Using National Novel Writing Month to Teach the History of the Novel

Using National Novel Writing Month to Teach the History of the Novel

Each fall I ask my students to write a novel, but I don’t teach creative writing courses. The purpose of this “writing to learn” project is not to write a publishable book but to apply the concepts and genre conventions that I teach in an upper-level course on The History of the Novel. The project (which functions as the major writing assignment for the semester) uses the November National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge as a platform for students to demonstrate their knowledge of the novel’s history by attempting to write one themselves. Here is how it works:

After a half-semester of discussing the novel, its “rise,” and its evolution, we put some of our definitions and theories into practice by actually writing a novel. Each student picks a genre and researches the conventions of that genre. The student then writes a NaNoWriMo novel in that genre, using or adapting the conventions the student researched. Some students attempt the official goal of writing 50,000 words in thirty days, but most aim for the class goal (usually 10-20K). (See the sample assignment below for more details).

During the month they are writing, we use one day a week as a NaNo Day. We meet as a class in the coffee shop area of the student center and write together. Some like to cluster in groups, some find a quiet spot alone. I always write a novel with them. It is a joy to write with my students, and we share our successes and failures and writer’s block together.

After the novels are finished, students upload their files to a shared Dropbox folder. If they label the file “DO NOT READ,” I skim (to make sure it is a good faith effort) but don’t read it. If they label it “READ,” I read the novel and offer basic feedback. Next, students write a reflection on what types of conventions they used and how their definitions of the novel shaped how and what they wrote. Finally, they give a class presentation on their novels, including excerpts, and discuss how they read a novel differently after writing one.

On evaluations, students routinely name NaNoWriMo as their favorite and the most effective assignment of the semester. They feel more confident in their ability to write creatively and to analyze novelistic conventions. They talk about how impressed their family members were that they were writing novels during the Thanksgiving break and how that made them feel proud or accomplished. Some even go on to finish their novels and share them with me months later. In November, we are all writers, and some go on to be writers for life.

Note on other applications: I also assign a NaNoWriMo novel in my basic writing, Composition I, and Austen seminar courses.  The class goal is usually 10K for the first-year students and at least 95% of each class has reached that goal for two years. For the first-year students, the goal is to instill joy and autonomy in writing and allow them time and room to find comfort in writing.  The basic writers especially appreciate an assignment that allows them to write whatever they want. One basic writing student has been working on her novel for a year after the assignment and tells me about it every time I see her. 



NaNoWriMo – How DO You Write a Novel?


During the month of November, we will write a novel. (Yes, you can write a novel.)


We have discussed literary theories and criticism about the rise and evolution of the novel. We’ve read several novels which illustrate or defy these theories. Now, it’s your turn to write a novel. As you write, think through the generic conventions you are employing in your novel.  What do readers expect from this genre? How are you meeting those expectations? How are you deconstructing those expectations? How do you know what you are writing is a novel? What definitions are you using (think back to Watt, McKeon, etc.)?


  1. Sign up at Register your novel. Become writing buddies with each other and with me (terfle).
  2. Write!! Write all the time!! Write 1667 words per day.
  3. Reflect – What are you writing? Why are you writing it? What generic conventions are you employing? Are you writing a novel?


Pick two to three excerpts from your novel that illustrate the genre you chose and are typical of the types of writing choices you made.  State your definition of a novel (based on literary theory and criticism we’ve read in class) and how your definition shaped your writing. (Use multimedia of your choice: Prezi, Emaze, etc.)


This assignment appeared as a presentation given on a panel called "Assigning the 18th Century" at the 2015 SEASECS conference.

Shea Stuart, Gardner-Webb University


Thursday, 06/02/2022 - 17:06

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