If you’re a writer, no matter what type, part of the rewarding nature of the craft lies in the potential to improve and take your writing in novel directions. There are always new skills that you can pick up, new ways you can write, and new lessons to learn. By reading the works of other writers and even listening to their writing advice, as well as practising your own writing, you can take your work in different directions. Sometimes, however, you might feel like you’re stuck in a rut with your writing. This might take the form of writer’s block or just this feeling of being dissatisfied with what you’ve been writing lately. It is possible, however, to overcome these issues through writing challenges, either one that you set yourself or one which has been organised by others.
When the process of writing starts to feel stale, and it loses its energising quality, I find that some kind of writing challenge can remind me that writing is not a craft that ever reaches an apex or plateau. There is always room for improvement and surprises about the directions that one’s writing can take. To highlight this point, I would like to present some examples of writing challenges that are applicable to any writer, and describe how these can benefit your relationship to writing.
Journal or Blog Every Day
Updating a blog or journal can be an interesting way to develop your writing, even if you mostly see yourself as a fiction writer or someone who doesn’t like to write much about yourself. When you write a daily entry, it can help you to develop ideas, jot down any thoughts that you want to make a note of, and create a record of what you’ve been doing with your time. You could keep a private journal or diary or you might want to share your thoughts with others by running a blog. Your daily entries don’t need to be long. Just aim to write something down, even if you’re not feeling very inspired.
One of the most reliable ways to keep the craft of writing progressing is to write every day. This can be difficult when holding down a job or when one’s usual way of writing is research-heavy and time-intensive. Journalling, on the other hand, provides an avenue for writing that is not daunting or taxing. It is also a way of writing that is perhaps more personal and revealing than you are used to, but this practice of exploring daily thoughts and experiences can illuminate the therapeutic side of writing, as well as positively influence both fiction and non-fiction writing.
Set a Daily Word Count Target
Another way to make sure you’re writing consistently is to set a daily word count target that you want to hit. Many successful writers do this, or they might aim to write a certain number of pages each day. If you need some help with this, it can be useful to have a dedicated writing space. You can retreat to your writing corner when you want to get your daily words in, removing other distractions and concentrating on just your writing.
Write a Novel or Book
For many, writing a novel or full-length book is the ultimate challenge. So much has to go into it, from planning what you’re going to write to creating a first draft and editing. Some people get started with writing a novel by joining a challenge like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) but you don’t have to wait until a specific date or give yourself a time limit or even a set word count. Having the right tools can help; for example, there is novel planning software that makes it easier to get started. Being organized is essential when you’re writing something as long as a novel. You need to be able to decide what goes where, when it’s time to reveal the major plot points, and even what needs to be removed.
You should be prepared for the novel or book to undergo significant changes. For instance, for the past few years, I have slowly been working on one book idea but have decided I’d rather create a collection of essays, rather than focus on a single topic. The important thing, as many writers advise, is to get the first draft completed without worrying about it being perfect (which it can never be, in any case). Refining and polishing the work comes with the process of editing. The reason not to get stuck in a perfectionist mindset with the first draft is that it will extend the milestone of completing it, which can feel demoralising.
Sign Up for a Writing Challenge or Prompt
NaNoWriMo, which takes place in November, isn’t the only writing challenge available. You can find a range of them, some of which take place at specific times but others you can just take on whenever you want. You can work on a challenge or prompt (writing around a specific idea) independently, or you might find online communities where you can discuss your efforts, motivate each other, and critique each other’s work (dealing with criticism can be hard as a writer but it is absolutely necessary to seek out, respect, and actively work with constructive criticism in order to improve). Just search for writing challenges or writing prompts online and you’ll find plenty of ideas, including both challenges over a certain time period and challenges for different types of writing.
Take a Writing Class or Workshop
If you’re looking for a way to challenge yourself and learn new skills, joining a writing class or workshop is one way to do it. You can learn not just from the person leading the class but also from other people who are taking it with you. There are in-person classes, but you can also find classes online. In fact, you’ll find some offered by universities and other educational establishments and even by well-known writers.
You will often get the chance to share your work, which can help you to find new perspectives. This can feel daunting, especially if the writing is a bit experimental and personal, but you often need feedback to find out what works really well, and what might benefit from a change. We often miss issues to do with consistency, repetitiveness, clarity, readability, engagement, and authenticity when reading over our own work. And again, the value of constructive criticism should not be underestimated. Being open to receive criticism, distinguishing helpful comments apart from unhelpful ones, and incorporating feedback into one’s work are not easy skills to develop, nor are they skills that one can gain and never be lost. By prioritising these skills, you won’t just be able to improve your writing, you’ll also develop a thicker skin, in general, and learn how to confidently pursue a creative project without getting bogged down by a single person’s remarks. I like to think of dealing with criticism as a writer as a form of exposure therapy. It can sting at first, but over time, you find exposure to the reality of other perspectives is not just manageable but necessary in order to thrive.
Join a Writing Retreat
A writer’s retreat is ideal if you want to spend some time focusing on nothing but your writing. It can include a variety of things, but the basic premise is that you stay somewhere (often in a rather remote or quiet location) with other writers. You all have time to write, attend workshops, share your work, and learn from each other. It might be something that you do for a weekend but it can also be a longer exercise, maybe for a week or two, or even longer than that.
Join a Writing Group or Circle
Check your local area for any writing groups. These can be a little less formal than writing classes or workshops. You might not have anyone teaching anything or leading the group, but you still get the opportunity to share your work with other writers. It can be a great way to workshop what you’ve written and to learn how to give constructive criticism to other writers, which can help you to develop your own writing skills. Indeed, the art of constructive criticism is not just being able to take it on board gracefully and respectfully but to be able to honestly express it, too, and not refraining from doing so for fear of hurting someone’s feelings and coming across as unkind.
Enter a Competition
Writing competitions can be a great way to challenge yourself too. While some are reserved for published writers or those with established writing careers, there are plenty of competitions available for amateur writers too. Some of them are free to enter while others might have a small entrance fee. The benefit of a writing competition is that it imposes a deadline on the writing you have to complete. One of the obstacles when working on personal writing projects is that they involve no deadline (unless it is self-imposed). When a deadline is set by someone else, this can help to motivate you to write, as well as show that you can write much more productively than you previously imagined.
Experiment With Your Writing
One of the most effective ways to challenge yourself and develop your writing is to try and do something different from what you usually do. If you’re a fiction writer, you might write something in a different genre. If you usually write blog posts about your life, you might want to try writing some fiction or perhaps an informative non-fiction post.
I’ve long had an idea for a short story, for example, but forgetting about it and putting it off. But during lockdown, I decided to finally get started on it, and I’ve found writing fiction (which I’m not used to) has really forced me to get out of my usual style of writing. I notice that the way I write non-fiction naturally makes its way into this piece of writing, out of habit, but I’ve found the more I try to write in an imaginative, narrative fashion, the easier it becomes. As someone who normally writes non-fiction articles, it’s felt refreshing to experiment with fiction writing, and I imagine this way of writing can help improve non-fiction writing, and vice versa (i.e. articles can benefit from adept storytelling, while fiction can benefit from the ability to describe real-life events, people, and ideas).
Any writing challenge that encourages experimentation will help to reveal to you where your strengths and weaknesses lie, as well as what your authentic preferences are. These are invaluable discoveries.