How to Hack Your Word Count and Win NaNoWriMo

Tomorrow is the last day of November, and I’m 7k out from a NaNoWriMo win. That’s too close not to go for it but far enough to be a crunch. Why do I do this to myself?!

The truth is, I love arbitrary self-imposed deadlines. Panicking at the possibility that I might not meet my goal motivates me. So almost every single year I do this challenge, I end up staging a dramatic comeback to pull it off at the last minute.

A graph showing a word count consistently behind par but slowly catching up at the last minute
Writers love a ticking clock. It is known.

In fact, I’ve learned that even if I set myself a “doable” goal like 20k in a month, I still lean into the slack until I’m behind. It’s like I enjoy this or something. I don’t, not exactly, but it seems to be the only way I get things done.

How do you “win” NaNoWriMo if you let your daily par get away from you? It’s simple!

Just say no.

Giving up is always an option! Don’t buy into the hype and don’t beat yourself up about it. You are not a failure if you don’t write 50k words in a month. In fact, you have chosen sanity. Self-care. Sleep. That’s winning!

Peggy walks out of the Mad Men office carrying her box of desk items, with shades on and a cigarette hanging from her lips.
See? Quitting is an iconic power move.

In the spirit of NoNoNoMo, reject the arbitrary deadline. Literally nothing bad will happen if you don’t meet it. However many words you wrote this month? That’s a win. It’s more words than zero. The saying is “writers write” not “writers write 50k in a month.”

But Erin, you say, you clicked on this because you’re not a quitter. I promised to tell you how to win, not how to quit.

It’s true, but for me, it’s important to remember that I CHOSE THIS. No one is making me do this. I met my real deadlines this month already. We’re doing this for fun!

Also, my real secret isn’t a secret at all.

Do word sprints.

Sprinting is part of NaNo culture in a big way, with good reason: it works. A sprint is essentially a timed free write, preferably with a few writing friends to keep you honest and accountable. Set a timer for 10-25 minutes and write like the wind. Then break and share your word count. Then do it again.

I’m guessing the writing sprint owes a lot to the Pomodoro technique and similar productivity hacks. The idea is that you chip away at the goal in small pieces with built in breaks. If you have a lot of ground to make up, the task may seem insurmountable. But if you need to write 6k in two days (me!) and you can write about 500 words in a 25 minute sprint, that’s 6 sprints a day, less than three hours total writing time.

Dory sings "just keep swimming" while Marlin looks annoyed
Live shot of me and my brain

I resisted word sprints for a long time. I’m not naturally a fast writer and I struggle with perfectionism, so sprinting seemed like a terrible idea. But word sprints are actually a great way to break through the perfectionist walls. And as always, having writing friends with whom to share the pain helps too.

Pull an all-nighter.

Yeah, nope. Not at my age. My theory is that you only get to do a set number of these in your lifetime. I used up all my all-nighters in college, because then as now, panic was my best motivator.

But if you’re young and healthy and haven’t met your sleepless quota yet, enjoy! Pro tip, being up for over 36 hours is a lot like being drunk. Have fun, but don’t make any major life decisions and don’t operate heavy machinery.

blame it on my ADD baby
An accurate depiction of my college experience.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my pre-sprint nap.

Hack your brain chemistry.

Because my brain doesn’t work like normal brains do, I can drink two cups of Death Wish coffee (700g caffeine per cup) and immediately fall asleep. Whee! Paradoxical effects are pure entertainment, but they don’t help me when I’m trying to grind out 6000 words in 48 hours. (They don’t help you convince your doctors of anything either, but that’s a story for another time.)

Harley sips coffee while reading
I don’t have an actual death wish, I’m just (probably) neurodiverse.

If you are really pushing that deadline, you may need some chemical assistance. I support this. There’s nothing wrong with hacking your own brain chemistry especially if you know what works for you. Just keep it legal and don’t give yourself a heart attack, please.

Personally, I feel some sinus congestion coming on. Must be those late winter allergies.

Count every word.

I mean EVERY word. Dash off an outline for your next act? That’s words. Count ‘em. Start your sprint with a hundred words of angst about how you can’t do this? Words. Write a report for work? There are words in that there report. Twitter thread? Those are words too, believe it or not.

You can stretch this theory as far as you are comfortable. Some people are NaNo purists, striving for 50k words on one project, and that’s ok. I’m a rebel this year and set up my NaNo project as “various” because I started out the month trying to finish a previous project. That was about 6-7k words. The current WIP is in the 30k range. But I am counting all my goal-directed creative writing toward 50k, including my writing about writing, so this blog post (900-ish words) is going in my word count. I’m not counting my work writing, but I’m not telling you not to, either.

Jyn Erso says rebellions are built on hope!
Keep hope alive!

Give yourself credit for the writing you’ve done this month, even if it isn’t staying in your draft. NaNoWriMo is about practicing a writing habit and letting go of perfectionism.

Is it stretching the rules a bit? Kind of, but even the official NaNo site acknowledges its rebel contingent these days. Will the NaNo cops come for you? No, we don’t have those here. ACAB, baby.

Good luck and godspeed!

It’s not really about luck, though, let’s be honest. It’s about perseverance, privilege (having the time and spoons to write means having your basic needs taken care of), and punch-drunk pigheadedness.

That’s all I have for you today. I hope this helps motivate you or demotivate you, whichever one you need. And to those who are about to NaNo, I salute you. May the words be ever in your favor.

Katniss salute
See you on the other side!

3 thoughts on “How to Hack Your Word Count and Win NaNoWriMo

  1. This was such a fun article. Though, the part that has me NEEDING to comment is you talking about your (lack of a) reaction to coffee. That sounds like ADHD to me. I can take medicines that warn against drowsiness without a problem, and use Dayquil as a sleeping pill. Caffeine has no real effect in either direction. Fun times.


    1. Thank you! And yep I am pretty sure I have inattentive ADHD – I have literally every criteria but my doctors think there is no problem because I graduated law school etc. So I am over here self-medicating with cold meds and massive amounts of caffeine. Not that I’m bitter!


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