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Yes, I know that - in theory - any exercise is a good exercise.

Context: Lately I've been running a writing group were multiple creative-writing/reading enthusiasts meet. As a group activity, we've been issuing a number of writing contest. Writers are asked to write about a particular theme or following a prompt, submit their work, and then go read and give impressions on work of others.

Another kind of example would be contest given on websites for amateur writers, or the very same Writing prompt challenge that used to run on Meta a few months back.

Now, a few common characteristics for those challenges:

  • They usually require short stories (up to 4k characters max)
  • They often lack a judge and jury, meaning that the stories are loosely evaluated in a friendly way (often avoiding criticism)
  • They often require one writer to stray from his more "serious" projects
  • They do give valuable feedback, in a way, and help learning by seeing and reading the work of others.

At the end of the day, the short stories produced in this way will be exercises, nothing more. While - again - I personally find them fun and refreshing, they still steal commitment from my main goal - that being, finishing up my novel. So the legitimate question.

Is writing short, unrelated, and probably unfocused pieces worth the hassle? Should it be somehow kept in check, or is it a good habit? Can something good - in terms of skills acquired - come from a playful competition?

Are friendly writing contests a useful exercise?

  • Um... I want in. – Jedediah Mar 22 at 21:04
  • @Jedediah What language do you write usually in? It's a non english group, it might be difficult to incorporate more than one tongue :) – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Mar 23 at 19:10
  • Ah. That is fair. – Jedediah Mar 23 at 19:14
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As I recall, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Horace Smith, and whoever else their friends were, used to challenge each other to write things. Quite a few novels and poems came out of those friendly contests.

A writing challenge forces you to step out of your comfort zone, stretch your creativity. Your "serious project" is a rut. Sure, as you go forwards, you learn, your skill grows. But it's small exercises like the ones you talk about that let you step out of the rut, go sideways in all kinds of directions, exercise your creativity muscles.

How is that helpful, if your "serious project" is your main goal? Imagine you're working on this serious dark tale. And then, for an exercise, you have to write something humorous. You come back to your dark tale having put some skillpoints in humour, and suddenly you see how you can add a touch of humour to some moments in your serious tale. You can bring light into the story, so the shadows would look even darker. Or, you've been writing stories on all kinds of prompts as exercises, and now your main project got stuck. With the experience you've gained creating stories from prompts, you can now use those same skills to get your main story unstuck.

A particular short story might not help your novel very much. But the continuous exercise of writing new and varied things should help you become a better writer, improving both your current novel, and the following ones.

  • You really got me there. I totally forgot that a lot of pieces of gothic literature came out as "friendly contests". – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Mar 22 at 11:26
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Are friendly writing contests a useful exercise?

Yes they can be - not everyone is going to find them useful, but in the majority of cases it's more writing practice which is good. My writing group does a similar exercise - we do it in-session as a "20 minute challenge" and I've always found it's very useful. Even where I'm also working a so-called "serious" project in the longer term the feedback is useful as a way of getting general "how's my writing?" info from other writers without the need for them to do a substantial amount of reading of my on-going larger works.

I find the structure good - I'm "forced" to produce something, and since I don't have any control over what the "prompt" is it forces me to exercise my creativity in ways that push my comfort zone in ways that I might not if left to my own devices.

More than once I've taken something from one of these and used it elsewhere in a larger project as well - even if it's just a line or a turn of phrase.

Qualitatively as well I find I benefit from a metaphorical "palette cleanser" - sometimes if I'm struggling or feeling like working on my own projects is starting to feel a little stale working on something completely different can be energizing.

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