How to Make The Most of a Writing Challenge
With National Novel Writing Month just six weeks away, it's time we had a chat about writing challenges.
A writing challenge can take many forms. It can be a simple self-imposed goal or deadline. Or it can be a community-based event that encourages you to write daily or weekly short fiction, a 50,000-word novel in a month, or another goal entirely.
Whatever the intended output, writing challenges can present great opportunities to improve your writing skills and commitment to the craft. But writing challenges have a dark side that isn’t often discussed.
The drive to produce a specific creative output, especially within a limited time, can introduce an unhealthy pressure to succeed. This pressure can then lead to creative burnout, a broken writing habit, and feelings inadequacy and shame. These results don’t benefit your writing practice or long-term creative success in any way.
Still, these potential consequences don’t mean you should avoid participating in writing challenges. In addition to the benefits I shared above, completing a challenge can provide a sense of creative accomplishment and motivation. But how do you gain these positive benefits without encountering unhealthy pressure and its consequences?
Good news, writer! Below, I’m sharing my top eight tips for making the most of a writing challenge. Let’s dig in…
Tip #1: Assess The Challenge before committing.
There’s little point in participating in a challenge that won’t benefit your writing life. Before deciding to take part, consider the terms of the challenge and whether they mesh well with your schedule, writing process, and creative aims. Ask yourself:
Does my schedule allow me to devote adequate time and energy to this challenge?
Do the terms of this challenge align with my unique writing process? Or, would this challenge pressure me to use writing techniques that I don’t enjoy?
How would this challenge help me achieve my personal definition of writing success?
Remember that a good writing challenge should motivate you to create without causing overwhelm. If the terms of a challenge don’t seem conducive to a positive experience for you, then it might be best that you don’t participate.
Tip #2: Consider the emotional impact of the challenge.
The last thing you want a writing challenge to do is to trigger negative self-talk or creative fear.
Knowing this, consider the internal struggles you commonly face in your writing life. Do you often wrestle with perfectionism or the comparison trap? With the fears of failure, criticism, or rejection? Or with the belief that you aren’t “good enough” to write the stories you want to tell?
If a writing challenge you’re interested in would trigger these internal struggles, you might want to reconsider participating. Or, you can…
Tip #3: Adapt the challenge as needed.
Saying no to a writing challenge because of its terms or potential emotional impact isn’t your only option. You can also tweak the terms of a challenge to better align with your needs.
For example, you can alter the target output you pursue during a challenge to better align with your busy schedule. Or, you can avoid sharing your progress online if doing so prompts you to compare yourself to other writers.
Tip #4: Determine Your Why.
By nature, writing challenges are difficult to complete. Knowing why you’d like to participate and how the challenge will benefit your writing life can help you remain focused and motivated as you work.
When considering your why, move beyond output. Drafting a book in a month is a valid goal, but what happens when the draft is complete? How do you want that month of hard work to impact your writing life? The following are examples of solid reasons to participate in a writing challenge:
I want to leverage the accountability built into this challenge to develop my writing practice.
I want to overcome my fear of criticism by sharing my work with other challenge participants.
I want to confront my perfectionism by participating in timed writing sprints.
I want to write one short story a week to hone my storytelling skills and build creative momentum.
Tip #5: Have a Strong writing practice in place.
Most writing challenges require deep work, often over a long period of time. Working with this level of focus and commitment can lead to burnout if you don’t already have an established writing practice in place. Be mindful of this fact when deciding whether to participate in a particular challenge.
If you’re using a challenge to build your writing practice, avoid burnout by starting small. Rather than aiming for, say, 50,000 words during National Novel Writing Month, change your target to a goal you can reasonably achieve, such as 10,000 total words or 15 minutes of daily writing.
Tip #6: Prep for the challenge.
Preparing for a challenge can help you avoid writing burnout and other challenge obstacles, such as writers’ block.
The type of prep you complete will depend on the challenge. If you’re gearing up for National Novel Writing Month, you might wish to choose your story idea and complete pre-writing tasks. For a daily or weekly short fiction challenge, you might gather prompts or brainstorm story ideas.
For step-by-step guidance, consider downloading a Well-Storied workbook, such as The Pre-Write Project, Crafting Incredible Characters, or World-Building Warrior. You can save 50% on all workbooks through October 3rd, 2019 by using the code preptober at checkout. Click here to learn more!
Tip #7: Get involved in challenge communities.
Challenges are easier to tackle with support and encouragement. Therefore, many writing events such as National Novel Writing Month include an element of community. Sharing your experience with other participating writers can help you remain focused and motivated.
If you’re participating in a self-imposed writing challenge, share that challenge with other writers. Doing so can be as simple as posting your goal and progress online. Writing communities exist on nearly every online platform. And in my experience, writers in those communities love to cheerlead others to success.
Tip #8: Track (and celebrate!) your progress.
Most writers work digitally. And without a tangible story to hold, you might find it difficult to gauge and acknowledge the results of your hard work. That’s why I encourage every writer to track and celebrate their progress, especially when participating in a writing challenge.
How and what you track will depend on the challenge itself. Most writers participating in National Novel Writing Month update their word count daily on the NaNoWriMo website. But for other challenges, you might prefer to track your progress weekly or monthly. You might also choose to track the time you spent writing, the number of pages you revised, or the writing-related tasks you completed.
Whatever and however you track, don’t forget to celebrate your progress. Doing so doesn’t have to be complicated. Merely taking a moment to acknowledge your hard work can be incredibly fulfilling. But if you’d rather celebrate in grander fashion, don’t hesitate to do so. Treat yourself to dessert or a fancy dinner. Share your accomplishment with fellow writers online. Whatever floats your boat.
Finally, remember to seek progress over perfection when participating in a writing challenge. It’s okay if you miss a day of daily writing or come up a few words short of your goal. If you’re benefitting from a challenge, you’re completing it successfully.
I know it can be frustrating to fall short of your aim, but know that you aren’t a writing machine. You’re human, and life is complicated. At the end of the day, you can only disappoint yourself if you don’t put in your best work. So let go unreasonable expectations, pick up your pen, and get to work. You’re going to rock this writing challenge, my friend.
What is National Novel Writing Month?
Colloquially known as NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month is a community event and challenge that encourages writers to pen 50,000 words of fiction during November. Every year, hundreds of thousands of writers take part world wide.
Here are two posts I’ve written about the event in the past:
To learn more about the event and sign up to participate this year, head on over to www.nanowrimo.org.