Do your kids struggle with writing assignments? Do they constantly start new stories only to abandon them as ‘not good enough’? Do they criticize all of their own writing, picking it apart until they lose interest in it? If this describes your child, NaNoWrimo for kids might be the answer.
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What is NaNoWriMo
NaNoWriMo is the abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month. Each November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world attempt to author 50,000-word novels in thirty days. Writers have the option to meet up for local “write-ins” and to participate in supportive online forums to discuss everything related to writing.
There aren’t many rules: the work must be original and new; it must be started and completed within the thirty days comprising November; and it must be at least 50,000 words, as verified by the organization’s online word checker.
In 2017, over three hundred thousand people participated in NaNoWriMo and over 30,000 emerged as “winners.” (There is no prize for “winning” NaNoWriMo other than bragging rights and the completion of your novel).
What is NaNoWriMo for kids?
The NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program is a safe, fun, and age-appropriate way for kids to get involved with NaNoWriMo. Kids under seventeen can sign up to take part in the November challenge, or—unique to the Young Writers Program—they can sign up for any thirty-day period of their own choosing.
Another thing that differentiates the Young Writers Program from the traditional NaNoWriMo challenge is that kids can choose their own word count goal, so if 50,000 words seems like too much for them, they can set a goal that is still challenging but more attainable.
Kids can write directly in the YoungWriters Program writing space or in their own word processor. Within the writing space, NaNoWriMo provides tools for kids, such as timed writing challenges, writing dares (i.e. twists to work into their novels), and resources such as workbooks, pep talks, and videos.
There are also strictly moderated forums just for the 13-17 crowd. Kids under 13 may read but not post in the forums. Kids can also earn badges for days-in-a-row and percentage completed. Finally, NaNoWriMo has partnered with Blurb to help kids self-publish their completed novels at the end of the challenge.
5 Benefits of Participating in NaNoWrimo for Kids
1. NaNoWriMo helps you develop a daily writing habit.
I once read that the differentiating factor between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one is that the successful writer makes time to write and actually spends that time writing. Makes sense. You can’t get better at anything without practicing, and writing is the type of skill that benefits from daily practice.
Writing 50,000 words in a month is challenging, even for adults, who likely type faster and can get by with less sleep. It requires that you produce, on average, 1,667 words per day. If you miss a day, it becomes even harder. Having this self-imposed pressure to produce is so useful for developing a daily writing habit.
When I participate in NaNoWriMo, which I often do, I force myself to complete my required words before I do anything else with my day. That means I have to go to bed early so I can get up extra early to work on it. If I find myself with extra time later in the day, I might get a head start on the next day’s words, but I always know by breakfast that I’ve already made my minimum effort required for the day. I find that this habit is easy to continue when November ends and I want to start editing my work.
2. It's challenging, but not impossible
Whether your child chooses to go for the full 50,000 words or set a lower target such as 15,000 or 30,000 words, they should feel that the finish line is challenging, but not impossible. For example, my nine-year-old probably could not write 1,667 words in a day (approximately five typed pages). She might be able to dictate that many words to someone, but she probably couldn’t write or type that many on her own.
For her, a more manageable goal would probably be 500 words per day, or 15,000 words total. Achieving this would still be a major accomplishment for her, but not one that is so burdensome that she would buckle under the pressure.
To be clear, I’m not advocating that you decide on behalf of your child that they will participate or how much they will try to write. A goal like this should be set by the individual after careful consideration of the implications. What will they have to give up to make time to write every day? When will they do their writing? What will they do if they become frustrated? A challenge of this nature should be one that spurs self-motivation and creativity, not fear or anxiety.
3. NaNoWriMo for kids has a supportive and helpful writing community
One of my favourite aspects of the NaNoWriMo experience is participating in a forum of other writers who support and encourage each other in their efforts. Last year, for example, I relied heavily on a thread that allows writers to confer with each other about different areas of expertise. I asked people questions about what it was like to work in a fast food restaurant, or to cut down a Christmas tree in the snow—things that I’ve never personally tried myself and wanted to write about.
It can be hard for kids with serious personal hobbies such as writing to find other kids who are as passionate as they are. NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program is such a fantastic opportunity for kids to feel like they’re not alone and to receive encouragement from like-minded peers.
4. It forces you to write without editing
One of the writer’s biggest challenges is the inner critic. The one that wants to go back and re-read every sentence and make it perfect before moving on.
One of my daughters suffers from an incredibly strong inner critic. She can never just write a page of prose and move on. She will write it, read it, toss it, write it again, toss it again, write it again, edit it, toss it, etc., until she finally gets frustrated and gives up. She’s never happy with what she’s written.
But editing while you are writing is rarely a good idea. The brain uses different processes for writing and editing, and every time you stop to read and edit your work, you lose your creative flow and have to ramp it up again to continue writing.
With NaNoWriMo, kids won’t have time to do this. There is no editing, or second guessing, or spending hours crafting the perfect sentence. There is hardly even any time for on-the-go fact checking or background research. (Usually when I’m doing a NaNoWriMo challenge, I make comments to myself in the margins such as “fill in more accurate details later” or “this sentence is a placeholder.”)
When they ultimately finish and begin editing their book, they will probably cut and change so much anyway that perfecting things on-the-go doesn’t make any sense. There’s no point perfecting a sentence or paragraph that may not even fit in with the final draft. Extra time spent at this point in the game will just make it harder to cut unnecessary content later on.
Writing to a challenging deadline like the one imposed by NaNoWriMo really forces you just to write, write, write without ever looking back, and sometimes, this is exactly what the young writer needs to learn.
5. They’ll come out of it with a masterpiece (or at least the first draft of a novel)
Finishing a novel is a huge accomplishment for anyone, but for the child who struggles to finish a piece of writing, it will be particularly thrilling. They will get bragging rights, a self-confidence boost, and—if they’re particularly eager—the opportunity to self-publish their novel with Blurb. What a fantastic experience for a budding writer to go through!
Three reasons why kids may not want to participate and what to do about it
There are many reasons why kids may be hesitant to take on a NaNoWriMo challenge, and rightly so. It’s a big undertaking and shouldn’t be done without a careful consideration of the costs and benefits. Below I will briefly address three of the main challenges.
1. I don’t have any ideas
One of the hardest parts about writing a novel is coming up with the idea. And then, once you come up with something, you need to figure out your approach. Are you going to plan it all out ahead of time? Fly by the seat of your pants? Everyone has their own approach that works best for them, and young writers are probably best served by experimenting with different approaches to see what works best for them.
But, to help them get started, I’ve put together 100 writing prompts and story starters for middle and high school kids. Hopefully, something on this list will spark their creativity and help them get off to a good start with their NaNoWriMo challenge.
2. I can’t write fast enough
This, too, is a legitimate concern. Even adults who type sixty or more words per minute struggle to type their ideas as quickly as they think them. How much more so will young children struggle with this?
There are options, of course. One is to use voice dictation. This can be a quick way to get thoughts out of one’s head and into a document, but it’s not without its challenges. There will be frequent grammatical errors that will require fixing and which may cause confusion if not fixed right away. They will also need to keep an eye on it as these programs are often not great at punctuation, which could definitely be a challenge when writing dialogue. It’s definitely worth a try though.
A second option is to strengthen their typing skills. This will not only benefit them as writers completing a NaNoWriMo challenge, but also as students who will have many papers to type in their academic careers. Read my review of a free online typing program here.
3. I don’t have enough time
This is the biggest challenge for most people who participate in these writing programs. How do you find the time every single day to write a substantial amount?
It’s not easy. There is a lot of sacrifice involved. I generally make no social plans in November. I don’t watch Netflix. I don’t participate in other hobbies. I wake up before everyone else and I just write. I try to do four 15-minute timed races and see how many words I can get in (usually 500-600). For a young writer, their output in a 15-minute period will likely be less than this.
But do keep in mind that they can set their own goal. Why not test them by seeing how many words they can produce in four 15-minute sprints? If they are able to set aside one hour a day, a suitable goal would be the number of words per hour multiplied by thirty. If the goal is reasonable, they shouldn’t feel too pressed for time.
Ultimately, NaNoWriMo is a fun experience for both kids and adults. It helps participants become stronger, more dedicated writers, and also results in a significant accomplishment for those who see it through. I highly recommend NaNoWrimo for kids who want to become better writers.
Further reading and next steps
Here are some of my favourite resources to help with writing novels.