30 October 2010

Need bite-size pieces to tackle NaNoWriMo? Approach it as 30 days of freelance assignments

By Shelia Watson

It’s that time of year again. No, not the holidays with all the eating and buying and merry-making. It’s time for that 30-day word-blitz known as National Novel Writing Month, also known as (because there’s no time to waste!) NaNoWriMo.

Which means it’s also time to face the daunting task of producing the first draft of a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

This is my third shot at NaNoWriMo, and I am confident that third time will be a charm. Or at least not daunting. You see, in preparing for this year’s blitz, I had an insight into how to approach NaNoWriMo so I could sustain the momentum.

In years past, trying to accomplish a long-term project like a novel in a mere 30 days defeated me almost before I started. It was just too much to bite off and chew. I am a freelance writer, and my usual gigs are articles ranging from 500 to 2,500 words. And even though sometimes my workload requires completing several in one day, the short-term projects are manageable for me.

Then it hit me: The average number of words I write on any given day is more than the daily word count for NaNoWriMo. I can do this.

And so can you – all of you freelance writers out there, both working and wannabe! Remember, though, it’s more than just cranking out a certain number of words per day. You have to get into the same mindset that fuels a professional freelancer to deliver. Such as:

Be accountable. As a freelancer, you take on an assignment and you contract (in either verbal or, preferably, written form) to get it done. Your professional relationship depends on getting it done, so you take it seriously. You plant your ass in a chair and be a professional and do it. Same with this 30-day workflow. In its purest form, NaNoWriMo is an accountability technique, with communities all over the country and several websites with reminders to stay on course. If you signed up, keep your promises and do it.

Stay on message. The story/article/booklet/whatever that you’re freelancing has a particular message and audience. You may want to veer off into an impassioned editorial, but if you’re reporting, better stick to the objective five Ws. Or if you’re putting together a technical manual, now’s not the time to work the cultivated prose. This rule applies to NaNoWriMo as well: Stick to the story, follow your outline (assuming you did one, and I hope you did), and resist the urge to go off on tangents. Remember: The point is to get it done.

Engage the writer, ditch the editor. There’s a time for everything, and everything has its time. This is no exception. As a freelance reporter, I sometimes have several stories due at once. The only way I can get them filed on time is to get it all out of my head – the interviews, the research, the data – and then go back and massage the copy into the stories. If I agonized over every paragraph as I wrote them, I’d miss deadline. NaNoWriMo is similar in that there is a time to write and a time to edit and a time to polish. November is writing time. Take to heart the words of a wise Internet pundit: “You can’t edit a blank page.” The purpose is to write, write, write. Politely tell the editor to get lost, and remember that no one is going to read this first draft except you. Give yourself permission to write shit, and get on with it.

Keep a schedule. Being organized is key for professionals. My system is fairly simple. I write assignments on post-it notes and put them on the dates on a huge wall calendar. (I use post-its because I can easily move them to another date if the deadline moves, and taking them off the calendar is a psychological reward.) With NaNoWriMo, filling up the calendar is important too. Block out part of every day for writing, and have an outline. Knowing what you’re going to do every day will save time you’d otherwise spend going over the plot.

Do what works for you. The beauty of freelancing is that it can be adjusted to the individual. Find your peak performance time and hit it: Some people write in the morning, some later in the day, some late at night. You can write anywhere, and you can choose to write longhand or take your computer on the road. As long as you stay within the guidelines – meeting those deadlines and keeping commitments! – it’s a flexible life. NaNoWriMo can be adjusted to meet your needs too. If it helps to say a prayer or chant mantras before you start, do it. If you need to do stretches or yoga or dance, have at it. If you need the camaraderie, meet with your local group; if you need solitude, closet yourself off from the world.

Enjoy the ride. Don’t forget to have fun. Yes, freelancing is hard work, but focusing on the sheer joy of putting words together and fashioning them into something entertaining, enlightening or educational can make it awesome. In similar fashion, have fun with NaNoWriMo. Remind yourself daily how much you love writing. Revel in it.

Shelia Watson is a screenwriter, freelance writer/editor, book author, wine aficionado and chocolate lover. She lives, works and hoards chocolate in the teeming metropolis of Charleston, S.C. You can reach her at swatson@tidalcreekproductions.com or on Twitter @scriptsnthings.


  1. Good heavens, I could never do this! You have my utmost admiration. I can't wait to read it. molly