11 tips to “winning” NaNoWriMo


NaNoWriMo is coming up! All right, it’s technically coming up in November. However, it’s never too early to start thinking about NaNoWriMo, it’s only too early to start writing for NaNoWriMo.

What is NaNoWriMo?

From the website: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel.

Here’s a little history on how National Novel Writing Month began.

NaNoWriMo was founded by Chris Baty in July 1999 in the San Francisco Bay Area, with only 21 participants. The goal of 50,000 words was set after Baty grabbed the shortest novel on his bookshelf (Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley) and did a rough word count. Only 6 of those 21 participants completed the challenge. But doing NaNo in July proved too difficult due to the gorgeous weather outside. So after 1999, NaNo was changed to November to take advantage of the miserable weather.

More stats:

  • The first official year of NaNoWriMo was in 2000, when the event had an actual website.
  • By 2001, 5000 people signed up.
  • In 2014, 175,002 people signed up, and 40,325 crossed the finish line with 50K.

So why was 50,000 words the magic number? This seemed like a difficult, yet not impossible amount of words, and the length makes it a short novel, about 175 pages.

Other novels that are 50K words long:

  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  • Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
  • The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks

Several bestselling novels that were first written during NaNoWriMo:

  • Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
  • The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
  • Wool, by Hugh Howey
  • Cinder, by Marissa Meyer

11 Tips to WIN NaNoWriMo

(Disclaimer: Winning NaNoWriMo basically means you have written 50,000 words or more before the deadline on November 30. Biggest prize is being able to call yourself a novelist. And the sponsors will kick in a few discounts and freebies to those who cross the finish line. But there is no competition here. The novel doesn’t even need to be good. Anyone can “win” just by writing 50,000 words.)

1. Plotting is better than pantsing.

This is controversial, as there are many pantsers out there who are probably reading this and ready to click away. But hear me out. First of all, let me explain what plotters and pantsers are. Plotters are the people who come up with a plan, any plan, before sitting down to type. Pantsers are the people who sit down on Nov. 1 with no plan at all, or maybe just an idea of what to write, but nothing else. They plot as they type.

Here’s my argument for plotting. Sitting down with your computer or notebook on Nov. 1, things are going to go much smoother if you have a plan. You can start with anything from a rough idea to a detailed play-by-play outline. Things may change along the way, and you can adjust your outline to reflect that. But things will go much smoother if you start out with a plan than it will if you start out staring at a blank page.

2. Kiss your family goodbye.

Not really. But do let those close to you know what’s going to be happening over the next month. Not only will it help you to be held accountable to your lofty goal, but it will also warn them that you are going to be less available this month than you are in other months. Skip all the socializing you can get out of, plan for easy dinners (or take out!) for the month, understand that the housework might go to the wayside (or get your family to help out), give the kids away (kidding!), don’t sign on for anything extra, fill up your DVR with all the shows you won’t be watching…. Make writing a priority. It’s just for a month. On Dec. 1, your family can have you back.

3. Set a daily writing goal.

NaNo’s goal is 1,667 words a day. I always set mine to an even 2,000. This way, I’m always ahead, even on days when the words aren’t coming. And on days when I have a lot more time to write, I will strive to double that amount—because, let’s face it, life happens, and there might be some days when writing isn’t so easy.

4. Set your writing time at the same time every day.

This time should be when you’re at you’re most creative. For me, that’s 5-7 a.m. before I need to start getting ready for my paying job. It also allows me to get my writing done first thing so I don’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day, or I know how much I need to make up if I don’t finish my goal. I will also use my lunch breaks and the evenings if I need to. However, the early mornings are when my writing muscle knows it’s time to get down to business. If you sit down at the same time each day, your body will soon realize this is when it’s time to be creative.

5. Avoid all distractions!

Another benefit of having a set time when you are writing is that you can make this time sacred. No one should be allowed to bother you (unless there’s an emergency – and not the “we’re out of milk” emergency, but “the house is on fire” kind). Anything that might tempt your attention, like your phone, TV, or internet, should be turned off and out of your reach. Best place for you is behind a closed, locked door. Even better, go write somewhere away from home, where no one even knows you.

6. Connect on the NaNoWriMo forums.

This tip is being given with caution. The NaNo forums can be a major distraction, especially at times when you should be writing and Writer’s Block is looming. During your writing times, stay FAR AWAY from the NaNo forums. But in off times, peruse the forums for a subject that calls for you. A good place to start is the one for your home county. For most of us, that’s Sonoma County. Here you will find a bunch of people who understand the craziness of trying to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, because they’re doing it, too. You’ll make new friends and connections here, and even learn about some of the write-ins going on around the county.

7. Attend a write-in.

Write-ins are NaNo meetups, usually at coffee shops or bookstores, where everyone hangs out, glued to their computer screen. It’s awesome! For one, it’s nice to put faces to the people you’ve been chatting with on the NaNo boards. And two, it’s powerfully motivating to be surrounded by the clacking of keys. For the most part, people at write-ins are writing under the same rules you are—no talking to the other writers, and utilize the time for actual writing. My one piece of advice is to try and buy something when you’re using a food or drink place as your write-in location. This will ease the stare downs from the wait staff when you tie up their tables for hours on end.

Note: Depending on your state and current Covid restrictions, you may have to save in-person write-ins for next year. However, many people are hosting virtual write-ins via Zoom. It might sound weird, but it’s actually motivating to know other people are writing at the same time you are, even if your cohorts can only be seen on a computer screen.

8. Don’t look back. EVER.

Once you’ve written something, leave it. Don’t re-read it. Don’t edit. Just let it be. If you think of something you want to change, make a note so you won’t forget when you edit in December (or whatever month you edit after November). But just keep moving forward.

9. End in the middle of a senten…

Never end your writing session at the end of a scene or chapter. Instead, leave a little bit left of the scene (even a sentence!) and write a note about where you’re heading. That way when you sit back down to start writing again, you can warm up that writing muscle with a part of the story you’re familiar with. By the time you’re ready to move on to the next scene, you’ll be moving full speed ahead.

10. Don’t give up.

The first week of writing is always the best. You’re going, you love the story. Things just keep happening. Then the second week comes, and the story you’re writing just sucks. Nothing’s going right. You hate your characters. You’re pretty sure they hate you.
Don’t give up.

You’re going to have slushy days, when the words are just not coming easily. I’ve found that if I just get my characters to talk with each other, they usually come up with the next scene on their own. If that doesn’t work, throw a scene-changing wrench in the story. Have ninjas swoop in and steal the main character’s love interest. Create a pink elephant that charges through the storyline. Drop a steep cliff on the path they’re headed on. Give them something to struggle about. Do whatever it takes to get you through your daily word count to ensure you don’t fall behind.

11. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

What you’re writing could be totally awesome. It can also be total crap. Who cares? You’re developing your writing muscle. Don’t worry about the quality of your writing until you get to the editing stage. For now, just have fun with it, and know that in 30 days, you’ll be able to say you’ve written a novel.

Wrap up:

1. Plot your story.
2. Kiss your family goodbye.
3. Set a daily writing goal (1667 minimum!)
4. Write every day at the same time.
5. Avoid all distractions.
6. Connect on the NaNo forums.
7. Attend a write-in.
8. Don’t look back. EVER.
9. End in the middle of a senten….
10. Don’t give up.
11. Remember, this is supposed to be fun.

Sign up for NaNoWriMo at nanowrimo.org. It’s free! And it’s fun! And you come away with your very own novel! Find me and be my buddy at nanowrimo.org/participants/crissi.


1. When can you sign up?
You can sign up anytime, but you won’t be able to update your novel until sometime in October. They should send out an email.

2. Can I work on a longer novel?
It’s encouraged that you focus on one novel during this month with a set beginning on Nov. 1, and a set end by Nov. 30. But this is only to give you the satisfaction of writing an entire novel in 30 days. Other than that, there are no hard and fast rules.

3. What if I start late?
You still need to come up with 50,000 words by the end of November, so just set your word count a little higher each day to make it to that number.

4. Can I finish early?

5. What if it takes me 31 days?
You’re still awesome in my book, but you won’t win NaNoWriMo. Still, good for you for writing a novel!

6. What if I write 50,000 words, but I still haven’t reached the end of the story by Nov. 30?
You’ve still technically won! However, we should all strive to reach the end of the story by Nov. 30. The point of NaNoWriMo is to get you a complete first draft of a novel by Nov. 30. It will make Dec. 1 that much more satisfying. However, if the story still isn’t done by Nov. 30, just keep going at the same pace until it is finished. You don’t want to lose momentum before the story is done being told!

Have your own tips? Have questions? Leave them in the comments!

Crissi Langwell has participated and “won” NaNoWriMo almost every year since 2010. Five of her eight fiction novels started out as NaNoWriMo novels. See all of her books at crissilangwell.com.

23 thoughts on “11 tips to “winning” NaNoWriMo”

  1. This is a very thorough post. I’ve only ever finished NaNo with a completed draft once…and it was well over 50,000 words. While I’ve never considered it a high goal to have a finished novel at the end of NaNo, I’ll admit that I did feel a lot more accomplished at the end of that year than other winning years.

    The only thing that I would really add is the benefit of participating in word wars, is possible. Or alternatively writing along with the NaNoWordSprints Twitter feed can be a great word count boost too.

  2. Jacqueline Lindenfeld, member of Redwood Writers

    For the Nano contest, can one work on a novel draft that has about 12,000 words already written, adding 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30? Or does one have to start at point zero?

    1. While it’s always preferable to start the novel on day 1, the only hard and fast rule is that 50,000 words are written between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. So if you have 12,000 words already written by Nov. 1, your novel better be 62,000 or more by Nov. 30. 😉

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  12. I super appreciate these tips! The stopping mid-sentence one is something that I always recommend to people, NaNo or not. It’s so helpful!

    I do have to say, in polite disagreement, that while outlining may work/be easier for you, it isn’t for everyone. There’s a reason Pantsers exist. And it isn’t because we’ve all never tried outlining. 🙂 I think it would be helpful to change it to “try outlining” instead of “plotting is better than pantsing.” Less judgmental, at least. So that’s my two cents. Thanks for the list!

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