Participating in NaNoWriMo: A Stepping-Stone to Success in Graduate School?

If you are thinking about (or have already embarked upon) a graduate degree, then you know that at the end of the degree you must produce a rather lengthy document (on average, between 40-80 pages for an MA thesis and between 100-200 pages for a PhD dissertation, with actual page numbers widely varying dependent upon the type and scope of project).

That’s a lot of writing for a young scholar. If you’ve never written a book-length document before, this can seem very daunting and terrifying. In fact, it might even be one factor in deciding not to go to graduate school at all.

I highly recommend taking a stab at National Novel Writing Month as a low-stakes and generally fun way of accustoming yourself to writing a significantly longer document. I’m sure you’ve heard of it–between November 1 and November 30 every year, thousands and thousands of people embark upon the writing of an 80,000+ word novel. Some of these novels–like Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants–have even gone on to become New York Times bestsellers and blockbuster film adaptations (here is a full list of published works that began as NaNoWriMo projects). Most of them, however, never go beyond the writer’s hard drive. But the point is, everyone who finishes a NaNoWriMo project–no matter how bad it is–has demonstrated the ability to write a book-length document. The difference between the finished-and-abandoned projects and the published ones lies primarily in the revision process following the zero draft produced during the writing month (and the dedication of the writer to seeing the work through the arduous publishing process).

Finishing a NaNoWriMo novel, then, is a great way to gauge for yourself whether or not you can complete a long writing project in a finite period of time. True, you are writing a novel and that’s a very different animal from scholarly research writing, but also true, the nuts-and-bolts are generally the same: you have to hit a particular word count to meet the conventions of the genre; you need a through line of thought that connects all of the chapters; you have to provide the context for your reader to access your ideas; you have to develop a significant project in a finite period of time; and it has to be original thinking.

So, if the thesis or dissertation has you worried because of its length, why not try your hand at NaNoWriMo this November and see if you can write a zero draft of an 80,000 word book in thirty days? It will either give you the confidence that you can, in fact, write that much, or let you know that maybe you’re not quite ready to undertake such a major writing endeavor. And if you can write an 80,000 word novel in 30 days, then you can certainly, with the proper skills, support, and encouragement, write a thesis or dissertation and revise it to acceptable quality in the space of 1-3 years.


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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1 Response to Participating in NaNoWriMo: A Stepping-Stone to Success in Graduate School?

  1. Pingback: Link Round-Up: AcWriMo - How To Do a Literature Review

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