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An Ounce of Prevention December 16, 2011

A lot of people participated in the writing marathon in November dubbed NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The "challenge" is to write a 50,000 word book in one fell blow—no stopping to think or edit, no catering to your daily moods, just devoting yourself to putting words on the page each evening no matter what. Now the blogs are ablaze with tips for the NaNoWriMo "hangover:" how to edit, how to deal with burnout, how to wrangle your giant brainstorming session into something somewhat decent.

Maybe some people work best this way, spitting out whatever enters their heads without worrying about grammar or quality until they've put their ideas in black and white. Personally, I think it's a terrible way to go. Why? Because we humans are a try-it-and-see-what-happens type of species. We almost never make the best decisions the first time around.

Think about how other products are made—a software program, for example. Imagine what happens if a development team comes together with a grain of an idea and says, "Here's the premise, and here's the deadline. Now let's sit down and code code code. Don't waste your time testing as you go along; we'll worry about that after we're done." Well, you don't have to do much imagining, because I can tell you what happens: the company turns out an application so riddled with bugs that a gallon of Raid would do just as much good as the overwhelmed programmers' attempts to fix them all. Then millions of dollars sink down the tubes as a swell of laughter follows the developers out of Silicon Valley.

Now imagine you have forced yourself to write a central chapter, simply because it was November 10th and you had to be at the halfway marker by November 15th. Imagine you had a bad day, or a fight with your beau, or you were just plum out of ideas. Consequently, this chapter sucks. It might not seem like it sucks as you write it, but the next day you find that seminal event that sounded deep and poetic in your head just looks trite on paper. Or worse, you go along in that vein for two weeks of more harried writing before you realize it was a crucial mistake with far-reaching consequences you hadn't anticipated, and you're better off scrapping the whole thing.

"Oh, don't judge yourself yet," your forum friends admonish supportively. "It's against the spirit of NaNoWriMo! Clear your head and just focus on writing, writing, writing." Now you're stuck with it. Your next 20,000 words have to work around that dumb, hasty decision, so you can post to all of your Twitter followers that you "finished the challenge!"

Now, what if you weren't constrained by an arbitrary deadline, and you had allowed yourself to go back and reflect on your work before pushing on? You might have caught your mistakes before they blew up in your face, and you wouldn't have ended up in mid-December with a pile of scrap paper ripe for Christmas kindling.

A good sculptor doesn't just start chipping off marble any which way the spirit moves him, planning to "work out the kinks later." A good chef doesn't just throw any old thing into a pot and send it to the table, assuming he can just add more salt if it doesn't work out. And a good comedy group doesn't just stick to the first gag that enters their heads and schedule the opening night, with the intention to trip on a banana peel for laughs if it falls flat.

But for some reason, writers are encouraged to sink an entire month into dashing off some dribble without critical evaluation. Writing is supposedly "different" from those other professions because we can edit later. But if you blaze through a project with no plan, little tweaks to the wording here and there are not going to salvage it. We're talking massive rewrites, to the point that you might as well have simply started over.

So I believe you're better off, both immediately and in the long run, if you take the time to reassess where you are and where you're going after each burst of production. Challenges like NaNoWriMo might make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, but if your goal is to produce 50,000 good words, I would listen to the tortoise over the hare.


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