Life Lesson #3: Don’t Aim for Perfection
The most liberating aspect of NaNoWriMo is that perfection is hopeless, so you stop thinking about it. Everyone is pushing themselves to see what 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 a month—so don’t try to. Focus on completing a first draft, which is enough to keep anyone busy for a month.
Admittedly, my first draft was 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 stop trying to achieve perfection, 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 that 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’s 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 expected. By rejecting perfection, I felt I could take those artistic risks.
Traditional Benefits of Joining a Writing Contest
Writing competitions can teach you a lot about yourself, but it would be disingenuous to overlook the writing improvement opportunities that come from participation. These contests can also be your opportunity to:
Benefit #1: Get Feedback On Your Writing
While most writing contests don’t offer critique for all entries, other competitions do. Some contests will give you feedback for a small fee; others will do it for free. Take critique wherever you can get it because it will help you improve your writing. If you do well, you may get even more feedback and earn attention for your work.
Benefit #2: Showcase Your Work to the Industry
Getting shortlisted or winning a writing competition may mean that publishers or agents see potential in your work. Many writing contests will have literary agents or independent publishers as judges, which can help you get noticed by influential people in the writing industry. If a judge loves your work, they might strike a deal with you, publish your work, or share some feedback. Your next contest could be your ticket to a publishing deal or another writing opportunity.
Benefit #3: Get Motivated
Joining a writing contest can also motivate you to keep writing, especially if you’ve been feeling stuck. A competition and a deadline might help you reconnect with your project or reinvigorate your editing. It can help you set goals and give you the drive you need to move forward—win or lose.
Benefit #4: Discover New Writing Styles
Want to write something different in a different genre or voice? Sign up for a writing competition! Signing up for a competition can help you build the courage to switch genres or learn a new writing style. Maximum word counts can reduce the burden of completing a large new work that may not be a great fit, while still giving you the courage to try it. With limits on how much you can write, quickly coming up with a horror story or an essay is possible.
Benefit #5: Use Past Entries as Starting Points
Let’s face it: Losing a competition sucks. But that doesn’t mean your work was wasted. Keep all your work in one place—you can always revisit to rewrite or refine it. Even if it wasn’t selected as a winner for one writing contest, it could be a great start for another project. Try approaching the old project from a different perspective, or try placing a different limitation on the project that might inspire you to try something new.
Don’t Ditch Your Work—Edit It
Once the competition is over, you might be tempted to throw your work away and never look at it again, but a first draft is a great opportunity to practice polishing and editing your writing. About 70% of writing is editing, but it’s hard to get to the editing stage. So don’t waste the opportunity once you’re there.
Participating in NaNoWriMo pushed me to focus on getting out the first draft and accept that I would revise heavily later. When writing a novel, forcing yourself to quickly produce a first draft gets you to the revising stage faster.
At the end of the month (or maybe after a month-long 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, writing exercises like competitions can improve aspects of our writing, such as crafting dialogue or developing characters. However, the greatest value of writing contests is the way they challenge what we think we can do. Competitions show us we can write pieces in a short amount of time once we find community, motivate ourselves with goals and timeframes, and let go of perfection.
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.