What is NaNoWriMo and How Can It Be Used to Teach Writing?

(Image credit: Image courtesy of NaNoWriMo)

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) takes place each November and aims to help established and aspiring writers of all ages, including students, write the first draft of their novels within a month. 

NaNoWriMo participants are able to accomplish this ambitious goal by keeping one another accountable on social media and/or writing groups and by turning off their inner critic to just focus on generating content. 

Teachers can harness this crowd-sourced energy and use NaNoWriMo as a way to encourage their students to explore the written word while learning about storytelling, grammar, written communication, and their own creativity. 

Adult participants in NaNoWriMo try to produce an ambitious 50,000 words during the month. On the other hand, students set more age-appropriate word-count goals based on how often they write and how fast – read on for suggestions on word counts by age and grade level. 

Here’s what you need to know to get your students started with NaNoWriMo. 

What is NaNoWriMo for Educators?  

NaNoWriMo is an abbreviation for National Writing Month. Founded in California by freelance writer Chris Baty in 1999 with 21 participants, it grew quickly in subsequent years as bloggers helped spread the word. Recently, it has attracted hundreds of thousands of participants. 

The theory behind the program is that writers can take advantage of the not-so-great weather many parts of the U.S. see in November to spend some time inside with their writing. Adult participants commit to produce a whopping 50,000 words during the month of November, however, student NaNoWriMo’s set more age-appropriate goals based on how often they write and how fast. 

NaNoWritMo.org, which is a nonprofit, offers extensive, grade-based and standards-aligned resources for educators, including class activities and learning objectives for different aspects of novel writing. Using these resources educators can lead students in lessons ranging from concepts such as understanding what constitutes a plot to identifying how conflict drives stories. 

Students establish their own word count goal at the beginning of the month based on their speed and abilities and whether they’re required to write at home or just during class time. NaNoWriMo’s chart provides general word count guidelines that educators can use for working with students at different grade levels and abilities. For example, a beginning first grader might shoot for 80 words, while a more advanced first grader might target 300 words. A goal of 9,000 words by the end of the month is suggested for an intermediate eighth grader, while 12,000 words is suggested for an advanced one. 

How Can Educators Use NaNoWriMo  

A wealth of NaNoWriMo educator resources are available for free without any signup necessary. However, educators who want to take full advantage of the writing resources available for students can sign up for NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. After they sign up, they will be asked to create a profile and a cloud-based virtual classroom. 

Educators working with students who are under the age of 13 will also need to review and agree to a Parent Proxy Agreement. Some districts may also require consent from students’ families and NaNoWriMo provides educators with a website permission form they can share with their students. 

Once the virtual classroom is established and permissions are in order, educators can send students a unique classroom code that they can use to enroll in the NaNoWriMo classroom. The site will prompt students to share details about their writing projects, including their personal-word count goals (these goals can be updated at any time throughout the month). Once the calendar turns to November, the clock is ticking and students can upload their work as they go, allowing educators to track their progress and read their novels. Each student’s progress will automatically be tracked and they’ll be awarded badges for writing consecutive days-in-a-row and for percentage of their word count goal completed. 

NaNoWriMo Tips and Tricks  

Writing a book can be a great way to help students learn about creative expression and verbal communication, but writing a lengthy narrative is not easy. These tips will help keep your students on track throughout NaNoWriMo 

Stress Inclusivity. NaNoWriMo lesson plans advise educators to have students commit from the get-go that the class will be creating a safe and respectful space for writing and that encompasses how each student reacts to their classmates work as well as what they write themselves. “Specific examples of respect in writing may include refraining from making fun of a real person in their writing and not using offensive language,” states NaNoWriMo’s high school lesson plan. “Discuss how rampant creativity and rampant disrespect are different things, especially when trying to build a community. Ask for a lot of student input on this.”

Edit Out The Editing. A tenet of NaNoWriMo is turning off your inner critic, letting your creativity flow, and saving the editing and revision for after November. Making students aware of this can free up some of their writing fears and inhibitions, but it’s also important to clarify that turning off that inner critic does not apply to offensive language and material that takes aim at other students or groups. 

Make Research A Part of The Program. Part of being a novelist is often conducting research. Make your students aware of this with exercises and time during class to research details related to their work. Speaking of research, while the program focuses on novel writing, there’s no reason you can’t let students explore other genres such as memoir or nonfiction. 

Use The Process For Discussion. Good novels prompt discussion and as your students explore the made-up worlds of their works they should be welcoming new ideas and challenging themselves. Have them share these concepts with classmates. NaNoWriMo also offers conversation prompts as part of its lesson plans

Shatter Writer’s Block. If your students get stuck. help them find new direction with NaNoWriMo’s Dare Machine, a writing prompt tool that generates new challenges for writers on command. For example, Dare Machine prompts include challenges such as “We dare you to put lime Jell-O into your next scene. Food fight? Jell-O eating contest? It's up to you!" Or, “Trick your main character into believing something that isn’t true.” 

Share Your Own Struggles With Writing. Writing is often a difficult process and to be successful at it, such as with many other skills, you have to persevere through obstacles and other setbacks. Encouraging your students to discuss these setbacks can be helpful to teach them they’re not the only ones experiencing these challenges. This approach can be particularly effective if the teacher shares their own writing struggles, whether these occur with work-related or creative endeavors. Learning that their teacher is just like them and then working through these setbacks can be beneficial and help boost writing confidence. 

Celebrate What Students Have Created. Students who reach their writing goal by the final day of the challenge will be declared NaNoWriMo winners. However, all students who participated in the month of novel writing should be celebrated. Writing isn’t easy and putting your thoughts down on paper takes time, commitment, and most of all, courage! 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.