Writing competitions don’t reflect sustainable writing habits, but you can learn some great life lessons from them. So far, I’ve written a 55,000-word novel, participated in 10 writing competitions and challenges, and placed in several writing and editing competitions. I’m sure no talent scout or publisher is going to offer me an advance to write my memoir, but those experiences have taught me about community, time management, and perfectionism.
Here’s what I’ve learned—I hope it encourages you to sign up for a writing competition.
1. Community is Powerful
Becoming part of a community can inspire you to write and encourage you to continue. Working toward a common goal can be a strong bonding experience. Participating in an intense, yet non-competitive activity with others builds a community bond and encourages unselfish support for others. That bond makes people more likely to endure a challenge like NaNoWriMo, when participants attempt to write 50,000 words in November.
In a worldwide novel-writing effort, such as NaNoWriMo, the other participants will encourage you to keep going. Your only goals are persistence and completion—and your biggest obstacle is yourself. When you start to doubt yourself or your dedication wanes, that’s when you need encouragement from others. And when your writing is going well, it should be easy to encourage others to work on their own novels. This mutual support builds and strengthens your writing community. I was lucky to have local friends participating in NaNoWriMo, so we could connect in person and talk through our struggles. This brought us closer together.
If you’re attempting to write a novel as part of NaNoWriMo on your own, find a forum to join. The Office of Letters and Light, which runs NaNoWriMo, sets up forums by location so you can find a nearby writing group. Local forums make it easy for participants to meet at public libraries or bookstores and write together. That in-person connection is helpful. It’s also an excellent way to find support and solidarity.
In-person writing competitions offer similar community benefits. Even if you’re competing against the other participants, it’s still invigorating to be around other people passionate about a certain style of writing. I’ve even found that everyone’s happy to talk about their respective projects before and after the 90 minutes when you’re writing and revising for competition.
2. Time Management is Crucial
In any writing competition, you have to watch the clock. When I was at journalism competitions, my time limit was 90 minutes. That was true whether I was editing a piece, writing an editorial, or captioning a page worth of pictures. That’s a short time to do a lot of work.
Comparatively, my time limit with NaNoWriMo was one month. It was also a short time to do a lot of work—especially with the added interruptions of school, extracurriculars, friends, and family. The one-month period meant I ostensibly had 720 hours to write a 50,000-word manuscript, but that time was filled with interruptions in a way journalism competitions were not. I couldn’t drop everything to write for 720 hours and still expect my family and friends to love me when I returned to regular life.
Fifty thousand words over a month comes out to 1,667 words per day, but for most people, writing that much every day isn’t feasible—especially if you celebrate Thanksgiving. You must plan a schedule and a pace that works with your life. I planned to write 2,000 words per day to give myself a couple days’ buffer around the holidays. I strongly believe that a realistic plan helped me generate my 50,000 words.
3. Don’t Aim for Perfection
The most liberating aspect of NaNoWriMo is that perfection is hopeless. Everyone’s goal is to push themselves to see what output they’re capable of and get a significant start on a project they’ll likely work on for years. No one can write a novel that’s publication-ready in the span of a month. So don’t try to. Focus on completing a first draft, which is enough to keep anyone busy for a month.
My first draft was very rough. I had days where I knew 95 percent of what I wrote would need rewriting before I’d show my book to anyone, and I learned not to be bothered by that. Writing that many words in a month requires you to let go of perfection; you must turn off your inner critic and just write.
Writing daily helped me connect deeply to my story and characters. I became so engrossed in the story there were times it felt like the scenes and story arcs wrote themselves. Even if I didn’t want a character to say a certain line, I knew it was what he or she would say and what the story needed. It felt as though the characters spoke for themselves. I’ve only felt that way while writing during NaNoWriMo, and I think it’s because of the deep, daily writing time. It is the most consumed by a story I’ve ever been. Letting go of perfectionism was freeing and inspiring: it prompted me to write plot twists and characters I never anticipated. By rejecting perfection, I felt that I could take those artistic risks.
Participating in NaNoWriMo pushed me to focus on getting out the first draft and accept that I would revise heavily later. If you want to write a novel, forcing yourself to quickly produce a first draft gets you to the revising stage faster. And since 70 percent of writing is editing, you want to get to the editing stage as soon as possible. At the end of the month (or maybe after a monthlong break from your story), you can return to your work to edit with fresh eyes. You can also try editing software like WordRake on your first draft to refine and tighten your writing. Then you can devote more energy to improving plot and pacing.
Since we improve through practice, any writing exercise will likely improve some aspect of our writing. Writing competitions might help you improve how you write dialogue or develop characters, but I don’t see that as their biggest strength. Writing competitions push back against our ideas of what we think we can do, showing us that we can write pieces in a short amount of time if we find a community.
About the Author
Caroline Engle is WordRake’s Marketing Communications Specialist. She convinced WordRake to hire her as an intern after placing in editing competitions and writing a novel in a month. When she isn’t editing or writing copy, coordinating conference logistics, or helping improve WordRake’s functionality, she’s reading, going on ten-mile walks, or looking up flight prices. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.