Every once in a while, writers are tempted into taking on a challenge to test themselves, to find their limits, and to have fun. But sometimes, these creative writing challenges aren’t as enjoyable as promised.

By creative writing challenges, I mean using things like prompts, restrictive word counts, certain emotions, or generally having something very specific to dictate the direction of your writing. Instead of writing freely, you write within the parameters of your chosen challenge. One example would be National Novel Writing Month, where you write 50,000 words in a month. Another example would be writing a piece of flash fiction, a story that may only be a few words, a short paragraph or less than a page.

The short answer to the question in the title is yes and no. Participating in writing challenges will only ‘ruin’ your writing if you let them. Picking the wrong challenge at the wrong time can absolutely have a detrimental effect on your mindset where writing is concerned. Despite this, taking on a challenge does have its benefits. In this post, I’ll review the pros and cons of writing challenges to help you decide whether you should take one on.

Why Challenges Might Ruin Your Writing

By ‘ruin’ I mean altering your relationship with writing for the worse. Anything that pushes you away from the page rather than towards it is less than ideal, so here’s how writing challenges might do exactly that:

You Put the Challenge First

Sometimes, having a word count goal or a time limit to when you can write can lead to poor planning, poor writing and therefore a disconnected, low-quality draft. You might be used to taking your time, ensuring you avoid cliches or clunky sentence constructions in your first draft, and so anything less than what you’re used to may feel like it’s harming your writing.

The aim of a challenge is always to improve or change your writing, not to hold you back, so if sticking too close to the challenge or taking it too seriously is affecting the way you write, then it may be wise to take a step back and evaluate whether this is the challenge for you.

Writing Can Feel like a Chore

There is a fine line between habit and chore. If you pick a challenge too far out of your comfort zone, or one you are not prepared for, it could push you away from wanting to write rather than encourage you to keep going, which is always what you want. A challenge, because it is something you have not necessarily created for yourself, may feel like work rather than something enjoyable. You should enjoy taking on writing challenges even though they may be stricter than you are used to but if you don’t, it can steer you away from wanting to write.

You May get Off-Track

Sometimes picking up a challenge, especially when it’s a prompt for a story, you may end up far away from your comfort zone of preferred genre or style of writing. Sometimes, detours from your normal are good, but it’s also useful to practice in your own genre or style to make sure you’re getting better at that rather than improving at something else. If you stray too far, you may not feel as though you’re getting anything useful out of a challenge, and if that’s the case, it’s probably not the one for you.

Why Challenges Might Improve Your Writing

With all the potential pitfalls, there are many reasons why taking on a writing challenge may just turn out to be the best thing you can do for your writing, and here’s why:

Limits Can Encourage Creativity

Having to fit a story into a certain word count or time frame can encourage you to think differently. Limiting how much you write, or what you focus on when you are writing, is a great way to fine-tune a specific aspect of your writing. Maybe you do a task that encourages you to tell a story in as few words as possible or a setting exercise that makes you focus on describing an environment. Either way, you can learn a lot about your writing by isolating aspects with the help of a challenge.

There are No Limits After the Challenge

After a challenge concludes, you’re then free once again to do whatever you like, armed with the knowledge you gained from taking part in it. You might surprise yourself by either completing a challenge or getting further than you expected, which might give you the confidence you need to keep going with whatever else you’re working on.

They Encourage Discipline and Focus

As much as we like to think we can self-discipline, sometimes we can’t, and we need very strict parameters to keep us focused. When left to my own devices, I’ll get personal things done eventually, but if I create an imaginary goal or time limit, I find myself making it a priority.

To write a certain number of words within a certain amount of time, it’s best to create a routine, and having to do this will make you see the times of day you can incorporate more writing into your routine when you’re not powering your way through a challenge. You will develop better discipline when you have tangible goals to meet and also get inspired by creating time to work on your creative endeavours.

Progress is Never a Bad Thing

One reason I would say a lot of people have an aversion to writing challenges is that they think you are sacrificing quality for quantity when you take on a challenge and that that is a bad thing. Often, it is the obsession with quality during a first draft that makes us give up on a perfectly good attempt at getting a story down. Even if what you write during a writing challenge is not up to your usual standards or somehow different to what you would usually write, a huge part of improving your writing, or making it a habit, is actually writing at all.

Sometimes, we can lack creativity and, as I mentioned before, challenges are a great way to stimulate your mind and allow you to put something on the page to work with later, even if it’s not that great. More words and more progress is never really a bad thing when you’re writing, as there is nothing that can’t be fixed in a second, third, or eleventh draft.

The best way to use challenges is as a tool to improve your writing, making sure you know your limits and don’t see missing out on the goal as a failure. Any progress is progress, even if you don’t quite do what you set out to. Keep your expectations low but your commitment high, and you should see results that will keep you going in the long run. Setting myself a goal or utilizing a writing challenge is usually a great help to me.

Have you ever done any writing challenges? If so, how did they help with your writing? If not, is there a reason you’ve stayed away from them?

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