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. NaNoWriMo.org 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 NaNoWriMo.org 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.