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Today is June 1, which means that it is also the start of the first month of Camp Nanowrimo, which is the “off-season” version of the better-known National Novel Writing Month. I’ve done NaNo for several years now, ever since I left undegrad. And while I don’t intend for this blog to be a “NaNo blog” exactly, I do think NaNo is a brilliant example of the kind of thing I do want to talk about here.

In NaNo, participants aim to write 50,000 words of fiction in a single month—averaging 1,667 words per day. A daunting task to the new writer, to be sure! Fortunately, the ethos of the NaNo community is that the quality of your writing is totally not important here. You must strangle your inner editor, gleefully embrace repetitive prose, invent absurd situations for your characters to fall into, and if all else fails have a crack squad of ninjas run into the room and attack your characters. Anything at all, as long as you get your word count out.

NaNo has been valuable to me as a writer, by helping me build a consistent writing habit (along with a conceptually related site, 750Words.com). It also gives me valuable writing practice which I certainly was not making myself do on my own.

And that is the point I’d like to discuss here. NaNo represents an institution—a framework or structure that helps people commit to certain goals. By building an internet community, and setting fun attainable milestones for people to focus on, the proprietors of the site inspired hundreds of thousands of people to do far more than they would have done themselves. In a very short time, relatively speaking, NaNoWriMo has changed people in profound ways.

It certainly took a lot of work to set up, but notice what it did not take. NaNo is not mandatory, does not use coercion or punishments for missing your goals, and does no advertising. It was simply a fun idea that took on a life of its own, and people bought in. And the people are the main thing that kept it going. Even those of us who don’t post on the forums still benefit from them, and not least from the sense that there are other people doing the same thing we are, that this goal we have set for ourselves is greater than ourselves, that it is worthy.

Sometimes, all you need is a great idea, the willingness to do the work needed, and a little luck to be able to change the world.

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