NaNoWriMo Tips: Progress Over Perfection

Welcome to the sixth post of my NaNoWriMo tips series. For other tips in this series, as well as a schedule for future posts, take a look at the links below. Today’s tip and my discussion of it can be found immediately below the schedule.

Early last month, I received a piece of advice that is oddly applicable to NaNoWriMo, despite not being delivered to me in that context. Before I talk about that advice, its context, and how it applies to NaNoWriMo, I need to talk about the beauty of being a first time NaNoWriMo participant. I swear this all ties together.

The chart above is the word count trend for my 2011 NaNoWriMo novel. I will immediately admit that day 1 involved nearly 10 hours of writing non-stop with no interruptions. That said, save for a four day stretch from the 15th through the 18th, you’ll notice I made slow and steady progress from the first day of the month. I did minimal editing through the first 21 days of the month, meaning I essentially went from pen-to-paper to completed story while making next to no changes to my story.

Compare that with my 2015 novel chart that I featured a few days ago and you’ll see a different story.

While I was much busier in 2015 than I was in 2011, one thing I noticed about my 2015 attempt1As well as my failed 2012 attempt. was that I found myself editing as I went significantly more than I did in my 2011 attempt. That’s not to say you can’t edit as you go. If there’s something you’ve written in your story that you really hate or that doesn’t make sense with the direction you’ve taken your story, you certainly can go back and edit it out. That said…I’m not certain that you should. At least not immediately.

I have a semi-rhetorical question for those of you reading this post. What is the primary purpose of NaNoWriMo? Put simply, it is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. No one can agree on exactly how many words constitutes a novel. That said, your objective for this novel in this project is to write 50,000 words. More is fine, but less is not.

Let’s say that you’ve written a chapter a day to this point. Depending on when in your day you’re reading this, this means you have 12 to 13 chapters in your story, as well as somewhere in the neighborhood of 19,992-21,658 words2If you’ve hit the word count goal on the nose every day.. For sake of discussion, let’s also say that the part of your story is a scene that is half a chapter long, or about 800 words. By removing that scene completely and rewriting it — likely the most time efficient option — you’re effectively lowering your completed word count by 800 words. Said another way, by the end of your story, you’ll have written 50,800 words. That’s assuming you don’t write a single additional word above and beyond goal to complete your story.

Back in early October, I had lunch with a former co-worker who I considered to be a mentor. Her biggest impact on me was (and still is) teaching me how to conduct myself in a more composed, professional manner in anything I do in the workplace. We had gotten on the topic of a project she was working on for her current job, which she explained was very lengthy and likely more than one person could handle quickly and efficiently. Yet, she was the only person working on it, as she was a one person department. I asked her what her next steps were in moving forward with the project and she shared with me a piece of advice she had gotten from her own mentor that she viewed as her motto, both with this project and in general.

“Progress over perfection.”

When I completed NaNoWriMo in 2011, I was so naive as to how the writing process worked that I just wrote with no mind to if the novel was coherent, free of plot holes, or (frankly) good. With my 2012 attempt, I got so caught up on making the dystopian world I was trying to build so perfect that I barely wrote any of the story during November. And with my 2015 novel, I found myself having to play catchup on weekends. This was partly due to the fact that I was busier that year, but it was also because I was insistent on making my story have as few plot holes as possible in the first draft.

The only way to finish any large task — be it a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, a massive work project, or anything else that seems insurmountable because of its large scope — is to start and keep working at it. While it will seem like you’re not making much headway at first, you’ll be able to look back after time has passed and see how far you’ve come. Take a look back up a couple of paragraphs ago. If you’ve kept pace through 13 days, you’re at over 21,000 words. That’s over 40% done with a 50,000 word novel. Holy fucking shit.

Even if you’re not there, it’s okay. Just continue to make progress. Your NaNoWriMo novel doesn’t have to be perfect right now. You can edit it in the months after the project ends. You can make it closer to perfect later. That’s not what this month is about though. This month is about progress. It’ll be much harder to make that progress if you’re constantly striving for perfection at every turn.

Like my NaNoWriMo tips series? Have questions for me about the topics posted daily? Do you just want to talk about your story and have nowhere else to do so? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

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