From NaNoWriMo to #AcWriMo: learning from failure

Dreams of NaNoWriMo

I first found out about NaNoWriMo – short for National Novel Writing Month – just over a decade ago. I was in high school, and secretly dreamed of writing novels about all kinds of strange situations and characters (some examples: a society living on the branches and roots of a World Tree in the middle of an otherwise oceanic world; a trio of teenagers who find a gateway to another world, learn magic, come back and change the world; a retelling of Dante’s Inferno set in space).

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50 000 word story (which is about the length of a novel) between November 1st at 0:01 am and November 30th at 11:59 pm. Which is quite an accomplishment – for context, my 2015 electronic lab notebook is over 52 000 words long, and these notes about what I did in the lab every day took me an entire year to write.

Writing 50 000 words in a more or less correct order to make some kind of story is not something I can do all at once. Breaking it down over 30 days, however, makes it much more manageable: it comes down to 1667 words every day, or about half of the output of some prolific professional writers. This is still a pretty ambitious goal, and in order to put as many words on the page as possible, most writing resources recommend sticking to writing during this time – meaning that as you write, you avoid editing what you write on the fly, and you eventually learn to accept that this first draft will be bad.


Despite my excitement and initial motivation, I was not able to complete NaNoWriMo the first year I attempted it. Or even the following year. With hindsight, I realize that a few things tripped me up every time:

  1. I would get excited about writing a story by mid-October, but due to the NaNoWriMo rules, I would have to delay my writing until November 1st.
  2. Paradoxically, I would be excited about writing a story but would rarely have a clear idea of what I even wanted to write. I would justify this to myself by telling myself I was a NaNoWriMo purist – one of those people who prefer not to write anything before the November 1st start date, even though the official NaNoWriMo site actually encourages writers to do some prep work before November starts. None of this self-justification helped me come up with characters or a plot.
  3. If I missed a day of writing (and I always missed at least one in the first 10 days of November), I would try to double or even triple my word count one day in order to catch up. Even if I managed to increase my word count, the next day I would only feel entitled to a day off, which would only motivate more writing binges and more days off until I simply abandoned my project.

Ultimately, other things in my life seemed more pressing than working on my story – and once I got to university, I simply had to prioritize my coursework if I wanted to stay afloat. Even now that I’m done with classes, I need to use my November to prepare for my yearly thesis advisory committee meeting report and to start assembling my first paper.

Enter #AcWriMo

Last November, I noticed that some of the academics I follow on Twitter used that hashtag to post about how many words they had written that particular day for their grant proposals or papers. I later found out that this hashtag was actually started in 2011 by PhD2published, and the AcWriMo rules are similar to those that guide NaNoWriMo: participants are encouraged to publicly declare their writing goal for November, to discuss their project online (especially by connecting with others on Twitter and Facebook), and to declare their results by the end of the month. Unlike NaNoWriMo, AcWriMo does not come with a predetermined word count goal, and participants are instead explicitly asked to come up with their own writing goal.

A particularly appealing aspect of AcWriMo is its flexibility around what can count as a writing goal. Some tasks that are not explicitly writing can be absolutely crucial for academic writing, and so participants can set goals for themselves that are measured by the amount of time worked on a project instead of word count.

Learning from past mistakes

I haven’t decided yet if I’ll participate in #AcWriMo this year, but if I do I’ll make sure to learn from my failures at NaNoWriMo:

  1. As exciting as taking off at a starting line can be, the best time to start any project is as soon as I’m ready. Once I’ve done all the necessary prep work, waiting until a specific starting time creates the risk that I’ll make a habit of delaying writing, to the point of never starting at all. The flip side of this: it’s better to start late than never to start at all – and since I can set my own writing goals, I’m not necessarily behind on AcWriMo even if I only start 10 days into the month.
  2. Half of writing is knowing what I want to say. Which, for me, means sitting down with some sort of plan – having an idea of what I want to write and how I want to present it makes it far easier for me to come up with sentences than if I try to conjure paragraphs out of thin air.
  3. I will be happier and more productive by engaging in steady work instead of bingeing work – a message I came across both through NaNoWriMo resources and in the excellent Paul J Silvia book How To Write A Lot (borrow it from the McGill library here). Although a 10-page progress report on my project is much shorter than a 50 000 word novel, neither of these documents are things I can complete in a single setting. Instead of procrastinating until the last minute and writing most of my progress report in a frantic spree, I can get started ten days early and just make sure to prepare at least one page per day. Preparing a calendar with blank boxes to fill in as I reach my daily writing goals might also be helpful.

How about you? Are you tweeting about your #AcWriMo goals? Have you gotten started on a NaNoWriMo novel of your own? And if you are writing a 50 000-word manuscript, how do you balance that project with the demands of grad school?

Banner image by janeb13

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