It has been a number of years since I last joined the annual writerly mania known as NaNoWriMo, but I used to be a regular participant. For the uninitiated (do any remain?), the event’s endearingly awkward title is short for “National Novel Writing Month,” a challenge that, since 1999, has dared writers to commit to spending the month of November composing 50,000 words with reckless abandon.
So much has been written about NaNoWriMo that I don’t feel a need to add much here, except to say that I’ve always admired the spirit behind the project. Self-consciously goofy, NaNoWriMo makes some bold declarations: anyone can write a book (or a big chunk of one) if they commit time to writing. Outrageous goals sometimes give you just enough oomph to push past the overwhelming fear and keep writing, no matter how lousy the words feel. And, perhaps my favorite, the creators of NaNoWriMo defend their choice of scheduling in November–a month which, in the U.S., includes the Thanksgiving holiday–by pointing out that there is never a perfect time for writing, so you might as well just go for it now.
With these cheerfully unhinged precepts in mind, I’m launching into my own NaDissWriMo this December — National Dissertation Writing Month! (Because this is the internet in 2021, I am hardly the first to coin this phrase; Kasey Butcher, at PhDs and Pigtails, wrote about embracing NaDissWriMo in 2014, and Andrew Kulak used the name earlier this year on Twitter).
But wait, you might say, you’re not even finished with your dissertation research yet, are you? And you are 100 percent correct. I expect to spend at least the rest of this academic year researching, both in archives and by conducting oral history interviews. That said, I find it most helpful to start working through sources and ideas by beginning to write about them. Right now, at the end of six weeks of archival research and with interviews underway, I’m ready to start doing some of this work–but I’m anxious about diving in. One of the things I’ve always loved best about NaNoWriMo is that, while there are official rules (or maybe they’re more like guidelines), there really are no rules. You make it work for you and your goals. And that’s how I’m approaching NaDissWriMo. I’m setting some goals that will help me shake off the writing fear, make some progress on my project–and maybe, just maybe, have some fun with it. Maybe you want to join me?
After giving it probably not enough thought, here are my November goals:
- Write 20,000 words related to my dissertation. Note that I didn’t say 20,000 words of my dissertation. Because of where I am in the progress, I am more interested in just starting to write, rather than stressing out about what will or won’t make it into the final project. Plus, some of what would be most beneficial to me at this point is writing the sorts of notes and paragraphs that might make it into the final project as a single sentence, or even a footnote. It doesn’t matter! All this writing counts for me, this month.
- Create a timeline using my source material in Excel. This is something I find to be an inescapable part of my research progress, and yet one I tend to put off too long because I find it annoying. I make a dated spreadsheet of events–large and small–related to my project, and add links to sources. Not all of this will make it into my project, and it certainly won’t appear in this sort of step-by-step arrangement, but this helps me keep things straight and keep track of how multiple narratives relate to each other, time-wise.
- Make final edits to my dissertation prospectus. I’m hoping these will be minimal, but I will present my prospectus at our program seminar at the beginning of the month and the final sign-off deadline is December 1, so this is an important goal for November, too.
I may change these goals as the month progresses (there are no NaDissWriMo police!). I’m hoping, though, that saying them out loud will motivate me to stick to them.
One of my other favorite elements of NaNoWriMo has always been its sense of community, the excitement of knowing that others are undertaking this odd and unlikely goal, sharing their struggles and victories, and posting updates about their work so others can cheer them on. And so, if you’re up for it, I’d like to invite you to join me for #NaDissWriMo. Grad students who are trying to make headway during a seemingly never-ending pandemic, join the fun. Academics beyond the dissertation, maybe you’d like to join with your current project. Maybe non-fiction writers beyond academia want in, too. Yes, please! Here are the only “rules” for #NaDissWriMo, as far as I’m concerned: it’s happening in November, you set your own goals, and you share with the rest of us so we can cheer you on. Aim high (maybe even too high!). The best part is that, even if you fail, you’ll probably get more done than you expected.
Want to join this possibly inadvisable adventure? Share your goals in the comments, on Twitter, on your own blog/newsletter/TikTok. The more of us there are, the more fun we’ll be able make of our misery. If there’s enough interest, I’ll even ask some successful dissertation writers to give us pep talks.
Ready? Ready. Looking forward to a wild November.