Guide to NaNoWriMo: Word Count and Community

Editing and Writing

Guide to NaNoWriMo: Word Count and Community

Some of us are gearing up to do NaNoWriMo this year–you know, that thrilling and rather grinding exercise of writing a 50-word novella in 30 days, all within the month of November. Since I’ve “won” the NaNo several times and have gained a few hard-won tidbits of wisdom along the way, I thought it might be useful to help people out by sharing what I’ve learned.

Over the roughly four weeks of the NaNo, you can get obsessed with things like character creation, plot development, bulking up the word count, and pacing the story or nonfiction piece. But remember that there’s more to the NaNo experience than just hunching at your desk or over your notebook, pouring forth the words. There are also other aspects to the experience that might be less intense. You know, things like coming up with various ways to keep track of the growing word count as well as that all-important element of having people to chat with about your woes and triumphs.

So here we go with the first installment–ways to keep track of word count and the value of having a writing community.

You Can Count on Me


An abacus

Need an abacus to keep track?


Ah yes, the word count. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the Nano, I can get pretty obsessed with how many words I’ve actually written on a given day. Not to mention in a given hour or even a given ten minutes. Yes, it can get that bad at times, say, when you’re less inspired than usual and cannot believe you’ve only managed another thirty-five words in the past twenty-five minutes. But I find that it doesn’t really matter when—I want to know my word count at any time, even when I’m so inspired that I’ve written 2,000 words in just two hours.

Naturally, we all want to write a story that’s actually good, especially if it’s about characters we like and are interested in. But most of us are not above inserting a few extra words and phrases here and there, just to push ourselves closer to that magic daily word total of 1,667. And by the way, in case you haven’t calculated, that’s the daily total you need to write to reach the magic 50,000 by the last day of November. One way of managing and not getting discouraged by a big task like this is to break it into smaller chunks and just concentrate on doing one chunk at a time. A chunk of 1,667 words in a single day is quite doable, and if you keep more or less to that basic pace each day, you will find the big 50K doable as well. We’ll discuss “chunking” into smaller tasks in more detail later.

Meanwhile, back to the word count. The reason I keep checking so often is that I really want to know how close I’m getting to the ultimate goal—when I’ve passed the halfway point, whether I’m over the day’s anticipated total, whether I’m keeping pace with what I need to write each day to reach 50,000, and all sorts of things like that. I am always curious, so I’m always checking. And if I can get ahead on the word count, to counterbalance days when I can’t reach the 1,667 “chunk,” that’s the best thing of all.

Since reaching the fifty thousand mark depends on building up those cumulative totals, day by day and week by week, it’s not surprising that some of us become a little obsessed with where we are, word-countwise, at any given moment in the month.

I myself long ago developed what might be called A System. Unfortunately, it’s very idiosyncratic and complicated, so it’s not easy to explain. I have a set of headings that I insert at the top of the first page of each new chapter to help me keep track of all sorts of totals as the days progress. I track everything you can imagine: today’s total, the total for the current chapter, the total number of words I’ve written for the month, the number of words left to reach 1,667 today, and the number of words left to reach the total goal. And if my writing for a single day straddles two different chapters, it almost requires differential calculus to keep track of the totals them.

Some days, I do those calculations at least once an hour and frequently two or three times that often.

You will come up with your own ways of keeping track of the numbers. Your way might be as convoluted as mine, or you might do it in a complicated spreadsheet. Of course, the very easiest way is just to type your entire manuscript into one file. Don’t make a separate file for each chapter the way I do. Just hit “Return” three or four times at the end of each chapter, type a new chapter number or heading, and start in. If you are as word-count-obsessed as me, all it will take is a glance down at your word processor’s word count total at the bottom of the screen, and you’ll know your word count instantly.

The drawbacks? It won’t tell you how many words you’ve done today. Or how many you have to go to reach today’s goal. Or to reach the total goal. Or how many words you are ahead of today’s goal. See why I ended up with such a complicated system?? I want to know all those things! So it’s a trade-off between 1) a bizarrely complicated system that lets you make like a baseball statistician and 2) a simple system that doesn’t let you analyze things in fine detail but at least gives you one simple grand total.

There are also online word count programs. If you put a phrase like “word count tool” into a search engine, you’ll get some articles about the NaNo itself, but you’ll also get several different actual word-count sites. Experiment with some of those, if you’d rather have the word totals calculated automatically instead of calculating them yourself. At the time of my writing this book, here are some of the current word-count tools online (but remember that these can come and go, over time):,, Word Count Tool, etc.

And two of my favorites for encouraging you to write in shorter sprints are 750 Words, which you need to sign up to join, and Written? Kitten!, for which you can set your own desired word count. If you can write just 750 words in a set period of time, you’re already almost halfway to your day’s total. Or with Written? Kitten!, if you set yourself a goal of, say, 200 words (you can set increments of 100, 200, 500, and 1000)—every time you reach that goal, the program shows you a new kitten! This may be why that program is my favorite. But of course, with any of these word-count tools, after you’ve entered your words, you usually have to remember to copy all your written text into Word or whichever word processor you’re using, or you’ll lose those lovely words along with your current word count.

Whatever way you do it, it’s a good idea to keep track, day by day. Find a way that lets you know how you’re doing each day, and it will help you pace yourself. It will also let you know when you need to pick up the pace, especially if you’ve fallen a bit behind.

But remember that different programs count words in different ways, and sometimes your count in Word or in an online word counter will not quite match the count you’ll get at the NaNo site itself (if you are registered there) when you finally upload the completed document. If there’s any discrepancy, the NaNo site’s count is the one that matters, because that’s where you’ll get your count validation. This is why I always strive to have maybe an extra 50–100 words over the 50,000 at the end of the month, just so I can be absolutely sure (and can convince that NaNo counter!) that I’ve reached the goal.

Yes, I’m obsessive like that.

Find a Community

This is another thing that isn’t always talked about. Of course, many people are loners, and they are just fine working on their NaNo by themselves. They don’t even go to the official NaNo site to enter daily statistics; nor do they go there to validate their word counts at month’s end. It’s enough for them just to know they’ve accomplished this amazing thing, and they don’t need the “Winner!” avatars or banners or the certificate at the end.

Semicircle of pictures of people

A community helps!


But joining the official NaNo community or finding a group or community of another sort is still something to consider. It can sometimes be a real help, having others to talk to about this bizarre, intense, and fulfilling project.

Get Some Ideas

So what advantages are there to being part of a NaNo community? Well, for example, you might get really stuck on a plot point. You’ve painted your characters into a corner, which you thought you wouldn’t have any trouble getting them out of, and suddenly you realize that you have no idea how they’re going to escape. You could end up wasting several hours of precious writing time trying to devise a way of getting your characters or plot unstuck—

Or! You might go to one of the forums on the NaNo site or somewhere else (Facebook, Dreamwidth, or other discussion forums you’re familiar with), where you know NaNo writers are congregating, and post a summary of your dilemma. Your tired brain might have run out of energy to think this through, or you might have gone over the same ideas again and again without being able to devise a new plan, but others think differently from you. Someone might suggest a solution you wouldn’t have dreamed of in a million years, yet it solves every problem with your particular plot issue.

Or maybe you’ve met a new character whose family really needs some kind of Teutonic name and should be involved in some kind of ancient craft, and you’re not sure where to go to research the time period or the names. This could be another big time-waster if you have to go hunting through a search engine. But you could ask in the forum, and maybe someone who is there happens to have taken a university course on exactly this subject a couple of years ago, and she fills you in on what you need to know. Problem solved!

Even if you’re trying to keep your plot fairly simple and have tried to avoid the need for a lot of historical research, you can still run into the occasional problem with the potential to waste a lot of time as you do research rather than write. But if you are part of a community, you’ve got at least a chance of cutting that time short if someone else has an answer for you.

Share Woes and Triumphs

There are also inevitable times when you’re just too discouraged to go on. You’re two days behind in your word count, and you’re not sure you’re ever going to catch up. So why bother even continuing?

You can get a lot of encouragement from hanging around others who are doing the NaNo. You might see someone post a big, rejoicing post about having overcome a major plot difficulty, and it gives you inspiration. Or you may just need someone there to agree with you: “I’m really tired. This is a way bigger thing than I expected. I don’t know if I should keep writing tonight or should just go to bed and sleep and try to write with more energy tomorrow.”

Sometimes, you just need the hairpats. You might even see people who have had to drop out of the NaNo for some reason (for example, family obligations have just gotten in the way, so they have no time), but they’re still posting in the forum when they can, cheering you and the others on. That can give you a real lift. Sometimes you might even be inspired to go on in their name as well as your own; if they can’t finish this year, well, at least you can.

And sometimes it’s just plain fun to share the experience with someone. You can compare notes on how far you’ve gotten, share ideas for upping the word count, and roll your eyes or share in a group snark session about some of the tribulations you’re all going through. And of course there will be the inevitable discussion of coffee.

Remember that there are forums already set up at the official NaNo site whose whole purpose is to give you this sort of support and feedback. If you start running into difficulties or start feeling kind of alone, think about joining in. Everybody there will know exactly how you’re feeling.

Time to get prepared so you can plunge right in and get writing! Next time, we’ll discuss the really important things: chairs, writing locations, musical accompaniment — and snacks!