Why “Just Do Your Best” is Terrible Advice for Writers—and Other Lessons from NaNoWriMo

Today is December 1st, for any of you that have yet to look at the date. Coincidentally, it’s also the day I kick myself for not have reached a significant writing goal by the end of the previous month. (November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it’s been coined, in which participants are encouraged to pen—or, realistically, type—50,000 words in the course of 30 days.)

typewriterThis is year four I’ve participated and year two that I’ve fallen short of my goal.

I also committed to writing a blog post each day last month (another goal which I fell painfully behind in completing) and started writing in a daily gratitude journal. (The latter was not terribly successful, either, as I had missed 22 days, and actually punished myself by spending the better part of a morning engaging in 22 acts of written reflection.)

Hey, I tried, right?

Wrong.

Now, I know the primary purpose of this blog is inspiration, so no discouragement is intended when I say this, but sometimes simply trying just isn’t good enough. When the sun sets at the end of each day, what’s truly important is what a person has accomplished. Rarely is “I did my best” sufficient. I’m not going to congratulate my surgeon if he “did his best” removing my appendix, my pilot for “doing his best” landing my plane, or the kitchen staff for “doing their best” in keeping the tomatoes from creeping into my club sandwich. (Those little bastards have their own agenda, I swear.)

Sometimes getting the job done is, really, the only thing that matters.

That’s why, when it comes to my writing, I’m rethinking my determination to “just do your best,” a credo that seems to have been collectively instilled in my millennial generation. Granted, I wrote thousands upon thousands of words that I ordinarily wouldn’t have in any given month, but having worked with dozens of publishers and editors around the nation, sometimes “good enough” just isn’t good enough. Like it or not, it’s the hard reality of my profession, but it also weeds out the mediocre from the truly exceptional.

In retrospect, nothing of significant value came out of my past NaNoWriMo writings, even in years I surpassed the 50,000 word count. (That’s not to say no good writing is procured during the month. Here’s a handy list of novels that owe their existence to NaNoWriMo and its participating authors.) But before any of you writerly types get your panties in a bunch, bear with me.

When was the last time you read—or wanted to read—an unfinished novel? If you’ve never laid eyes on a manuscript before it’s been completed (or even professionally edited), I can assure you, it’s nothing but a beautiful disaster.

I don’t recall Hemingway, arguably one of the most prolific writers of the time, saying, “Y’know, I just wrote this really great half-novel. Would you care to take a gander? It’s still pretty rough, and I haven’t figured out how it’s to end, but…”

As tough as it may be for some writers to admit, the truth is, no agent or publisher is going to care about your best intentions. They want a completed manuscript. And they want a good one.

However, I will admit that participating in NaNoWriMo taught me some really important lessons in writing. For one, there are 50,000 reasons why quality still trumps quantity. Also:

  • Don’t just regurgitate words. Writing simply for the numbers is the wrong approach.
  • Worry more about how you’ve told the story than how many words it took you to get there.
  • Commitment blogging is not my bag. The quality of online content is already waning as it is, without one more linguist further diluting the web with subpar writing. When I produce something for the world to see, you’d better believe I’m putting thought into it, rather than publishing it for the sake of meeting some contrived goal.
  • Sometimes the best laid plans (write 50,000 words in 30 days, write a blog post a day, etc.) are no match for reality.
  • Contrary to advice often spewed by NaNo advocates, by all means, listen to your inner critic. If your first attempt at describing a scene or a character seems inadequate, it probably is. So trust your intuition as a reader, and prune your language as you write, not after. This takes discipline, but is well worth the effort. It will make you a better writer, and it will make for an easier time refining your final manuscript.
  • Finish it already.
  • Get an editor.

I’d like to believe that if writers did the above, we’d have even more really amazing stories. Self-publishers would have far more favorable reputations, and high-quality editors would be some of the best-paid people on earth.

Until then, I’ll still be writing. But not for the sake of the word count, for the sake of telling the story.

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