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One Novel, 30 Days

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Writing is like sex: The best way to learn is by doing. Studying other people's techniques can be helpful -- but only to a certain extent. At a certain point, you have to grab your preferred medium and dive in. Your first experience will probably not be very satisfying. You shouldn't allow the possibility of disappointment or fear of underperformance to stop you. If you do, your skills will never improve. You won't get better right away, but, if you keep at it, over time, you'll inevitably see significant improvement. And to get to this point, you have to give yourself the freedom to fail at first.

Anne Lamott devotes a section of Bird by Bird, her successful and influential book about the craft of writing, to extolling the virtues of "shitty" first drafts. "All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts," Lamott explains. In order to get to the one terrific paragraph at the end of page six, you have to give yourself permission to write five lousy pages first.

This month, hundreds of thousands of people are employing this literary approach by taking part in National Novel Writing Month. National Novel Writing Month, commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo, is a web-based writing "challenge" now in its 11th year which challenges participants to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. NaNoWriMo counsels participants to understand that "You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down."

This premise is laudable, and the high word count goal and limited timeframe can be an effective way of forcing writers to conquer their fears of failure and just write, but these same requirements can also have more problematic consequences. These benefits and dangers are evident in the NaNoWriMo online forums. One of the message boards in the Tips & Strategies section is titled "Reaching 50,000." The subtitle: "Everything from deep spiritual wisdom to down-and-dirty-word-count tricks to help keep that book moving along to the 50K finish line." I'm all in favor of tips for avoiding procrastination. But some of the tips on the NaNoWriMo forum are not just unhelpful -- they're detrimental.

In the original post of a thread entitled "Down and Dirty Tricks for reaching word count," which has already amassed over 400 responses, one participant offers his/her personal strategies for boosting word count without cheating and urges other writers to share their methods.

One writer suggests over-complicating everything, and provides the following horrifying example of such a technique: "And he did then, with much gusto, verily grip his fingers around the weisswurst, a german sausage made from the meat of veal, otherwise known as baby cows or calves."

Another writer astutely points out that letting loose and not concentrating on omitting anything superfluous can actually help you discover new and valuable things about your characters and story. I agree. But this same writer then advocates going through your draft and eliminating all contractions. "They'll all sound like Jane Austin [sic], but you'll be amazed how the word count jumps," this writer advises.

Fortunately, not all writers share this outlook. As one explains, "Not necessarily everything I write for my NaNo will be good, but I'm not going to intentionally put in garbage like that... 50,000 words doesn't mean much to me if I didn't reach it in an honest fashion."

There is a fine -- and critical -- line between prioritizing quantity over quality and prioritizing quantity at the deliberate expense of quality. The former involves allowing yourself the freedom to write things that might be bad. Great writing can emerge from this approach, as Anne Lamott explains. Your first draft may be shitty, but, if you're lucky, not all of it will be. Whether you're writing a novel or a paper for class, getting all of your ideas onto the page is a critical first step to producing a good piece of writing. If you pack your pages with deliberately useless space fillers in order to meet a length requirement, you do yourself a disservice.

Length matters -- but it's not the only thing that matters.