NaNoWriMo: Tailoring the Challenge to Your Needs

Sarah Yoon Writing Tips

(Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month)

Write 50,000 words of a new novel in 30 days. That’s all there is to the National Novel Writing Month challenge, an annual global event where hundreds of thousands of participants challenge themselves to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. NaNoWriMo’s three simple rules—goal, medium, and time limit—are all that’s between you and your 2020 writing bragging rights. 

This formula might be exactly what you need in your life right now, alongside the community enthusiasm, outpoured resources, and satisfying word-count graphs. But let’s be honest—life is rarely that simple. 

Take Ownership

Odds are that you already have something else going on. Maybe you’re already mid-project. You don’t have the time. Your motivation has tanked. Or you weren’t even interested in writing a novel in the first place. Before you ditch NaNo this year, remember: the goal isn’t to prove yourself or pass a test. This worldwide event is a tool for your personal growth. The rules are made to stretch you, so why not stretch them in return? 

Consider this: if you force yourself to write 50,000 words of something you never want to see again, you might win with your head held high, but you’re cheating yourself of genuine growth. Only you know what you need right now. Not the you of last year or the ideal you, but you. When you take ownership of the challenge, NaNoWriMo becomes 100 percent customizable.

Value Your Limitations

Is it even NaNoWriMo if you ditch the rules? Maybe. Or maybe not. Neither the name of the challenge nor the format is the main point. The main point is to push yourself to do your best by using limitations. NaNoWriMo provides structure, which creates direction and focus. Writers push themselves to produce 50,000 words by setting a limited time and focusing intently on one project. 

Is it even #nanowrimo if you ditch the rules? The point is to push yourself, to tailor the challenge to meet your unique writing goals. Click To Tweet

The standardized goal is a simple cardboard box, ready to be filled up with words—a great starting point. After all, every new project lands you right back at the beginning, no matter how many novels you’ve written. But the words will only come if you’re genuinely interested in the project. You need passion alongside the structure, and that isn’t something you can force.

Get Introspective

Pre-NaNo prep time is great for introspection. Ask yourself some good questions: What do I need to learn this November? What is holding my writing back? What ongoing project am I most excited about? What’s something new I’ve always meant to try? What do I want to accomplish before the year ends? 

One of the most helpful questions you can ask is why. Keep asking it as persistently and obnoxiously as a kid in the grocery store, and you’ll get to the heart of things. Why do I need to learn ____? Why is ____ holding my writing back? Why am I excited about ____? Why haven’t I tried ____? Why is accomplishing ____ so important to me?

No one can answer these questions except you. The more you brainstorm, the closer you’ll get to finding the deeper motivation that will drive you toward your goals.

Personalize Everything

A personalized NaNoWriMo can take nearly any shape. Maybe you lay out all your story ideas and half-outlined projects and choose the one that excites you most, giving yourself permission to ignore the others for the entire month. You stretch yourself to edit 20,000 words of a story that stalled out a while ago. You write 60,000 words of short stories, counting all the messy brainstorm words into the final tally because you know every captured thought is a valuable part of the process. 

Prep for #nanowrimo by asking yourself some questions: What do I want to learn? What is holding my writing back? What do I want to accomplish before the year ends? Click To Tweet

Maybe you try writing poetry for the first time since high school, aiming to read one poem per day and write one poem per day. You challenge yourself to journal 50,000 words, narrative style, to help you process any experiences you need to find words for. You write 30,000 words of a new novel, but on weekdays only, challenging yourself to create a healthy, balanced, and active creative life.

Your Work, Your Progress

No strict answers and no strict to-do may feel a bit loosey-goosey, but that’s the beauty of individualizing the writing process. No one’s needs are exactly the same; no one’s path is exactly the same. Any writing advice you get, even if it’s from Steven King or Neil Gaiman, isn’t law—because you will never be King or Gaiman. You are you, and their advice only applies as far as it helps you move forward with your own work. 

Be flexible, honest, patient, and gracious with yourself. When you’re personalizing the challenge, all guilt you might feel about subverting expectations is wiped away because you’re writing to improve your own work and no one else’s. Writers may make beautiful communities, but at the end of the day, writing isn’t a team sport. You’re playing golf. You’re playing against yourself, and NaNoWriMo is a freshly mowed putting green for you to practice on. 

Celebrate Little Things

Have you ever used a golfer’s scorecard? Or squirrelled away those tiny pencils? The best thing about NaNoWriMo is progress tracking. If your project doesn’t match the official website’s word-count graph, tuck your version of that in your work space and note every little bit of progress—you rested, wrote, brainstormed, and rested again—and you’ll be surprised to see how daily effort pays off. 

We’re often so focused on how far we have to go that we dismiss our own work. We forget to find joy in each step forward. But when you make thirty notes in November, you’ll see little wins adding up. So please, however you challenge yourself to grow during this 2020 NaNoWriMo, give yourself a win.


Before or after NaNoWriMo, a developmental edit can help take your project to the next level. Contact the Scribe Source today to discuss how we can help you with your next creative project, however it may look.


About the Author

Sarah L. Yoon lives in a whirlwind. While her husband, son, and Airedale terrier dig holes in the backyard, she forms creative communities, writes interior design articles for Engaged Media, and pushes her stories to the next level. Her work has appeared in Fathom Magazine and Every Day Fiction. She received honorable mention from Glimmer Train Press’s Very Short Fiction March/April 2018. Find Sarah on Twitter @sarahlyoon and Instagram @slywriter.