Why Writing Challenges Are a Waste of Time & How They Are Diminishing Your Writing

WordPress and I, after a three- or four-year separation, have recently made up and renewed our vows to each other. The commitments are the same as always: I have promised to blog regularly, and WordPress has promised to deliver great content. It’s a win-win, right?

Not so much.

While WordPress does provide me with content to read and enjoy; I’m starting to notice an obnoxious trend in what is being curated. I can’t tell you how many times in the past few weeks I’ve seen a title on “Freshly Pressed” with a title similar to this: “30 Day Writing Challenge: Day 16.”

Really, WordPress? Is that the best you can do? I know firsthand by the amount of links on my Twitter feed that writing blogs are in no short supply. And I just can’t bring myself to believe that all writing bloggers are jumping on this antiquated bandwagon. The silver lining, however, in this rather irritating disservice is my inspiration for this blog post. So here’s my anti-writing-challenge rant: why writing challenges are a waste of time and how they are diminishing your writing.


They are not effective

Let’s just go ahead and throw this one out there. For every ten posts I’ve seen about writing challenges, six or seven of them admit to not following through with their commitment in some way or another. The point is to get into the habit of writing every day (and I’m not sure that’s even a good goal anyways, but that discussion is for another time), and most writers I’ve read say they don’t end up doing so. Instead, they miss a day here and there, and then write twice as long other days to make up for their loss—effectively changing absolutely nothing about their writing habits.


There are no long-term benefits

I’ll contradict myself here and say that maybe it’s a bit hyperbolic of me to say there are no long-term benefits, but honestly, I don’t see what they are. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the point of these things, but I do truly believe writers take these challenges with the hope of forcing themselves to write on a daily basis. But who really does that? And of those who do, do they have to force it? I highly doubt it. Some of us can write every day, and we do because it works for us. And some of us cannot write every day, and that is perfectly acceptable too.


They take the focus off what really matters

Writing exercises are great for practice—they are—but I don’t subscribe to this notion that practice has to focus on arbitrary content. This isn’t, that I know of, a spoken notion; I’m not quoting anyone here. But we writers seem to base our writing habits on this idea that we have to put off the truly great ideas we have right now until the quality of our writing is truly great, and that doesn’t make sense to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly guilty of this, and therefore, I can call you out for being guilty of it too. You know you’ve done it. But answer me this: Why put your true inspiration on the back burner in favor of responding to prompts like “Write about the first time you ever sang karaoke in a bar”? Unless you are inspired to write that story, why are you wasting your time with such busywork?

But wait. These types of writing exercises can be great for discovering a moment of inspiration! Did that thought cross your mind? Well, if it did, I agree with you. To some degree, anyways. If you’re suffering through something of an inspirational dry patch, sure, do what’s necessary to get through it. But how often do you really have no idea what you want to write next? I can’t remember the last time I had that experience. So instead of avoiding your potential for greatness because you fear you haven’t truly earned it, run with that inspiration. I promise you’ll be glad you did.


They don’t call for any editing

This past Sunday, I shared an excerpt of an interview with James Salter published in The Paris Review in which he discussed the importance of editing and revising. We all know editing is where the greatest writing develops, and therefore, none of us can argue that it’s not a necessary part of the writing process. So what’s the point in spending the little free time you can spare writing something you don’t intend on editing. It’s like decidedly writing something crappy in an attempt to better your writing. Surely you see the stupidity in that.

Real growth in writing comes from two main exercises. The first is dissecting your work, scrutinizing every single bit of it for clues as to what you could do better. How could this paragraph be more effective? This sentence? This word? The second is reading everything you can get your hands on, analyzing what other authors have done and discerning how to apply their successful techniques to your own writing. But both actions boil down to this: learning how to write requires studying writing. It’s tiresome work, but it’s so worthwhile. Yet, to this day, I have never seen a writing challenge that focused on—or even suggested—such examination.

So stop pretending your writing challenge is anything more than a fun exercise to take your mind off more important matters. If that’s all you hope to gain from it, good for you. But if you want to be a better writer, invest in what actually works.

I’ll step down from my podium now.

Header photo courtesy of girl/afraid.

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