The problem with writing challenges

Why we should stop focusing on quantity over quality

Photo by Simson Petrol on Unsplash

NaNoWriMo. NaPoWriMo. Write x amount of words, poems, or pieces per day. We’ve all probably thought about it or done it. Big name writers tell us to do some kind of version of churning out writing on a daily basis; indeed, Stephen King recommends writing at least 1,000 words a day in his “memoir of the craft,” On Writing.

There’s no inherent problem with writing challenges that push us to get writing, and this isn’t an article against them, per se. It’s about modifying writing challenges to balance biting the bullet and getting stuff out with getting better at the craft and polishing our writing.

The intentions behind writing challenges that prioritize word counts and daily writing habits are noble. They’re designed to help us carve out time for writing, to help us get started, to get ideas flowing — some of the very things that I, as an English Composition instructor, encourage my students to do. Getting started is, indeed, probably the biggest hardship to overcome in writing, and freewriting certainly has its place.

But once you get over the hump and start writing, are you going to get better at it without paying some attention to sentence-level edits, without reading others’ work as models, without reading craft essays, or without revising in the process?

I’m not so sure.

Now, this is probably why I don’t have 55 published novels, several of which have been made into movies like Stephen King does. I don’t even have one published longer work, but I do have several published shorter ones — I’ll admit that I’m partial to flash pieces, probably because they are focused and have a lot of attention to sentence construction, but I digress — and I’ve witnessed the poor writing that can result from stretching for word counts. I think, then, that we need to move out of focusing so heavily on quantity over quality while we’re completing writing challenges.

Like I said, I understand the “why” behind writing challenges, and I’m not entirely opposed to them. There is the idea out there that the first draft we write should be for ourselves — “Sh*tty First Drafts,” for instance (which I admire and have my students read). This idea is important — it’s about overcoming fears that the writing isn’t going to be good, it’s about having something to revise in the first place.

But here’s an idea — wouldn’t it be more efficient to consider audience the whole time? Or at least after you’re able to get started? The problem with writing challenges is that they can encourage filler, that they are literally designed to get people to simply put words on a page. This is why I’m opposed to word counts in assignments for students — because they focus less on what makes good writing (arguably, the reason why they’re there) and more on making sure they hit that word count.

Obviously, students are always worried about completing an assignment that they’re basically forced to do, but I’ve noticed that once I nixed word counts and became a bit more lax on page requirements, they paid much more attention to the concepts I preached at them — audience, purpose, and precise writing — and their papers by far got better. They started using more effective hooks and introductions — “since the beginning of time” went down, likely because they didn’t have the word count looming over them and thus didn’t feel pressure to create a historiography of their topics. They started jazzing up their writing, and I think that at least part of that had to do with considering what would make it interesting to someone else.

Certainly, there were still several papers that had filler, block quotes and fluffy language, but what I’m getting at is that I saw a clear change in student writing when I modified length requirements to be more about what readers need and less about space students had to fill.

The students, then, tended to have stronger first drafts. Yes, some shitty. We all have shitty ones. But much less shitty ones.

I think that focusing simultaneously on getting words on the page and audience can help us all, including Stephen King. I love Stephen King — he’s one of my favorite writers. But he also churns out novels like nobody’s business, and one of my main problems with them is that they seem like first drafts. I know they’re probably not, but they have so much content. His novel It probably could have been cut in half and we could have thus all been spared the pre-teen orgy in the sewer, for instance.

The novels of his that I enjoy most are his shorter ones (Pet Semetary, for example). Not because I’m lazy — one of my favorite novels is 709 pages — but because they’re more focused, more polished. I think that 55 novels or however many King has published now is a noble accomplishment and a lot of hard work, but I think that a lot of potential gets lost when you focus too much on churning out content.

A more productive writing challenge, then, would be to do something related to writing everyday, whether that’s generating content, reading, jotting down ideas, or revising. I think it would be productive to set smaller goals — if you have an idea, for instance, commit to getting that idea out as soon as you can. If you need ideas, freewrite or read. If you’re stuck, solicit feedback or read writers you admire in the genre for an hour. If you’re needing to revise, revise, or read a craft essay that gives you ideas for revising. Do one of these things every day. Or, if you do need a word count or if competition motivates you, then do it — but do it efficiently. Aim for 500 or 1,000 or 2,000 precise, good words that day. Whatever — but I think a multi-faceted approach to writing challenges would be more productive to those of us who do writing challenges (or want to).

There has to be some concern, then, about product over process. Otherwise, we could be wasting that precious time we’re carving out for ourselves.

Copywriter, recovering academic, amateur cyclist, literature enthusiast. I write hard truths because my silence won’t protect me (thanks, Audre Lorde).