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Posted by on Nov 22, 2010 in Thoughts on Writing | 0 comments

NaNoWriMo – The Trouble With Word Count

As National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) winds to a close, I find myself spending more time thinking about the inherent problem of word count. Yes, I’m behind – more than 8,600 words in the hole – but that’s not my reason for thinking about word count. I’m starting to wonder if NaNoWriMo sends the wrong message to aspiring writers…

Write 50,000 words in 3o days and “win.”

Okay…awesome. So, what happens if only write 30,000 words or 49,999 words? Does that make me a loser? Am I to believe that I’m somehow less of a writer – less legitimate – if I can’t hit the arbitrary 50,000 word mark by the end of November?

Is that how you should feel if you try your hand at NaNoWriMo and are unsuccessful?

No. Hear me say that again…NO.

The Arbitrary Nature of NaNoWriMo

Here’s the thing I think we all lose sight of as we work our butts off to get 50,000 words on the page: 50,000 words does NOT a novel make…not a standard novel, anyway. So, while everyone who completes NaNoWriMo may walk around calling themselves “novelists,” in actuality, they have a novella or the beginning chapters of their novel…or perhaps they have a bare bones outline of their novel with a bit of dialogue that will double in size once they flesh it out with all the rich detail that makes a manuscript pop into life as a novel.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not knocking people who complete novels during NaNoWriMo – how hypocritical would that make me since I’m a 2010 participant? – but I am saying there’s more to crafting the “Great American Novel” than spitting out 50,000 words of prose.

I’m aware that NaNo creator Chris Baty says he didn’t pick 50,000 words at random. The story goes that he pulled a number of fiction books off his shelf and estimated the word counts based on pages – most of which gave him roughly 50,000 words.

What books does he have on his shelf?

The thing that strikes me about this justification is that most books I read are close to double that in word count. In fact, all the books I write are well beyond that, ranging from 85,000 to 115,000 words based on my four completed manuscripts. Of course, I suppose National Half-Novel Writing Month – NaHaNoWriMo – doesn’t have quite the same pizzazz.

And how many aspiring writing would sign up to write 100,000 words in 30 days? For people with day jobs and families…well, I won’t say it’s impossible, but fewer people would “win” for sure.

The Real Goal of NaNoWriMo

I think instead of focusing on this arbitrary word count goal – and it truly is arbitrary, justification or no – we should concern ourselves with the real “wins” from this month long exercising in literary insanity:

  1. Building the habit of writing fiction each day
  2. Learning how to make the most out of small chucks of writing time
  3. Shutting off the internal editor so you stop stifling your own creativity
  4. Understanding that it’s okay to carve time out of your busy day to further your dreams.

Let’s face it, writing an entire book in a month is a cool concept. You know what? So is writing 1/4 of a book. Or half a book.

Think about it. If you can write 25,000 words in a single month, you’re on pace to finish a standard 100,000 word novel in four months. FOUR MONTHS. That word count may make you a NaNoWriMo “loser,” but in my book, it makes you a novel-writing rock star.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be a rock star than the winner of an arbitrarily set contest.

Then again, all of you overachievers like me will probably keep striving for the 50,000 word winner mark. That’s okay, too. It’s good to have goals…just so long as we don’t lose sight of our own awesomeness, regardless of word count.

If you’d like to check up on my NaNo progress or learn more about my project, visit my NaNo profile.

Until the muse returns…


© 2010 – 2013, Sydney Katt. All rights reserved.

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