Participants' novels can be on any theme and in any genre, and in any language. Everything from fanfiction, which uses trademarked characters, to novels in poem format, and even metafiction is allowed; according to the website's FAQ, "If you believe you're writing a novel, we believe you're writing a novel too." Starting at midnight November 1, novels must reach a minimum of 50,000 words before 11:59:59 PM on November 30, local time. Advance planning and extensive notes are permitted, but no earlier written material can go into the body of the novel, nor is one allowed to start early and then finish 30 days from that start point.
Participants write either a complete novel of 50,000 words, or simply the first 50,000 words of a novel to be completed later. While 50,000 words is a relatively low word count for a complete novel, it is still significantly more than the 40,000 word mark that distinguishes a novel from a novella. Notable novels of roughly 50,000 words include The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Brave New World, and The Great Gatsby. Some participants set higher goals for themselves, like writing upwards of 100,000 words, or completing two or more separate novels. To win NaNoWriMo, participants must write an average of just over 1,667 words per day. Organizers of the event say that the aim is simply to get people to start writing, using the deadline as an incentive to get the story going and to put words to paper. This "quantity over quality" philosophy is summarized by the site's slogan: No Plot? No Problem! This is also the title of Chris Baty's book of advice for NaNoWriMo participants, published in late 2004 by Chronicle Books. There is no fee to participate in NaNoWriMo; registration is only required for novel verification.
No official prizes are awarded for length, quality, or speed. Anyone who reaches the 50,000 word mark is declared a winner. Beginning November 25, participants can submit their novel to be automatically verified for length and receive a printable certificate, an icon they can display on the web, and inclusion on the list of winners. No precautions are taken to prevent cheating; since the only significant reward for winning is the finished novel itself and the satisfaction of having written it, there is little incentive to cheat. Novels are verified for word count by software, and may be scrambled or otherwise encrypted before being submitted for verification, although the software does not keep any other record of text input. It is possible to win without anyone (other than the author) ever seeing or reading the novel.
In October 2008, the self-publishing company CreateSpace teamed up with NaNoWriMo to begin offering winners a single free, paperback proof copy of their manuscripts, with the option to use the proof to then sell the novel on Amazon.com.
The official forums provide a place for advice, information, criticism, support and an opportunity for "collective procrastination." The forums are available from the beginning of October, when signups for the year begin, until late September, when they are archived and the database is wiped in preparation for the next year.
Most regions have one or more Municipal Liaisons (ML) assigned to them, who are volunteers that help with organizing local events. MLs are encouraged to coordinate at least two kinds of meet-ups; a kickoff party, and a "Thank God It's Over" party to celebrate successes and share novels. Kickoff parties are often held the weekend before November to give local writers a chance to meet and get geared up, although some are held on Halloween night past midnight so writers start writing in a community setting. Other events may be scheduled, including weekend meet-ups or overnight write-ins.
In 2005, NaNoWriMo started the Young Writers Program, primarily aimed at classrooms of kindergarten through 12th-grade students, although homeschooled students are also welcomed. In its inaugural year, the program was used in 150 classrooms and involved 4000 students. Teachers register their classroom for participation and are sent a starter kit of materials to use in the class which includes reward items like stickers and pencils. Lesson plans and writing ideas are also offered as resources to teachers, while students can communicate through the program's forums.
In September 2006, NaNoWriMo officially became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization operating under the name "The Office of Letters and Light". All contributions are tax-deductible under U.S. law. Donations can be made directly, or users can purchase items such as T-shirts and mugs from the NaNoWriMo store. In 2004, NaNoWriMo partnered with child literacy non-profit Room to Read, and continued that partnership for three years. Fifty percent of net proceeds from 2004 to 2006 were used to build libraries in Southeast Asia; three were built in Cambodia, seven in Laos, and seven in Vietnam. The program was retired in 2007 to refocus resources on NaNoWriMo and the Young Writers Program.
NaNoWriMo runs a Laptop Loaner program for those who do not have regular access to a computer or word processor. Old, yet functional laptops are donated from NaNoWriMo participants. Those wishing to borrow a laptop are required to cover the cost of shipping it back and must send a $300 deposit along with proof of identity, but are not charged a fee for using the laptops. In 2006, AlphaSmart, Inc. donated 25 brand-new Neos to expand the Laptop Loaner library with the promise of 25 more over the next two years.