Life Lessons from Writing Competitions

trophies on a table

Writing competitions don’t reflect sustainable writing habits, but they can teach great life lessons. 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 will 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 or find another way to push past your writing comfort zone. Read on for three life lessons and five traditional benefits of writing competitions.

Life Lessons Learned from Writing Competitions

Life Lesson #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 that builds friendships. Participating in an intense, yet non-competitive group activity builds connection with your writing community and encourages unselfish support for others. The community aspect of writing competitions makes people more likely to endure a challenge like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), when participants attempt to write 50,000 words in November.

In a worldwide novel-writing effort, such as NaNoWriMo, other participants encourage you to keep writing. Your only goals are persistence and completion, and your biggest obstacle is yourself. When you doubt yourself or your dedication wanes, that’s when you need encouragement from others. When your writing is going well, it’s 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, 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 to create a community. Local forums make it easy for participants to meet at public libraries or bookstores and write together. That in-person connection is an excellent way to find the support and solidarity that will help you persevere

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 projects before and after the 90-minute competition.

Life Lesson #2: Time Management is Crucial

In any writing contest, 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 of November isn’t possible, 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.

NaNoWriMo also requires maintaining a rigorous pace, which mostly meant I had to mute my desire to pore over a sentence for half an hour. To do that, I had to follow my next tip.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Our Story

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WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggested changes appear in the familiar track-changes style. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.