the 50K goal. You might learn you don’t enjoy writing as much as you thought. You might realize that you like writing, but the format of NaNo doesn’t bring the best out of you (the same reaction might happen if you do meet the goal). You might learn there are other ways you want to challenge yourself or different ways to measure success (as a writer or otherwise). All of these are fine and good. The event gives you a structure for asking and answering these questions about whether and how you want to write.
4. Real Writers Write
The final argument I see in NaNo hate circles is the notion that the event does not accurately represent what it’s like to be a “real” writer and the corollary that “real writers” don’t need it. It’s not uncommon to encounter arguments that if you’re really a writer, you won’t be able to stop yourself from writing even if you want to. The compulsion to get your ideas out of your head and onto the page cannot be defeated. As I said before, I think the only criteria for being a writer is that one must write. This does not mean someone will pay you. This does not mean you are any good. I also don’t think NaNoWriMo makes any such claims about what it offers. The idea that NaNoWriMo is a waste of time or unnecessary for real writers strikes me as a pretty clear “No true Scotsman” logical fallacy.
It’s great that loads of writers feel that nothing could stop them from writing. I feel that way much more frequently these days, but I found all sorts of ways to keep myself from writing until the last couple of years. Self-doubt. Thinking it’s impractical. Perfectionism. A vague and meaningless feeling of “busyness.”
Do these excuses mean I’m not a real writer? Maybe don’t answer that…I’m still struggling with them to an extent. I’m prone to overanalyzing things, to wondering if I really should be doing this. So on days where I struggle to get as much done as I want to these old fears creep up once more. In my case, tackling NaNoWriMo gave me tools, encouragement and a template of sorts for trying to overcome these fears.
NaNoWriMo Harms No One and Helps Many
I understand the criticisms in the linked articles at the top. I regard most of them as making some good points about potential pitfalls associated with NaNo. But I don’t see how these critiques do any good, at least not how they are presented. Take these arguments and reframe them as “Things to Consider Before Doing NaNoWriMo.” That could be useful.
Instead, what I see is people going into detail about why something harmless is somehow bad because it does not reflect how they work or think.*** Indeed a number of the authors basically say just that. So, then, what’s the point of cutting it down for others?
Maybe I’m just feeling defensive because I did get a lot out doing it. I think tone is a big part of it. The word “hate” feels quite strong, and I just don’t think NaNo merits that level of vitriol even if you don’t care for it. As with all things, I’d encourage you to make up your own mind about it. Don’t let any “real” writers tell you it’s a bad idea — or a good one! — without looking into it and deciding for yourself.
*If you are particularly clever, you may have noticed that I could easily have titled this post “The Problem with NaNoWriMo Haters.” Bonus points to you. We become what we hate.
**It would be super great if you did actually read stuff I write, though.
***I get it that if you do not succeed at NaNo you might feel like you failed. Yes, failing sucks, but as I said above I think failing is valuable for the learning experience. Also failing at something does not mean you are a failure.