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From the Writing Trenches

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By Amber Cook, Senior Writing Specialist

For those of us in the writing world, November means NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). During this month, aspiring novelists commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days, with the goal of completing a novel in raw form. Several of us in the Writing Center decided to give it a try this past year, myself included.

Let me first say that I am NOT a fiction writer. My only long-term writing project was a master’s thesis for a musicology degree. I hadn’t written fiction since the fourth grade, when I wrote and illustrated Betsy and the Magic Fish (a little stapled-together book for which myself and my mother were the only readers). So when I decided to start NaNoWriMo, I felt like a fraud immediately. Writing in third person felt odd. Developing characters, settings, and plots was totally new to me. To keep up with the word count demand, I also had to fight the natural editor’s urge to slow down and refine every little nuance as I went. Everything about NaNoWriMo was uncomfortable at first, like trying to brush your teeth with your nondominant hand.

The experience has helped to give me more sympathy for so many of the adult learners I work with at Walden. Many students returning to academic life will report similar fish-out-of-water feelings when faced with scholarly writing assignments. Fiction for me, and academic writing for many of you, has a foreign set of conventions and assumptions that can be awkward at first. The next time I’m talking with a student about making the transition to a new style of writing, I will remember staring at my first blank page, wondering why I ever thought I could write a novel, and immediately understand.

I learned a few things about writing during this experience that I thought I’d share.

1. Peer pressure is very powerful. NaNoWriMo sets up a “buddy” page where you can load your page output each day and compare it to those of your friends who are also participating. That was the only thing that kept me going some nights. See if you can find a peer in your program who could do the same for you.

2. It helps to end each writing session by writing a sentence or two about what comes next. That way, when you return to your paper, you’ll have a little help getting started.

3. Output accountability helps keep you honest. If you’re the kind of person who thinks you’ll get to it later, you might benefit from an online reminder system that tracks your progress and lets you know how much writing you need to do each day to meet deadlines. NaNoWriMo had a great tool like this, but there are others, such as Write or Die and the dissertation calculator.

4. It’s important to be gentle with yourself without letting yourself off the hook. It’s OK to have a few unproductive days, but it’s easy to slide off the writing wagon quickly if too many days go by. Beating yourself up doesn’t help; just get back to the computer and forge ahead.

Now that 2011 is here, you might want to consider January your personal writing month. Make some goals, find a buddy, challenge each other, and write on!

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