Write Efficiently and Don’t Worry About Details: How to NaNo successfully

Hi there. As you can probably tell, I like to set myself up as a casual expert on the craft of writing. That being said, aside from two marginally-related degrees and one published short story I don’t have all that much to recommend me in terms of qualifications. But what I can do fairly well is write a lot, quickly. As of 7th November (I haven’t written anything today yet) I was at 15,414 words in my project for NaNoWriMo, which is well ahead of schedule. So today’s post is about how to write a lot, quickly, without getting sidetracked or second-guessing yourself while you’re doing it. 


beautiful bullet journal by Ariana Escobar on flickr.

I’m a little skeptical of the whole ‘personal efficiency’ trend that’s sweeping the internet lately; it reminds me a bit of biohacking, which itself is pseudoscientific at best. But for a time-and-wordcount based project like NaNo, organization and planning are very, very important.


I’ve never been the most organized person. Keeping my social and work (and up until recently, academic) life on track has always seemed like a skin-of-my-teeth venture to me (I blame ADHD, but really it also comes down to personalities). But these last couple years have drilled into me the utter importance of organization if you want to get anything done (especially if you’ve got a mind like a sieve, like me. Incidentally, organization and planning is also super helpful if, again like me, you suffer from occasional insomnia which renders you useless the next day). So here are some tips that I’ve noticed have helped me while I’ve been preparing for and writing my first NaNo project:

  1. Plan. I know there’s this whole division between ‘planners’ and ‘pantsers’ in the writing world (or ‘architects’ and ‘gardeners’, if you like) but in my opinion, if you’re not James Joyce, and this is your first (or second, or even third) novel, and you don’t want your book to turn out like a meaningless, rambling mess, you need to PLAN. Do an outline. At the very least plot out the major points, the direction you want your story to flow along, the major, meaningful things you want to have happen to your characters.
  2. On the back of point 1., though, BE FLEXIBLE. I did a really detailed outline and wrote a lot of prose by hand in August-Sept-Oct this year, but I’m finding that as I start to write the story in a linear fashion instead of skipping around, the details of the story, and even some of the events themselves, change considerably. The story will take on a real life of its own as you write it in November, so it’s important to balance the direction you want the story to take (which may have sounded great in your head but in practice doesn’t make sense in terms of continuity or character) with the way the story allows itself to be written.


    via Ramunas Geciauskas on flickr.

  3. Make RUNNING NOTES and devise a SHORTHAND that makes sense to you, and use it liberally while you’re writing.This is a way to flag up bits of the story you think you might want to change, but that you don’t want to get bogged down with changing yet. Make sure you’re consistent, as well; for example, I use (wc) if I can’t quite think of the right word but don’t want to hang around to figure it out, and I use (phrasing) if I don’t like the way a sentence sounds but it gets the meaning right. I also include (on a new line) “RUNNING COMMENTARY: blah blah blah” for bigger issues I think might arise with this bit later on, i.e. if I don’t think a scene is very strong but it contributes materially to the plot, I’ll put this in as a comment so I can go back to it later.
  4. If you’re writing on a computer (and I hope to god you are), this running commentary is useless if you don’t make it CTRL+F-ABLE! All of my in-line comments are surrounded in parenthesis, something I don’t use very often in my prose. This last point is important, because you want to be able to find the commentary and not the prose that doesn’t need work. There are a thousand different symbols you can use but I like ().
  5. If you’ve got names and things with weird symbols in them, make note of it and don’t bother to try and type the weird symbols each time, just use ctrl+f to change all of them at once, for example instead of taking the time to change keyboards each time I type my main character’s name, I can just ctrl+replace ‘Tzeka’ with ‘Tžeka’ at the very end. It also really helps to have a table of names at the beginning/end, so you can make sure to fix all the names and you don’t have any inconsistencies at the end.
  6. DON’T NAME EVERY MINOR CHARACTER, feel free to use ctrl+f to find every instance of (NAME) in the prose, and fix them at the end. If names are important in your story (for example, in mine, aristocrats and descendants of the first wave of settlers in the city have names with lots of palatals, i.e. ‘y’ and ‘ž’ and ‘š’ in them, and descendants of later waves have names with syllable codas, for example ‘Ignis’), don’t try to think of minor character names, just use a placeholder and move on! This applies too to bits of text that require extra work on the prose, for example a poem or song, or in the case of the chapter I wrote last night, an invitation to a party.
  7. Use a different symbol to MARK OUT SCENES YOU DON’T WANT TO WRITE RIGHT NOW; I use [] square brackets to give a brief description of what happens in a scene I know I’ll have to write at some point but which I don’t want to do just yet, for example;
    [Ignis has more money now. he goes to buy clothes and to have tea with Yukas. he meets Yvet on the way.]
    etc. This also works for conveying the sentiment of a scene, or something you want to make sure a character knows at a certain point, or anything else that you know is necessary to the story but that you haven’t turned into prose yet.
  8. finally and potentially most importantly, DOOOOOOOOON’T GO BACK AND EDIT UNTIL YOU’RE DONE. It can be very, VERY tempting to want to ‘fix’ a sentence or a paragraph when you should be writing fresh prose, but this is NOT HELPFUL. You almost invariably end up falling down the editing hole, and this is both time-wasting (November is for writing, not editing!) and bad for creativity, since I find that editor-me and writer-me are quite different mindsets and don’t always (read: rarely) agree.

via Benjamin Solah on flickr.

TO SUM UP: it really all comes down to planning and making it as easy as possible for your ideas to get onto the page (even if you end up altering them considerably later), and making it easy for you to find those bits that need editing (later!). Be single-minded and ignore the little voices telling you to stop and do this or that.


So that’s the system that’s worked for me so far. What tricks do you all use to make your writing go faster and more efficiently? Do you plan? Are any of you guys ‘pants-ers’ and want to defend pantsing (haha) as a practice?? I’d love to hear from you, so feel free to comment.

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