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How NaNoWriMo uses feedback to help inspire writers to finish a novel in a single month

How NaNoWriMo uses feedback to help inspire writers to finish a novel in a single month

This post was written based on an interview with Tim Kim, the program director at NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit that’s famous for their annual challenge in which writers from around the world work to complete an entire novel within the month of November. By 2017, over 400,000 aspiring authors were entering the contest each year, and winners—or people who had successfully written 50,000 words of a novel in November—were making international headlines. The org also leads young writer programs, hosts meetups across the globe, and facilitates other events and competitions.

But “competitions” might not be the best word to describe the NaNoWriMo experience—including the annual November challenge. Instead, both the nonprofit itself and the writers who interact with it would probably choose the word “community.” And that’s where surveys come in.

At any given time, the NaNoWriMo staff of about a dozen people is trying to plan a month-long event for hundreds of thousands. They need to make the challenge expansive, engaging, and genuinely beneficial for all of its participants. Needless to say, that’s a lot of pressure. They use surveys to bring participants into the planning process and make sure that their programs are effective. 

Not only has NaNoWriMo’s survey feedback enabled them to create a more helpful, inclusive experience for their members, but it’s also revealed some pretty interesting things about human creativity, motivation, and discipline. 

The big question: what does it take to get people to finish a novel in a single month?

NaNoWriMo is incredibly diligent about keeping its feedback cycles open, sending surveys to every participant after every event (with extremely impressive response rates, might we add).

Writing 50,000 words in a month can probably satisfy anyone’s definition of productivity. For context, most people take about 3.5 hours to write 1,000 words—which means that writing 50,000 would take 175 hours, more time than a full-time job. And that doesn’t even include outlining and brainstorming!

So how do these people do it? NaNoWriMo decided to survey their successful participants to find out.

The first thing that they figured out was how critically important those first few days of the month really are. Initially, the staff at NaNoWriMo assumed that during the first few days of the competition people would be excited and self-motivated, energized by the thrill of a new project. The team decided that they would save notifications and other messaging for later in the month, when participants started to flag. But their survey results soon convinced them otherwise.

People might be more excited, but it turns out that they also need ample prodding to get started in the first 3 days of the month, because according to the data, if they get to the 4th or 5th day without having started, they’re significantly less likely to even do the challenge at all. Finishing a book in 30 days seems more plausible than doing it in 25. As a result, NaNoWriMo started sending more messaging earlier, rallying people to get started in the first couple of days of November, boosting their completion rates.

What then differentiates the winners—people who could finish a novel within a month? NaNoWriMo’s survey research surfaced 3 common threads: planning, community support, and having a great idea. The team decided to invest in programs and materials that support each of those aspects.

  • Planning: There’s power in prep, especially when you’re trying to build something big quickly. Having good structural foundations makes a novel come together more coherently. NaNoWriMo created a ton of materials to help writers prep both, both before November and during the early days. These include outlining strategies, brainstorming tips, and a comprehensive workshop with weekly exercises that start in September.
  • Support: Many NaNoWriMo winners pointed to community support as a source of their success. Sometimes that meant family or friends cheering them on, sometimes it was a local writers group to brainstorm or commiserate with. Community offers accountability and emotional support—another place where NaNoWriMo felt like they could help. The org created communities both online and in person to help people get that critical connection with others—resulting in both writing support and meaningful new friendships (awwww.)
  • Great idea: The last piece of a good story is admittedly the part that NaNoWriMo has the least control over, but is still obviously an essential part of a great novel: a good idea. Of course, NaNoWriMo can’t force inspiration into its participants’ heads, but they do provide brainstorming exercises and prompts to get the juices flowing. 

An even bigger question: how does writing (or even beginning) a novel change human experience?

In spite of all its research about what it takes to finish a novel, the number of people who complete NaNoWriMo’s challenges isn’t really their biggest success metric. Their greatest measure of success actually comes from surveys—specifically from questions about the impact that the experience had on each person.

Here’s the organization’s stated mission: “NaNoWriMo believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.”

The best way to know if they’re accomplishing those goals for their participants is to ask. Heartwarmingly, the feedback that they’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly affirmative.

The questions that NaNoWriMo asks vary based on the event/program, but they generally include the questions like: How did this experience impact your confidence as a writer? How did it affect your confidence overall? Did you feel more inspired? More creative?

When they sent a survey like this after the big November challenge, they found something interesting: the positive effects of the program started to take hold long before the 50,000 word mark. The responses from people who had only written 10,000 words reflected the same positive outcomes as those who had finished the whole thing. People don’t need to write a whole novel to be inspired, confident, and connected to their community. They just need to feel like they accomplished something significant.

This finding changed the way that NaNoWriMo thought about their goals. They realized that if they could just get people to that 10K mark, they’d be accomplishing their organization’s mission. They also understood that for many people 10K might feel like a more realistic goal—removing a possible barrier for entry. Again, they shifted their messaging and communications approach to reflect their new insight.

NaNoWriMo has also started to do research into creativity itself—are there differences between people who lean heavily on plotting things out in advance and people who write by the seat of their pants (commonly known as “planners or pantsers”)? What about people that write slowly but steadily and people who procrastinate until the end? They’ll continue to evolve their curriculum and offerings based on what their research turns up.

NaNoWriMo is constantly in conversation with their participants about what they want, need, and love, and the world is a more inclusive and creative place because of it.