NaNoWriMo vs. Dissertation

Round One! Fight!

Hello, December. Is it safe to come out yet?

November’s comparative blog quiet is owed to National Novel Writing Month (secondary sponsor: the passive voice). I spent the month writing (part of) a novel. I dutifully scraped together my 50,000 words despite having a conference paper to write and present, the holiday, and a rather ugly spat of job applications and rejections. gave me this fancy image as an award:

My winner's banner. Nifty or tacky?

My winner’s banner. Nifty or tacky?

When I validated my novel, I couldn’t help comparing the certificate (there’s a certificate, too, that you can print out) with one I earned at about this time last year: the one that says ‘doctor of philosophy’ on it. The NaNo certificate is much more lively. The thought seemed worth developing, though. I present here a hasty compare-and-contrast of salient features of writing a dissertation and undertaking National Novel Writing Month. (Not included: the effects of either on my future employment.)


Caffeine is life for writers. I was surprised at how many of my co-NaNos preferred various kinds of soda or tea to coffee, though. I drank coffee more regularly in November than I had for…since I finished my dissertation, actually. One of my more vivid memories of my defense is that problems with the A/V setup took so long to resolve that my coffee was cold by the time I was able to start.

I also realized that I get more out of coffee than just caffeine. When I’m writing, really writing, I still need the brief pauses afforded by sipping a hot beverage. (Maybe that is why my characters spent so much time with tea or coffee at hand.)

“The only good dissertation is a done dissertation.”

As I mentioned many posts ago, I hit a turning point on my dissertation when I stopped worrying about obsessing with my research and instead chose to obsess with getting finished. It was a grander-scale version of the process most of us have gone through with a paper. You come up with something that is at least a little interesting, you gin up some ideas, do some research…and then you realize you have to submit the paper twelve hours from now, that it’s supposed to be 25 pages, and why did you think you would get any sleep anyway?

At some point in the dissertation process, your thoughts turn away from ‘what is best for this project as I envision it’ to ‘what will my committee sign off on.’ Some people hit that point earlier than others, but I think everybody who finishes reaches it. You tell yourself “I’ll fix that when I do the monograph” or “It’s not worth fighting committee member X over this any more” or “I really ought to research this properly, but I can get by with throwing the right citations into a footnote.”

NaNo is different, because it starts with this ethos. The goal is to get 50,000 words by hook or by crook. The writing coaches repeatedly advise you to keep your fingers away from your backspace key. You are supposed to keep everything, even if it’s bad. (One of my favorite write-in moments was “now we’re going to do an 11-minute sprint of total crap. The crappiest crap you can crap.”) Get the words on the screen. You can edit later.

And damn but some people get words on the screen. 1200 words in a fifteen-minute sprint. 150,000 words in a month. Who knows how much of it is crap? Who knows how much of it anybody else will ever see? Some people clearly write streams-of-consciousness. Others are just that fast. Just as some people struggle to get halfway, others write whatever they please.

The ethos of “wordcount first, everything else is just details” was one of the few things about the month that bugged me. Yes, there is a tremendous freedom in allowing yourself to just write. It is useful to shove your inner editor in a closet. Words in your head never mean as much to your work as words on the page. The obsession with wordcount, though, puts somebody who churns out 70,000 words of 90% crap ahead of somebody who grinds out 35,000 words that are only 40% crap. (See the next point, though—both of those writers will be cheered equally by their fellows.) Others rationalize heftier wordcounts by including blog posts, brainstorming, forum role-play, and anything else that involves typing. NaNo is a competition only to the extent that you’re competing with yourself, but sometimes the whole wordcount thing seemed too easily gamed to me. It is a structural element of the project. It still rubs me wrong…even though 50,000 words is such a usefully concrete goal.

A Community of Fellow Striver-Sufferers

Academia is competitive. Resources are too scarce for it to be otherwise, even though scholars rely on each others’ work. When you write a dissertation, you want it to stand out from—or at least stand comfortably among—the work of your peers and predecessors. At the same time, your fellow graduate students are usually the only ones who understand what you’re going through. They’re also likely to be most of your social group. With my cohort, at least, we all honestly wanted each other to succeed. That got murkier when we started gunning for the same jobs, but few things unite a community like suffering. The community developed organically. Anybody who passed their first semester and remained gung ho about the whole graduate school experience got funny looks. We traded in commiseration, and still do when we get together at conferences.

NaNo is not competitive. At all. The closest thing to competition comes during sprints or word wars. Having the highest wordcount for a sprint might get you a piece of chocolate or some amiably jealous congratulations. That’s it. Everybody cheers for everybody. Gung ho attitudes are pervasive. As much as the participants love writing, NaNo seems to me as much about the social activity as the work itself. I feel comfortable putting it in the same category as, say, CrossFit or Tough Mudder: it is a shared individual experience. We give each other advice and encouragement. We attempt something challenging (see the next point). It is social. Ultimately, though, we’re doing it for ourselves, as individuals. Twenty people in a gym doing complicated push-up routines is not so far from twenty people furiously clattering away at their laptops in a coffee shop. It’s a cultivated, inorganic experience…a kind of manufactured community. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun—I am not certain I would have gotten my 50K without the support of the folks I was writing with.

Writing. A lot.

In one month and by wordcount, I wrote an equivalent to about four chapters of my dissertation. Depending on where you put my “start” date for dissertating, I averaged about two chapters each year. With the dissertation, of course, there were many thousands more words of brainstorming, planning, and notes. There were pages of footnotes and bibliography, conference papers extracted and reworked along the way. A dissertation, on the humanities side of things, is an enormous pile of work and words.

In that respect, NaNo isn’t so different. The work is not the same. Rather than research, it is about persistence and watching a little bar graph go up. Some people work in manic weekend sprees, others manage a steady, workmanlike pace of 1500-1800 words each day. I was somewhere in between, breaking a thousand words each day but making up the difference with a few long Saturdays and Wednesdays. However you slice it up, NaNo involves producing a substantial word pile in a rather short amount of time.

A dissertation, though, is not just a word pile. It is a finished piece of scholarly work, crafted with varying degrees of care and haste over the course of many, many months. The words are hopefully all in the right places, and the right placement matters more than the quantity. For NaNo, 50,000 words is the only benchmark. My 50,000 are from all over the probable novel, and do not come close to completing it. As much as writing is writing is writing, the ways in which NaNo and a dissertation count as “a lot” diverge considerably. (As they should.)

Validation by an Impersonal Machine

Do you want to see how you’re doing? Copy-paste your draft into the handy word counter/novel validator. (Do this before the very last minute, because it counts words a little differently than most word processing platforms.) The website will plot your progress on a bar graph. Hopefully those bars will climb up to and eventually top the steadily ascending gray line that tells you what “par” is for each day. When you’ve convinced the site that you’ve written 50,000 words, it will take you to the winner’s page, where you can get yourself various icons, certificates, and swag.

Validating a dissertation is more personal. Slightly. I say that not as a knock on my committee—it was an awesome group of scholars who had important feedback and guidance for me along the way. In the last stages of convincing the University that I deserved a degree, though, those committee members were too often reduced to the names and signatures needed for forms. So many forms. Then I had to submit the whole thing electronically, anyway. It was an uploaded document rather than a copy-paste, but still…

I will say that, whatever the future of my incomplete manuscript, I feel more satisfied by my NaNo project than by my dissertation.

…but it might just be the coffee talking.



    1. The convenient (???) thing with a dissertation is that you have external editors who can and will bug the ever-loving crap out of you on points where you’re sloppy. NaNo, if nothing else, encourages one to sit down and write. That ethos is pretty damn useful for dissertations, too. There are so many ways to stall with a dissertation that look like work (I need to read this book, or include that article, or outline this section a little more deeply…). Sometimes you really do just have to shove your internal editor in a closet and write. If you know the material, useful prose will emerge, even if it has to be polished and shuffled later.

  1. I was a bit miffed by the word count push with nano too. I still found myself working on quality with the quantity, but I also know there are places full of fluff because I went back through sections and added however-many number of words here and there to get that day up to my goal.

    1. Arbitrary goals are arbitrary. Sometimes, though, they keep you going and push you to interesting places. Two of my favorite moments from the material I drafted last month came late in days when I was tired and trying to keep from falling farther behind. For me, the key is remembering that this is a draft, and you can (and will) fix it later. The goal with NaNo is mostly just to write. You can’t edit what you haven’t written.

      That doesn’t keep it from feeling weird, though. There were times that bar graph on the NaNo page felt far more important than it probably ought to have been.

  2. You could always use Chuck Wendig’s method. Write 350 words a day on a novel and in a year you you’ve written like .. 127500 words or so. Might be less onerous for most people rather than trying to cram 50,000 words into one month.

    1. There’s something to be said for steady progress. There’s also something to be said for bouts of intense work. I know that I’ve done both, but tend to get more out of the “cramming” because of my habits as a person and a writer. Author and blogger Cristian Mihai has written a couple of posts about the value (or nonvalue) of daily word count. The comments on that post are a good collection of different perspectives on “daily mandates.”

      The most important thing, however you set your targets, is that you make time to write.

  3. O beautiful
    was the werewolf
    in his evil forest.
    We took him
    to the carnival
    and he started
    when he saw
    the Ferris wheel.”

    Yep. That is precisely how I feel when I come across folks who conquer NaNoWriMo. Best wishes!

  4. Congratulations on finishing the challenge. It’s quite the feat! Personally, there’s always been too many distractions and things to juggle about in the way to truly manage to NaNoWriMo sorted.

    1. This is the first year in ages that I was not busy with school during November. If you really want to do NaNo despite all the other ball you have in the air, try to find a local group to engage with. I did two write-ins a week (for a total of about six hours). Those were very helpful to me not just because they set aside a time where writing was my top priority, but because they kept me connected with my fellow writers. If you can’t access a local group, NaNo has an active forum community. The organizers run virtual write-ins and word sprints. (The sprints are a great way to push your word count in 10 to 15 minute chunks, which are easy to wrangle.)

  5. I’ve been wanting to do Nano for awhile, but I recognize that I’m a person that has a little bit of an obsession with work. I feel like I need to focus more on being creative versus getting badges… because I like getting badges so much and I feel like my desire to be a good student and get the straight A’s sometimes impinges on my artistic ability. Still I think that I might do it eventually. What are your thoughts on Nano and personality type?

    1. I think personality type is secondary to the expectations you bring to the project. Many people approach NaNo as a totally recreational thing. They get their wordcount however they can and usually don’t feel guilty about, say, including a rambling 10-page conversation about baseball in the middle of their manuscript. Some people have serious aspirations for their writing, but expect to throw away much of what they write when they’re in a hurry. These folks are also comfortable churning out words as quickly as possible.

      Personally, I have serious aspirations as a writer—and have spent enough time in both the analytical and creative segments of the Academy to have cultivated a vociferous inner editor. NaNo is great for shutting that dude up. I could still hear him yelling from inside the closet, which kept me from going off the rails, but it is tremendously useful to just write. If you’re considering doing NaNo, my recommendation is to just do it. You might not get a digital certificate for 50,000 words, or you might not like all of what you wrote to get there, but you’ll have more words than when you started…I think that’s a win for any writer in the drafting stages of a project.

  6. Interesting post! I’ve had the dissertation experience but not yet tried NaNoWriMo, although very intrigued. Thanks for the comparison & insight.

  7. Thanks for sharing this – currently working on my diss and I shared this post with a few friends – love the way you describe your experience – and the way you compare the writing projects! Oh, and I also find comfort with sipping a hot beg while writing – but for me, well it is tea ll the way. Cheers – and best wishes with your future writing.

    1. I drink more tea than coffee these days. I still tend to think of coffee as “the hard stuff,” and for some reason associate it particularly with writing projects.

  8. If nothing else, Nanowrimo is a lot more fun than a dissertation; at least a lot of professors might be confused why you killed off your main character half way through the dissertation (or why it has a main character at all).

  9. Congrats on completing both of your awesome “word pile” accomplishments! I totally agree with you about NaNoWriMo. It can be a great motivator, but the emphasis on “getting words on the page at any cost” sometimes feels like it encourages overly windy writing, which would then take more than a few additional months to clean up and revise. I think I would prefer splitting the difference and ending up with something a little more serviceable. Then again, a bird in hand…

  10. I agree with most of what you have to say. However, a small disagreement: While a dissertation probably still requires more research, a good NaNoWriMo does require a good amount of preparation – whether it’s practice writing building up to the word count, or planning out the novel. Some novels require more research than others -whether it is historical, background, or topical research, or world-building in a fantasy/sci-fi realm. For my own project, I didn’t outline much, while others outlined extensively, but I know the project would not have been possible without countless hours of reading and research I have done over the years.
    In other words, NaNoWriMo is a bit more like that all-nighter-push to complete a paper after doing the groundwork before hand.

  11. Insightful comparisons and contrasts between the two ‘genres’ of writing. As this was my second nano, I was able to keep the ‘crap’ separate from the good stuff so as to facilitate an easier time of editing in Jan! The camaraderie that nano affords during the solo art of writing is what makes it a real treat for me. While I hope you do another nano, perhaps one PhD dissertation is enough for a lifetime, eh?!

  12. Insightful comparisons and contrasts between the two ‘genres’ of writing. This was my second nano so I was able to separate the ‘crap’ from the quality writing in order to facilitate an easier edit in Jan! The camaraderie offered during the solo art of writing is what makes Nano in Nov a treat for me. While I hope you do another nano, I imagine the one PhD dissertation to be enough for a lifetime! Congrats on both accomplishments.

  13. After 38 years in the USA I finally understood why I could not find a proper job when I came to this country. I wrote in my resume that I was a PhD (I had 5 years in college, worked in the industry, than had 3 more years of graduate work, wrote and defended my dissertation, than 12 years in an industrial research).
    In Russia dissertation often not connected with academia. It must have two parts: original theory and practical implementations in science or an industry. You can’t submit dissertation after at least 3 articles on its topic are published in prestigious magazines.
    It is also as a rule more than 100 pages.
    Thank you for giving me an understanding what writing of dissertation means here.

  14. I have to say, congrats on completing NaNoWriMo. I’ve tried NaNo, twice, but never managed to finish (then again I’m still suffering in the sleep-leeching institution named “high-school”), also have a tendency to research the heck out of things, and

    I’m just wondering, are you familiar with the community “Nerdfighteria?” If not look up “vlogbrothers” on youtube. Because that’s a whole other community that is willing to suffer with you during the month November.

    By the way, I’d love to read a bit of your 50,000 word creation (I’d be the first NaNo creation I’ve read and I’m really curious what people can come up with in one month).

  15. I won NaNoWriMo the past two years, the first time with a solid outline and this last one just “pantsing” it. Vats of really good coffee were required both times to finish. I love the “soft deadline” of NaNo – I’m not going to get fired or fined if I don’t make it. Despite some serious edits and rewrites, I’m more satisfied with my writing in these two novels than in most of my long projects. Also, Camp NaNoWriMo developed lasting friendships with cabin mates. We keep in touch almost daily on a thread in the forum. I hope to stay far away from dissertation writing, but my hat’s off to you for tackling both simultaneously!

  16. Great post! I did not slay my internal editor that eventually killed the true Nano spirit in me…I kept editing on a daily basis and found myself way behind in word count.

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