Way back in 1999, author Chris Baty and a few of his friends challenged themselves to each write a 50,000-word book in 30 days. What unexpectedly grew from that dare became National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. This annual event, held in November, encourages people of all skill levels to embrace creative writing and unleash their imaginations using the written word. 

Like Baty’s original premise, participants in NaNoWriMo have 30 days to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel, starting on November 1st at midnight and ending on November 30th at 11:59 p.m. local time. Participants aren’t allowed to start early, but they can brainstorm ideas before the event begins. The novel can be written in any genre or language, so long as it’s a new draft. 

While there’s no official prize for those who complete the challenge, the accomplishment of producing a novel is reward enough for many. Some NaNoWriMo projects have even gone to publication, including Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High, and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

In the English language arts classroom, NaNoWriMo is rich with academic merit. The NaNoWriMo journey gives students a creative space to build writing confidence, explore language usage, and practice identifying literary concepts like plot structure and characterization. Unlike typical school writing projects, where the focus is generally on writing quality, the NaNoWriMo challenge’s emphasis on word count helps students develop writing fluency. The more students write without restraint, the stronger their overall writing skills grow.

NaNoWriMo can also create a sense of community in the classroom. Even though students work on their own projects, they can collaborate with each other during the writing process and share ideas, encouragement, and constructive criticism.

If you’re thinking about getting your class involved in this year’s event, this blog post is for you! Let’s take a look at how you can transform your students from aspiring writers into confident novelists in just 30 days.

Signing Up for NaNoWriMo

So, your students have accepted the challenge! What’s next?

The easiest way to get students on the path to 50,000 words is to enroll them in NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. This completely free platform gives writers under 18 years old a central place to work on their novel. Here, students can track their writing progress throughout the month, interact with other young writers (called “Wrimos”) on fully moderated message boards, and get pep talks from published authors.

Alternatively, you can create a free Educator account and set up a virtual classroom to host all of your students in one space. From the Educator’s dashboard, you can monitor your students’ progress, read their work, and hold online class discussions. If your students need a quick break from their novels, you can create custom class-wide writing prompts for students to complete. An Educator account also unlocks Common Core-aligned writing lesson plans, a motivational classroom kit full of goodies, and other free resources.

During the November challenge, students can earn displayable profile badges for hitting milestones like word count and days-in-a-row writing streaks. Are 50,000 words a little too intimidating for some? Unlike the general NaNoWriMo guidelines, the Young Writers Program encourages students to set custom goals for completing the challenge.

Students can access the Young Writers Program website year round, even after the month ends. There are lots of valuable resources on the platform to keep students engaged with their work, such as downloadable workbooks that walk them through the revision process. Your class can also sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo, another creative writing challenge that takes place in April and July.

NaNoWriMo Resources Created by Teachers

Over the years, thousands of teachers and students have participated in NaNoWriMo. Based on their experiences, some educators have shared tips and tricks on how they conquered the challenge.

If this is your first year participating in NaNoWriMo, check out this video primer by NaNoWriMo program director Marya Brennan and high school teacher Sean Krazit. The video provides an overview of the Young Writers Program and explains how to create a virtual classroom using an Educator account.

Middle school English teacher Lisa Stringfellow wrote about her experiences guiding her 5th-grade students through NaNoWriMo in this compelling article. Her approach to NaNoWriMo was based on the idea of immersive modeling, a type of instruction where the teacher leads by example. During the month, Stringfellow joined her students in writing a novel, holding herself accountable to the same standards as them. By doing so, her students grew more confident in their abilities because, as she puts it, “When we push [students] to challenge themselves, and work alongside them, they are capable of so much more than they ever thought they could be.”

At her website, The NaNoWriMo Classroom, English teacher Laura Bradley explains how she coaches her 8th-graders through the novel writing process year after year. Here, you’ll find a breakdown of her daily teaching agenda, student testimonials, and a collection of NaNoWriMo mini lessons you can adapt for your own classroom.

Kim Votry has been a NaNoWriMo coach for many years, having published her own novel inspired by her work in the classroom. In this video, Votry describes how she turns NaNoWriMo into an innovative collaboration between middle and high school students. After her middle-schoolers complete their novel drafts during NaNoWriMo, Votry asks students from the local high school to proofread and revise their work. This partnership gives the middle-schoolers legitimate feedback to work with and inspires the older students to reconnect with their own imaginations.

Free Online Resources to Support the Writing Process

Keeping students motivated to write is perhaps the biggest obstacle you’ll face during your class’s NaNoWriMo journey. But don’t worry! Consider using the following tools to create a conducive writing environment. What’s best, you can use these tools in the classroom for projects beyond NaNoWriMo!

Ambient Noise

There’s a reason why writers are often pictured in cafes on television—studies have shown that ambient noise can have a positive effect on creativity and cognition. But you can’t exactly take your class on a field trip to Starbucks every day. Instead, turn to technology. Websites like Coffitivity and I Miss My Cafe provide free ambient recordings of coffee shop chatter and other sounds that students can listen to as they write.

Timed Writing

For students who may need help staying on task, consider introducing the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management method developed by Francesco Cirillo. Named after the quaint tomato-shaped kitchen timer, this method breaks tasks into timed periods of focused work, usually 25 minutes, followed by short breaks. 

Using the Pomodoro Technique is simple. Set a timer for the allotted focus time. Once it starts, have students write without interruption or distraction. When the timer ends, ask students to stop and take a break for a few minutes. You can repeat this workflow as class time allows. 

Tomato Timers and Pomofocus offer free Pomodoro timers your class can use from any internet browser.

Prompt Generators

Writer’s block got your students down? Sometimes stepping away from their drafts can work wonders. In the meantime, keep their creative brains occupied with quick writing prompts. From the Young Writers Program dashboard, students can access the Dare Machine, a prompt generator that asks students to write about their characters in different imaginative situations.

For general writing prompts, Random First Line Prompts and First Line Generator both create unique story ideas at the click of a button.

Everyone’s a Winner

Whether or not they walk away with a complete novel, all students who embark on the NaNoWriMo adventure will have learned valuable lessons on motivation, creativity, and perseverance by the end of the month. And that’s something worth celebrating.