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Virtual Write-In Hosting Tools: A Breakdown

October is here, NaNoWriMo is less than a month away, and I swear I had a plot but it ran off somewhere.

Alas. It happens every year, time doing that moving forward thing.

Let’s talk about write-ins. Last year I took the all-virtual NaNoWriMo experience to the extreme, which sent me to 84 regions and 13 countries outside the US. Besides being the one bright spot to a crappy year, it was also an adventure in the many online technologies MLs were using to bring writers together, so I’ve put together this post about each tool to help others out. If you’re a first-time ML or thinking about switching tools this year, welcome! This post is for you.

I can’t recommend a specific tool for every region because every region’s needs are different. Instead I cover my observations based on my experience as a participant and what I could piece together from the host’s standpoint. Note that a shorter list for one tool doesn’t mean that it’s bad or I didn’t like it; it just means I didn’t get as much experience with that tool.

A few disclaimers before we get started:

There are some tools I know that regions were using, yet I never attended any write-ins with them. Slack and Whatsapp are the big ones here.

I don’t know all the ins and outs of the hosting side for everything, so this post may be incomplete on that front. Feel free to add on to my observations or share this with others who may find it helpful.

You don’t have to use only one tool. Plenty of regions have, for example, a Discord or IRC chat but choose to host their write-ins on Zoom or Google Meet. And that’s fine! Do what works for you and your region.

Zoom

The second-most popular meeting platform in the regions I visited. Zoom is the standard for private (or public) meeting rooms.

Great Things

+ Only the host has to create an account.
+ Easy to join a Zoom meeting if you have the URL. Just click, download Zoom if it’s not already installed (and Zoom will ask), and you’re in.
+ Separate app available for mobile. (Note: I never used it.)
+ Video, voice, and text chat, so easy for folks to participate as they like. The host can also choose to remove video altogether.
+ Screen sharing, so you can display a spreadsheet of word counts, a screen saying you’re sprinting, etc.
+ The host can choose to admit folks manually or require a password. But be careful–if you’re sharing your screen you can’t see that someone’s waiting in the lobby. This left me waiting in a lobby for about 20 minutes last year while they were doing a word sprint and the host was sharing a PowerPoint on their screen saying a sprint was in progress.
+ You can change your display name for each write-in (We had a lot of fun with this at the London all-nighter.)
+ The host can mute everyone, which is good for starting sprints.
+ Participants can choose to mute themselves or to opt in/out of video.
+ Meeting host can require that attendees RSVP before getting the link.

Not So Great

– The host must start the Zoom meeting before anyone can enter the Zoom room.
– Wrimo has to download Zoom or install the app, but by this point in the pandemic they probably have already.
– Free meetings end after 40 minutes, so the host would need either a paid plan for November or to end and restart the meeting with the same URL after 40 minutes. Almost every Zoom write-in I attended in November had a paid plan.
– Need to use other outlets (forums, social media, etc) to maintain community outside of write-ins

Discord

The most popular meeting platform I used last year, and for good reason. I use Discord all year long for writing and non-writing servers so I’m a big fan.

Great Things

+ Voice, video, and text chat for write-ins (any combo of these)
+ Easy to keep the conversation going after the write-in is over.
+ Can create a text channel to go alongside the write-in, and Wrimos can participate in.
+ Wrimos who can’t attend can ignore a write-in channel but still participate in the community.
+ Can create a channel just for word sprints or write-ins that folks can participate in or ignore.
+ Screen sharing, so you can display a spreadsheet of word counts, a screen saying you’re sprinting, etc.
+ Members can change their nicknames on a per-server basis.
+ There’s a Discord app, which I found easier to use for the voice and video.
+ Several bots are available to time sprints.

Not So Great

= Discord Nitro (their paid plan) is required to join over 100 servers. This limitation should affect only the power users. (And uh, me this year.)
– It’s easy to go wild with creating channels, which can confuse folks new to Discord.
– Every member needs a Discord account.
– Higher learning curve if you go wild with creating channels and roles.
– Need to consider how to pass the server ownership on if you quit MLing.
– Video can slow down older devices. My old laptop and phone were trying their best last year. For voice write-ins I used my phone for voice and my computer for text and actual writing.
– Discord invite links expire unless you tell them not to. Be sure your invite link is valid for the whole month (or forever).

Chatzy/IRC/probably other one-channel groups

No fancy tricks up their sleeves, just good old-fashioned text.

Great Things

+ Free! It’s always there!
+ Several bots are available to help run sprints at write-ins.
+ No account required for anyone! The ML may want to create an account so they can have ops and do admin stuff.
+ ChatNaNo is an easy way to create an IRC channel for your region. See the ML forums for info.
+ Chatzy and IRC clients are available on the web. Desktop clients are available for IRC.
+ You can keep the conversation going after the write-in is over.
+ Everyone can choose their own nicknames and change them (as long as someone else hasn’t registered it on that server).

Not So Great

– Hard to ignore a word sprint or write-in if you’re not participating.
– If you log out you don’t see the chat that happens while you’re gone. If you’re using the chat as a general community, this may cause moderation issues. (This is less of an issue for more modern stuff like Whatsapp, GroupMe, Line, etc, but most of the other pro/cons apply to them so I’m including them here.)
– Less easy to access on mobile for Chatzy and IRC.
– May be less accessible for folks not familiar with IRC or online chat.

Google Meet

Like Zoom but with Google’s technology. Maybe it’s a fluke, but I’m surprised this one wasn’t more popular.

Great Things

+ Preview always offered before you enter the room.
+ Attendees can enter early if the host is running late.
+ Participants can choose to mute themselves or turn off video.
+ Text chat function available for Wrimos are more comfortable with text than video or voice.
+ Free!
+ Screen sharing, so you can display a spreadsheet of word counts, a screen saying you’re sprinting, etc.
+ Separate app available for mobile.

Not So Great

– Everyone needs a Google account, but let’s face it, almost everyone has one by now.
– As far as I know the only way to change your display name is to change it account-wide.
– Need to use other outlets (forums, social media, etc) to maintain community outside of write-ins.

Twitch/Youtube

Time to focus on the video. I’m lumping these together since they’re similar enough.

Great Things

+ Wrimos can interact via the text chat function.
+ Wrimos can lurk in the write-in without creating an account; they just won’t be able to use the text chat.
+ Separate apps available for mobile.

Not So Great

= Twitch displays your screen name; Youtube displays the name associated with your Google account, which may be a real name.
– The host is doing the bulk of the voice talking, which can be tiring. While being on camera isn’t required, most hosts do use the camera.
– Twitch or Youtube account required for host and attendees who want to use the chat function.
– Interaction can feel more parasocial.
– Need to use other outlets (forums, social media, etc) to maintain community outside of write-ins.

Facebook Messenger Rooms

To be honest, I didn’t know Messenger Rooms were a thing until I attended a write-in with one last November. Maybe they’ll work for you?

Great Things

+ Free!
+ Supported on desktop and mobile.
+ You can create a Messenger Room for everyone in a Facebook group and call that your write-in. Good if you already have an active FB group for your region.
+ You can keep using the Facebook group to continue conversations after the write-in.
+ You can use the Facebook Messenger app.

Not So Great

= I don’t know much about the hosting side, so I’m not sure how sharing a link to the room, discoverability, moderation, etc. work on that front.
– Everyone needs a Facebook account, and the folks who don’t have one may refuse to (re)join at this point.
– The general FB cons: You can’t change your display name, FB insists on real names, etc.
– Unless there’s some setting you can change, Wrimos must be in the FB group before they can join the write-in. This is important if you approve members manually and someone joins last minute.

Whew, that’s far more than planned, and I tried to keep it short. Hopefully this helps you choose a tool for your virtual write-ins this year!

And if you’re looking for a non-region visitor this year, let me know. I’m doing the virtual globetrotting tour again this year and am looking for more new regions to visit with as few repeats as possible.

Happy noveling, and may the muse be with you!

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