NaNoWriMo Is Not for Professional Writers

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Once upon a time (yes, I went there), NaNoWriMo helped the budding professional writer come out of their shell and get some words on (often digital) paper. In the early days of self-publishing, when traditional publishing still ran the sandbox, it was an excellent pace for professional writers.

Today, however, NaNo sells false hope to writers seeking a profession as a wordsmith.

Before we get into it, let me be clear: there are many reasons for people to write, and I’m not shaming any of them (don’t @ me). What I’m talking about here are those writers who want to make a serious buck slinging fiction.

What I’m talking about here are those writers who want to make a serious buck slinging fiction.

I did NaNo twice. The first time I messed up and did it in August (I wasn’t going for NaNo, but I wrote the draft in a month). The draft didn’t suck — a lot of people say that about NaNo drafts. You can write fast and still maintain quality.

Back then, I ran a small publishing company that produced roleplaying games and works of fiction. I was trying to get something out there for my imprint. Unfortunately, the rigors of running the business often got in the way of writing consistently, and I thought a NaNo experience would help.

So I wrote the draft, then it stayed in my digital drawer for three years — you know, like most NaNo drafts. I wanted to go back and edit it. But once the initial 30-day sprint (mine took 28) was through, it was time to get back to the business.

During those years (2013–2017), we saw a trend that showed we would never be able to compete for real money writing or publishing fiction if we didn’t make massive changes to our infrastructure. We didn’t.

The benefits of NaNoWriMo

A collective effort to write a book in a month is not a terrible idea. It’s not even a bad one. It’s the only event I know of where fiction writers the world over can cheer each other on and feel like they are working together as a group.

We need more events like that.

Here are some of the benefits of NaNoWriMo:

Highly motivating

From signing up on the official site (not a requirement — don’t you need Twitter to be a writer?) to tagging your tribe and getting that outline done, NaNo is just super motivating to write the thing. That’s awesome!


Our preferred method of communication is pretty lonely (ironic, right?). Writing a book in the confines of your <insert writing space here> can feel like it’s you against the world. Being able to talk about your writing with others who are going through the same experience can be a breath of fresh air.

Pulls the shade back a bit

Outlining around life (if outlines are your thing), writing at a blistering pace, meeting deadlines — these are things that professional writers have to be able to do. They have to do a helluva lot more than that, but that’s the minimum. Completing NaNo lets you feel like a professional for a month.

Builds confidence

Writing 50k+ words in a month is no small feat. Most people don’t follow through. If you can, it can be a significant confidence builder. I see it the same way as earning your black belt in Karate. If you can do that, you feel like you can do anything.

There are probably more benefits, but these are certainly some of the highlights.

To whom do those benefits apply?

Notice something about those highlights above? Most of them are not requirements for professional writing.

Professional writers don’t need motivation.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Stephen King

They embrace the isolation that writing as a professional requires.

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”

Ernest Hemingway

They know the realities of professional writing because they live it.

“Ideas are cheap. It’s the execution that is all important.”

George R.R. Martin

One thing that every writer needs is confidence. Writing and sharing your work will give you that, so will NaNo. If you’re a professional writer in a slump, or you just decided to start peddling your words on November 1st, then you might have a reason to take part in NaNo.

Why NaNoWriMo is a waste of time for professionals

Other than the confidence-building mentioned above, NaNo is a waste of time for the professional writer because it’s too damned slow.

In today’s professional world, even in traditional publishing, you need to be prolific. Everyone knows the backlog is where you make your money. No backlog, no income.

If a professional writer churns out a book (from conception to publication) a quarter, they’re going to struggle to make money. Most professionals who make a living with their words are closer to a book a month, or every six to eight weeks, at most. The huge break-out writers are the exception, but professionals in any industry never expect lightning to strike; they keep plugging away in hopes that it someday might.

Most professionals who make a living with their words are closer to a book a month…

I know the idea isn’t for NaNo to be the only book you write for the year. But there’s a build-up to it where people start to get their story ideas in place, which may or may not include outlining for a month or longer. November is for the first draft. It’s not unusual for NaNo books that get published to remain incomplete until January. That’s three to four months!

What professionals need that NaNoWriMo can’t give

Professional writers need to be consistently fast. NaNo word counts clock in around 50k for the month (often unpolished). If that pace continued every month, you’d produce 600k unedited words every year. Dean Wesley Smith pumps out 1.3M finished words a year.

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