What is NaNoWriMo: The Ultimate Guide

If you're part of any writer groups or you spend any time researching writing online, you've probably heard NaNoWriMo mentioned once or twice or a few hundred times. It's a huge annual event that many writers take part in to challenge themselves, and to have a little fun in the process. I won't lie to you, though: it's also a stressful experience for some writers.

But that's why I'm here with this NaNoWriMo Ultimate Guide. I'll tell you all about what this event is, how to take part in it, how to “win” it, and how to do it all without stressing about it.

Let's get started.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What is NaNoWriMo?
  2. What are the rules for NaNoWriMo?
  3. How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo
  4. How to Win NaNoWriMo
  5. Other NaNoWriMo FAQs

What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. This completely free yearly writing challenge has one goal: Write a book of at least 50,000 words during the month of November. That's 30 days with an average of 1667 words per day.

Crazy, right? But maybe just crazy enough to work…

If you're an aspiring writer looking to get your first book done, NaNoWriMo may seem like an impossible feat, especially if you don't already have an established writing habit. But don't let this scare you off. With a little preparation and dedication, it's entirely possible to get 50,000 words down in 30 days. 

Plus, it's a great way to get into the habit of writing every day — something that separates the aspiring writers from those that make their living selling books.

If you're an author with a couple of books under your belt, NaNoWriMo could be a great opportunity to push your creative writing to the next level.

But what are the rules? How do you become a NaNoWriMo writer? And, perhaps most important of all, how do you prepare? Let's get into the nitty-gritty now.

What are the rules for NaNoWriMo?

The rules are pretty simple, and they're not really enforced because “cheating” does no damage to anyone but the cheater. Luckily, I know you don't cut corners. You're in this to become a better writer! So let's take a look at the “rules” now.

  1. Your novel must be at least 50,000 words and written between November 1st and November 30th.
  2. Writing done before November 1st doesn't count, although you can include outlines, character profiles, research, and citations in your draft. Basically, the 50,000 words should be prose written during November.
  3. Write a novel. The term “novel” is broadly defined here. If you say it's a novel, it's a novel.
  4. You should be the only author of 50,000 words. If you're co-writing a novel, each author should contribute 50,000 words of their own. (I don't recommend co-writing a novel during NaNoWriMo, as it complicates an already limited timeline).
  5. The writing must be coherent (you can't just copy and paste one sentence or one word to get to 50,000 words).
  6. You need to be at least 13 years old to participate, and if you're under 17, you have the option to sign up for the Young Writers Program.

That's it! Simple enough.

Now let's get into the fun stuff: NaNoWriMo prep!

How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo

In order to succeed during NaNoWriMo, you'll want to do some early preparation before the challenge starts on November 1st. The prep list includes simple things like signing up, but it also includes getting your story, characters, and POV prepared so you can focus on writing. It's also a good idea to prepare a schedule in advance.

Let's start with the sign-up process.

Signing Up

The folks who run NaNoWriMo make it super easy to get signed up. They're gracious people and they're doing so much to encourage creativity! Plus it's totally free!

sign up page for NaNoWriMo

First, head over to the NaNoWriMo website and click the “Sign Up” button. You'll be taken to a page where you'll enter your email, create a password, and select a user name.

sign up form for NaNoWriMo

Next, you'll see a banner at the top like this:

dashboard for NaNoWriMo

Click on the button to start filling in the information about the NaNoWriMo novel you'll be writing. You don't have to know the title right now, as you can come back and edit that later.

novel info in NaNoWriMo

Follow the prompts and fill in any relevant information as you go through the Overview, Goal, and Details windows. Once that's done, you're all signed up as a NaNoWriMo participant! You can explore the other options presented on the website or you can get to the writing prep outlined below.

Developing Your Story Idea

Once you're all signed up, it's time to develop your story idea. If you already have an idea, that's great! If not, you'll want to nail down at least a broad idea before you move on to the next steps. You certainly don't want to wait until November 1st to decide what you're going to write about.

Here are some ways to get the idea-juices flowing:

Search for a writing prompt – There are plenty of free writing prompts all over the internet. There’s a great Subreddit dedicated to prompts of all kinds. It’s a good place to start!

Determine what genre(s) you want to write in – will it be science fiction, memoir, romance, thriller? The most successful books are written to market, and starting with the genre helps.

Determine what kind of “feel” you want your story to have – Gritty? Hopeful? Tear-Jerker? Many writers find that keeping the feel in mind as they develop their idea is helpful. 

Determine the overarching theme of the novel – Theme and feel can be two different things, although they're often complimentary. Some common themes are: Love, overcoming fear, forgiveness, trust, and survival.

Ask yourself “What if?” questions to spark inspiration – Asking “what if?” during both the plot development and the writing is a great way to spark inspiration and keep the story going.

The Writing Before the Writing

Once you have a general idea, it's time to get some writing done. But not prose writing yet. Save that for when the challenge begins.

Instead, get to know your story idea through these writing exercises:

Come up with a logline – This is usually a concise, one or two-sentence summary of your book. It is the Who, What, When, Where, and Why. It should focus on your main character and the conflict. If you're stuck, browse Netflix and look at the short descriptions for the movies there. These are the loglines.

Come up with a pitch – A pitch is similar to a logline, but it's a bit longer. You can go into more detail, but try to keep it under 300 words. Focus again on the main conflict, protagonist and antagonist, and what's at stake.

If after you write your logline and pitch the story still interests you, move on to character development. If not, make some changes or shift to another idea. While you may not feel the flutter of inspiration during the entire writing process, this step should have you excited about your idea. If you're not inspired, you should probably find another story idea.

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Character Development

Character development is hugely important in any fiction novel. And if you go into NaNoWriMo with a solid idea of who your characters are, what they want, and their internal motivations, you'll be able to focus on writing and meeting your daily word count goals instead of stopping to think about what your characters would do next.

For the major characters in your story, you'll want to write character profiles. If you're not sure how to do this, visit this blog post on how to write character profiles. It will also help to write a character arc for your protagonist(s).

For guidance on character development, ask questions like these:

  • What do they want most?
  • What is their biggest fear?
  • How do they respond to adversity?
  • What is their greatest flaw?
  • What will cause the character to change by the end of the plot?

Click this link for a giant list of character development questions.

Choosing POV

You'll also want to consider which POV you'll use for your book. The most common ones are first person and third person, but even those have certain styles within them that you may want to consider.

POV is important because it's one of the primary factors in how you tell your story. Some POVs are necessarily limited, while others can provide a little too much freedom for some writers.

If you're unsure, check out this post on character POV and try some writing exercises that use different POVs to see which one you like best for your story.

Writing an Outline

Outlining your novel is perhaps one of the best ways to prepare for NaNoWriMo. Even if you're a “pantser” and have never written an outline before, preparing for NaNoWriMo could be the best time to learn. An outline can help you nail down your story structure, your inciting incident, character development, and help you prevent writer's block during November.

Just remember that an outline is only a guide, and to trust your gut as you write. You may find that something else works better for your story as you write. Many “pantsers” worry that working from an outline while writing fiction can stifle creativity, but it's easy enough to use the outline as a guide that you use for inspiration, not a specific roadmap that you must follow.

Scheduling Your Time Wisely

Creating daily goals is essential for success during NaNoWriMo, but you also need to create a schedule in order to meet those goals. For many writers, this means carving out time to write whenever they can. Since most people barely have free time to spare, creating a schedule often takes communication with those around you, making sure they know that you will be working toward your writing goal during the month.

Those who succeed in writing a novel during NaNoWriMo find that they usually have to trade writing time for time otherwise spent watching television, surfing social media, or doing other activities that are fun but not necessarily productive.

There's a great post on the NaNoWriMo website on managing your writing time while working full time.

Creating Accountability with a Writing Buddy

One of the great things about the NaNoWriMo organization is the fact that it brings so many people together with a common goal. You can easily join the NaNoWriMo community and find a writing buddy to help you stay on track during November. You can also find a writing group of NaNoWriMo veterans to help you get ready for writing 50,000 words during the 30-day challenge. 

The NaNoWriMo forums are great places to meet other authors and get excellent writing advice for a successful November.

How to Win NaNoWriMo

Winning NaNoWriMo is all about meeting the minimum word count goal of 50,000 words written during the month of November. You're not in competition with other writers, and there can be as many winners as participants.

How many words per day to win NaNoWriMo?

If you write every day during the month of November, you'll need a daily word count of 1667 words. You can record your word count from your dashboard on the NaNoWriMo website. Or you can keep track on your own and then verify your word count with the website once you’re done.

Note: there are goal tracking features built into Atticus, which will automatically show you where you are in your goals in real time as you write. Definitely check that out.

What happens if you win NaNoWriMo?

There isn't just one winner for NaNoWriMo. If you get at least a 50,000-word draft done, you've won! Once you upload your manuscript to the site so your word count can be verified, you'll get a banner and/or a certificate you can proudly display.

But best of all, you'll have the draft of a full-length novel written! That's the real prize for winning NaNoWriMo. You can then work to self-publish the novel or shop around for a literary agent to get it traditionally published.

Other NaNoWriMo FAQs

Which month is NaNoWriMo?

National Novel Writing Month takes place in November every year. However, many writers begin preparations as early as September.

How old is NaNoWriMo?

The first NaNoWriMo took place back in 1999.

What is the point of NaNoWriMo?

The point of NaNoWriMo is to spur creativity and challenge writers around the world to practice the craft by writing a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days.

How Many Pages is 50,000 Words?

Depending on your margins, spacing, and font size, a 50,000 word manuscript usually comes to between 100 and 150 pages. In a published book, 50,000 words is about 165 pages.

Do You Have to Sign Up for NaNoWriMo?

You don't technically have to sign up for NaNoWriMo — you can just work on your own to write 50,00 words in November. But there are a number of resources and tools to keep you on track if you do sign up.

Does NaNoWriMo Cost Money?

Participation in NaNoWriMo is free, but they do encourage those who are able to donate to the organization so they can continue hosting the yearly writing challenge!


NaNoWriMo is an opportunity to challenge yourself to write a novel faster than you're probably comfortable with. It's a big undertaking, but it's a great way to spur creativity and unlock new levels of productivity as a writer.

With a little planning, you can come into November prepared and with all the tools you need to succeed. It's important to remember that you shouldn't expect to have a perfect novel done at the end of those 30 days. You'll have a first draft that you can work from with revisions and editing to turn that manuscript into a novel that's ready for beta readers and, eventually, self-publishing (or trying your chance at traditional publishing). 

Good luck! May your work-in-progress be a blast to write!

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