5 mistakes writers make in National Novel / Nonfiction Writing Month

Ah, October. The month when writers all around the country ready their pens and keyboards to write a first draft of their books during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and National Nonfiction Writing Month (NaNonFiWriMo), which takes place from November 1–30 each year.

The goal? Write a 50,000-word book in 30 days. Don’t break stride for even one day. Finish November with a book draft done.

I’ve completed National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo), but I’ve never participated in either of the book-related WriMos because I am almost always already writing a book when it rolls around. But I have written a book in a short sprint (about eight weeks from idea to design-ready manuscript), and I’ve coached dozens of authors on the book-writing process. And through it all, I’ve discovered a few key mistakes aspiring authors make when preparing for writing sprints like NaNoWriMo and its variations.

1. Not creating a clear, detailed outline.

October is the month to prepare for NaNoWriMo, with the idea that once November 1 hits, all the prepping is done and you just get to create. But too few writers create a clear outline that will guide them through the writing process.

I typically spend three to six weeks preparing book outlines. During that time, I research the audience and genre. I break down the key structure of the book and detail the chapters I plan to write. I get outside feedback on my outline and revise until I feel confident that I’ve prepared the most solid book outline I can.

The key: outline to the level you need to so that when November rolls around, you can sit down and create. There are lots of great resources online to help you with outlining, and I’ve also curated excellent resources in my course, Finish that book!

2. Planning by word count and having a hard word count goal.

Many of the NaNoWriMo resources suggest breaking your writing plan up by word count. If you write every day, including Thanksgiving, that’s about 1,670 words per day. If you plan to write on weekdays only, or miss up to two days per week, that’s a little over 2,270 words per day.

There are two problems with this plan. First, the idea that every book needs to hit 50,000 words is false. Your book should be as long as it needs to be—no longer and no shorter. (And really, books these days are often too long, especially when it comes to nonfiction.)

By planning your outline well and paying attention to your progress during the first week of NaNoWriMo, you should be able to estimate a word count goal that matches your book’s purpose and content. You can also head online to see the lengths of other books in your genre to get an idea for average genre length. To do so, reference a book’s information page on Amazon and other retailers and use the formula of 250 x page count = word count. For example, a book that’s listed as 180 pages would be: 250 x 180 = 45,000 words.

Second, planning by word count sets almost everyone up for failure. By the second week (or day!) you will almost inevitably be behind, which adds a level of unhelpful stress. The trick to getting a book done is creative urgency tied to a deadline.

Planning by word count is like eating a brownie every morning of your new low-calorie diet: you start every day trying to fix a problem rather than focusing on the opportunity to create.

Word count should be a tool but not the only tool. In my course, I break down a book-writing planning and productivity method that uses word count as a tool, not an end.

3. Being unrealistic about the writing process.

Things happen. Your kid will get sick, your boss will need you to travel last minute, your washing machine will flood your kitchen, or any number of things will go wrong (or right). Successfully finishing one of the WriMos requires agility and commitment. And that’s exactly why I don’t love the word count planning method. If you have to take a day off, take it off. Then, jump back into your book-writing plan and get back at it. Being realistic about the writing process is absolutely key to getting a book done.

4. Not training up for it.

Another dose of reality: 1,600 to 2,270 words is a lot, even for a professional writer. I average about 1,000 to 1,200 words a day. A big writing day for me is 2,000. And I’ve been doing this writing thing for nearly a decade. I have a bachelor’s and master’s in writing, and many dozens of books under my belt as an author, ghostwriter, or editor. And still, with all that training, 1,600 words per day, every day, would be pushing it for me.

The good news: it’s a short period of time, and if you train up for it, you’re more likely to be successful.

I suggest doing a few weeks of writing workouts before NaNoWriMo or NaNonFiWriMo. Journal, write blog posts, send a letter to a friend. Whatever you do, be sure you’re writing.

5. Not managing energy and focus well.

Energy and focus are two of your biggest author tools. For the vast majority of the authors I work with, managing energy well means writing first thing in the morning.

Here are the biggest lifestyle shifts I can recommend: Go to bed early (same time every night), get at least 7–8 hours of sleep, wake up early, eat a protein-rich breakfast, take a short walk, and then write for 1–2 hours before your day really begins. Take breaks every 30 minutes and walk around your neighborhood. During the day, feed your brain by reading or listening to podcasts. Limit sugar and caffeine, and eat as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible. Get at least 30 minutes of movement every day. Stay off social media entirely (except in helpful circumstances, like a writer’s group). If you’re a night owl, adjust accordingly, but this schedule works for about 85% of the people I coach.

(Bonus!) 6. No community support.

Even the lone writer can benefit from support. Engage with a friend who’s completing the challenge or connect with a group of like-minded writers online. The need for community is exactly why I created the Finish that book! Facebook group for aspiring authors who want to get their books done.

I know this list is full of mistakes aspiring authors make, but there is one thing NaNoWriMo and NaNonFiWriMo authors universally do right: They try. They might fail, but at least they’re going for it. I hope you will, too.

What would you add to this list? What do you see as the biggest issues writers face in NaNoWriMo, NaNonFiWriMo, and other variations of the challenge? What advice would you offer aspiring authors? Please share in the comments. I love to learn from you.

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