Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How and WHY to Join National Novel Writing Month

November 06, 2012

November is National Novel Writing Month. Or, as we like to call it, NaNoWriMo. 

The adult version of this event requires (only) that you commit yourself to taking a stab at novel writing—and submitting a novel of 50,000 words, no matter how good or bad they are, by the end of November. For us at the National Writing Project November is considered by many “the most wonderful time of the year” (cue joyous singing a la winter holidays). 

Last year, we interviewed Donalyn Miller, aka "The Book Whisperer", known for her ability to get middle school students to read 50 books per year. When interviewed, she had just spent the weekend cooking and freezing a month’s worth of casseroles in order to make time to write 50,000 words in the next 30 days. Now, it’s one thing for a bunch of crazy English teachers to devote themselves to the challenge of writing a novel in a month, but in our community, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Since 2005, the program has entered many classrooms through its Young Writers Program. Teachers like Donalyn don’t just write novels themselves, they propel whole classrooms of students through the process, too.

Approximately 1,800 classrooms and 45,000 kids and teens participated in 2011. The rules for under-18 writers are the same as those for adults, with one important exception: young writers can pick their own "reasonable yet challenging" word length.

I admit at first I thought this idea was crazy. Why should kids write novels? And how would that be possible anyway?  

The NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program offers a common core aligned curriculum to support teachers who want to do NaNoWriMo in  their classrooms. That helps with the how. To understand the why, you have to listen to teachers who are brave enough to try it.  

According to Chris Angotti, director of the Youth Writers Program, “teachers report real, long-lasting effects of NaNoWriMo on students. Novel writing improves students' overall writing fluency and close reading skills: getting down so many words daily leads to a comfort that is hard to achieve. Teachers also notice growth in self-esteem, time-management, and the willingness to attempt new and difficult tasks. Completing a novel in one month will have your kids and teens asking, ‘What's next?’”

Laura Bradley, an 8th grade teacher in Petaluma, CA, shepherded 91 budding novelists through NaNoWriMo last year, and since has been a vocal supporter of the program. In her Weebly blog written to support other teachers interested in participating, Bradley let’s students explain the value of the program.  My favorite testimonial comes from a boy who writes, “I just think this whole thing about writing a novel is really cool. It made me think that a lot of things could be possible in the world. I mean I am thirteen years old and I just wrote my own dang novel! How cool is that?”  

Another of Bradley’s students took her passion for the program to the New York Times’  “Room for Debate” site. Julia Fox, then entering ninth grade, wrote “A Passion for Learning is Hard to Quantify” in which she argues that NaNoWriMo gave her skills, confidence, and passion as a writer that will stay with her. “When the state tests came around, I was more confident than ever about taking those tests. Even though we had never picked up our big English textbooks we still learned the essential skills needed to do well on the test . . . . I will remember all of these writing skills much longer . . . .  because I actually wrote a novel, instead of just answering a multiple choice questions on one.”

This month, through NaNoWriMo, teachers and their students are facing down the biggest writing challenge they have ever faced. They are doing so in a digitally connected community of writers. Over the next month they will learn a lot about reading and writing narratives, but they will also learn something about just what they can accomplish. They will emerge, a little bleary-eyed, from behind their screens in December, asking, “What’s next?

As Buzz Lightyear might say, “Infinity and beyond.”

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