A Behaviorial Look at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

The setup for NaNoWriMo at home, if I need to ...
photo by clickthing.blogspot.com/2008/10/tennish-anyone.html

So right now a lot of writing friends and I are stocking up on coffee, candy, and Prozac, building our bunkers for National Novel Writing Month (fondly known as NaNoWriMo). Only I don’t like coffee, so I make up for it with chocolate. To each her own.

NaNoWriMo is a blitz to write at least 50,000 words in 30 days. (Of course, no, one isn’t writing a publishable book in 30 days, nor is 50,000 words a complete novel in nearly any genre. But that’s not exactly the point, either, so work with us here.)

Considering that at my sugar-and-caffeine-induced perfect zone, I peak at about 1000 words per hour, and that’s not really sustainable — I know a lot of professionals who are quite pleased with 250 words per hour — and considering that normal life doesn’t actually suspend for most of us, you can see the challenge here. So motivation and discipline are big concepts for the NaNo community.

There are lots of ways NaNo writers motivate themselves, but it boils down to several commonly-used terms — small incentives, big incentives, anti-incentives, and rituals.

Let’s look at them from a professional behavior perspective.

Small Incentives

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Or, as we’d call it, positive reinforcement. And small incentives are all about frequent reinforcement. My friend Nicole says she buys special peppermints only for November, and she goes through a 7-pound bag every two weeks. Finish this paragraph/chapter/sentence/scene, get a treat!

For those writers who enjoy eating — and are there many who don’t? — it’s no small thing that NaNoWriMo begins the very day that Halloween candy goes on clearance.

Reinforcement doesn’t have to be a special food treat, though. New music tracks are another option, or a book (because writers like books), or anything at all the subject finds worth working for. The value or the reinforcer should be scaled to the task; finishing a tricky paragraph may be worth an M&M, while finishing a chapter might net a cookie or a new book. Finish 2000 words today, take the night off and watch a favorite movie.

Behaviorally speaking, we know these to be super-effective if managed properly!

Large Incentives

Dream big! I’ve heard of people setting goals to earn massages (much appreciated by frantic desk jockeys) and whole CDs and all the way to special vacations and tattoos. (Nicole: “If I win this year, I’m getting a new computer. I want one anyway, so that’s my motivation.”)

Obviously larger incentives are for larger goals; one can’t have a new laptop for each chapter. These are probably for major word count milestones or a completed month. (I had a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints frozen for when I finished a revision.)

These are nice positive reinforcement opportunities, too, but they’re generally less effective than smaller, more frequent reinforcers. A stretch goal can seem too distant and the delayed gratification loses a lot of reinforcement value. We’ve all wanted to rock a new bikini but found ourselves noshing from the bread basket while we waited for our meal, right? We need in-the-moment reinforcement for in-the-moment behavior. Still, these can be great jackpots once in a while!


This is a weird term I haven’t really heard outside of NaNo, but maybe I’m just sheltered. It’s a dressed-up name for “threat,” because this is something bad that will happen if we don’t meet a goal. A common example: “if I don’t meet this goal, I’ll donate this much money to this organization I really hate.”

As a general rule, behavior folks tend to avoid this kind of motivation. For one thing, it can backfire when the subject is not supremely self-motivated. Imagine assigning the 50,000 words to a student who hated reading and writing, with a potential punishment hanging over his head if he didn’t make it? Even if he managed to complete the assignment, it’s a sure bet that he didn’t enjoy it beneath all the pressure and we’ve only confirmed his hatred of the task. Likewise, for a writer who is writing for fun — no one makes money off NaNoWriMo! — we don’t want to poison an otherwise-enjoyable activity.

Another reason is, the punishment remains in effect even if the subject almost succeeds with really excellent work. If I write my butt off and get 45,000 good words, but not quite 50,000 mediocre ones, I’d still have to write that awful check. This can be very frustrating and can poison the activity as well.

If you really must do something like this, it’s better to turn it from positive punishment (adding something bad) to negative reinforcement (removing something bad or a threat of something bad). Write that awful check on November 1 and give it to a friend with an envelope and a stamp. Now start writing! and every word gets you closer to your goal of redeeming that check before it can be sent. Even if you miss your goal, the bad thing has already happened — it doesn’t come down on you after your good work. That’s a subtle difference, but behaviorally it can be an important one.


My special thesis-writing outfit
“My special thesis-writing outfit” (Photo credit: maximolly)

Writers are a weird lot, and no argument. When under pressure, lots of us have little tricks we hope will make us more productive.

I have a 300-hour playlist of mostly-instrumental music. Lots of people have a special writing nook. Nicole picks a special tea for each book. She knew another NaNo participant who had special writing socks. (Which weren’t washed for the whole of November. Ew.)

On one level, these are superstitions: behaviors such as sitting in a particular chair or wearing particular socks which were accidentally associated with success and therefore are repeated, though they are not really contributing to success. On another level, though, these can be contextual cues — the music helps my mind focus on writing rather than the grocery list, for example, because my mind is trained to work on plot when it’s playing. The same can be true of other stimuli, from teas to dirty socks.

So let’s get started, on NaNo or any other project you have for yourself. Frequent rewards, big rewards, and context cues to stay focused — let’s do this!

Edit: Nicole points out in the comments below that reinforcement is critical during NaNo because ultimately it’s about producing good writing habits which are sustainable during the rest of the year. So set yourself up to win and to continue in success!

This post is mirrored at my training blog as well.

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  1. Thanks for sharing, Laura. I love the ideas of looking at the process and incentives as behavior modification. Because at the end of November, we don’t just want a rough draft. We want new writer habits.

    Interesting take on the anti-incentives and I agree. I do like the “punishment” of being banned from social media until my word count for the day is completed. I also stand by the embarrassment of telling everyone you will write a book, only to have to admit you failed at the end of the month. But that is just my competitive, externally-motivated nature.

    Thanks for recapping! See you at the keyboard.

    • But the social media is actually a reinforcer! “Achieve word count = access to Facebook” So that’s fine. :)

      And telling everyone so you’re held accountable is a lot of R- again, at least, rather than wholly P+ (that’s negative reinforcement and positive punishment), like giving the Evil Check to a friend in advance and working to redeem it. You’re working to escape pressure (and also to earn the R+ joy of bragging that you indeed won).

      Excellent points about the new habits! Because that’s what NaNo really is about, building stronger writing habits. In fact, I think I’ll edit that in above!

  2. Ooh, I like the mint idea! I just fell in love with candy bar that’s 55% dark chocolate with orange rind. I could buy four or five of those, and every day when I hit my required word count, I could eat a couple sections of them. Mmmm…

    I also have rituals. I don’t drink a lot of hot beverages in general, but I drink a lot of hot tea and hot chocolate during NaNoWriMo. I wear a special pair of fingerless gloves to keep my hands warm at the keyboard. I have a magic hat that makes the words flow faster.

    I’m still waffling over what to work on during NaNoWriMo. I’ll decide tomorrow at midnight. :D

    • Nicole says she has fingerless gloves, too, and I’m starting to feel uncool.

      “I’m still waffling over what to work on during NaNoWriMo. I’ll decide tomorrow at midnight.”

      Rock it!

  3. Love this, Laura!! I’m considering NaNoWriMo this year, but with my WIP instead of a new work. Would you believe it hadn’t een occurred to me to incentivize it?

    • NaNo for me is usually focusing on a specific personal goal rather than the general 50,000-words-of-new-project goal. Last year I did 25,000 words each in two projects, for example. This year I’ll be adding to a WIP, too.

      But I have a feeling you’ll be great at incremental reinforcement this year. ;-)

  4. I need to establish some rituals! Now that I have a new house, I’m thinking it will involve a lot of hot tea and fires in my new fireplace. Maybe I can host some brainstorming sessions or write-ins at my house, too. Last year I used food and candy treats, but now that I’m on a diet I think that would be a bad program to use. Especially right after Halloween.

    I’m “rebelling” at NaNO this month (working on a previous project with a goal to finish it), but still want to make word count.

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