Writing Sprints for NaNoWriMo and Beyond


Writing Sprints for NaNoWriMo and Beyond

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is fast approaching, and many writers are biting their nails hoping they can find the time to pound out 50,000 words in November.

“Not enough time” is a constant refrain among hopeful writers — and an understandable one. Day jobs, family, friends, chores, outside-of-work appointments, life(!) all come between writers and actual, honest-to-God, sitting-down-at-your-computer writing.

But a piece of advice you’ll hear again and again from successful writers is that writers write. No one has the time, but if you really want to write, you’ll find the time. You’ll make the time.

Sprints are one way you can do this.


If you’re familiar with the business world, you’ve probably heard about Agile and Scrum and Scrum sprints, or timeboxed activities that take place over a short time (usually a month) with a clear goal. Sprints help businesses stay on task, cope with change, and deliver better products.

For our purposes, especially if words like deliverables and iterative processes put you to sleep, sprints are short bursts of a single, uninterrupted activity.

You might sit down and write for half an hour, take a break, and then conduct another sprint. People also join group sprints through social media, the camaraderie adding further incentive to meet your writing goals.


The following are ways sprints can help you during NaNoWriMo and beyond.

You accomplish a short-term goal. Micro habits are small, achievable tasks you can do every day to give you a sense of accomplishment, which in turn increases your ability to tackle larger projects. Even making your bed in the morning lets you tick an item off your to-do list and feel better about the day’s challenges.

Lack of confidence is a barrier writers struggle with. No one can write a novel. I mean, come on. It’s too big a task. Too daunting. But you can write for half an hour. You can pound out 500 words. And if you do this again and again, you’ve written a novel without being crushed under the enormity of mentally tackling the whole thing at once.

You separate yourself from distractions. Writers are great procrastinators. Let’s face it: writing is hard. It requires discipline and facing our own fears. You can’t hide from yourself on the page.

Writing is something many writers feel they were meant to do, something they feel is their calling, perhaps even the most important thing they’ll ever do. That’s a lot of pressure, and it’s easy to shy away from it. You can’t fail if you don’t try.

But you also can’t succeed.

Our world also presents us with more distractions than ever. (Is your Twitter feed calling?) Sprints make you block all that out, at least for the duration of the sprint. You don’t check email, Facebook, or Twitter. You don’t answer your phone. You ignore the kids. You do what you have to do.

You instill discipline into your writing routine. Muscles develop day-by-day with exercise, and the more you exercise, the better shape you find yourself in. Your brain benefits from exercise too.

The more writing sprints you run, the more you train your brain to jump quickly into writing mode.

People who have trouble sleeping are told to make the bed a place for sleep only, so your mind associates it only with sleep and will therefore slip into sleep mode faster when you crawl under the sheets. Writing sprints help you do something similar when sitting down at your computer.

You send a clear message to those around you. Has anyone ever struck up a conversation with you while you’re reading in a public place? I always feel like the person sees you reading and thinks, Oh, God, they’re reading. What a terrible fate! I better go rescue them! It’s infuriating.

Family and friends can do the same thing while you’re writing. Hanging up your DO NOT DISTURB sign or doing whatever it takes to tell friends and family that you’re writing for the next hour (or half hour, or whatever the duration of your sprint is) helps create that space.

Specifying a definitive amount of time also helps wall this time off, because it prevents the “as good a time as any” approach to interrupting that someone can take if there are no definitive boundaries around your time.


You can do a few things to get the most out of your sprints.

Prepare. The most important thing is to work steadily and productively through the sprint. If you sit down and write nothing, you haven’t made it out of the starting blocks.

For NaNoWriMo, you can outline your novel ahead of time (but it’s almost November and the clock is ticking!). Another trick is always ending your writing session before the end of a scene, so in the next writing session you can pick right up where you left off.

In your free moments (washing dishes, driving home from work, conducting brain surgery), think about what you’re going to write. This prevents you from having no idea where you’re going when you sit at the computer or take out your notebook and pen.

Commit. The busiest time of the year at any gym is usually right after New Year’s. Everyone is packing the place and is committed to New Year’s resolutions to exercise more. But check out the same gym in mid February and count the tumbleweeds blowing by.

You have to commit to your sprints and make them productive. With NaNoWriMo, it’s easy to start strong but end up jumping ship when fatigue sets in. So the depth of your commitment will be tried.

NaNoWriMo provides great progress reports, and that “words per day to finish” feature can help or hurt your confidence. So try to come out of the gates quickly to keep that number as low as possible. And then use sprints to manage your one-day-at-a-time approach.

Communicate. As we talked about above, those around you can both support and hinder your writing efforts, and many times this is well meaning or unintentional. Someone who doesn’t write may want to help but end up invading your mental space.

So it’s important to set your time boundaries and enforce your do-not-disturb policy. And then be exceedingly kind to the people who enable your writing by watching your kids, giving you that space, or providing any of the other kindnesses and allowances loved ones make for this demanding endeavor.


I’ve seen more and more talk online about editing sprints, which follow the same concept. A fairly recent ACES: The Society for Editing chat even centered on this topic, and a lot of great editors extolled the virtues of editing sprints for tackling their work.

I like the sentiment. It’s hard to argue that an uninterrupted period of activity is bad for editing. There’s no doubt that ignoring email or social media while editing is a good thing, but I also feel like this should go without saying.

More than anything, though, I don’t like the word sprint associated with editing. With writing, it’s often important to get that first draft on the page at any cost. But editing needs to be slow and methodical — never a frantic, rushed activity.

So while I think the idea of an editing sprint is a good one, I don’t like the word in this context, and I would prefer editors use it for admin tasks or some other activity that doesn’t require the slow, methodical mindset.

When I worked at the audiobook company Recorded Books, we proofed thousands and thousands of audiobook covers. The covers came fast and furious, and there was always temptation to rush to handle the workload.

So I put together a sheet of Editing Rules of the Road, with the first rule being to “Slow Down!” When it comes to editing, this is always good advice.


ACES and EFA member James Gallagher is owner/editor at Castle Walls Editing. If you’re in need of copyediting, send a message through the contact form on this site or email James at James@castlewallsediting.com.

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