What I Learned from My 28 Day Writing Challenge

October was a great month for me professionally; I had a couple of fun editing projects, some interesting blog posts to write for clients, there was the start of my Masters in Creative Writing and I took part in Karen Marston’s 28-day writing challenge.

I write about Karen an inordinate amount on here—she has her own tag on my blog—but since ‘meeting’ her online this time last year, she has had a significant influence on my attitude to what is possible for me to achieve as writer and someone with a freelance business. She’s also damn funny and inspiring.

So when she invited followers of her blog to take part in one of her 28 day experiments, this time writing every day for 28 days, I was there with bells on. It seemed like kismet. I wrote about how I plan to write regularly back in August and here I was about to start a course in writing. Couldn’t have been better timing.

There was a great Facebook group with some kind and inspirational people. We didn’t count any writing for clients towards our writing targets, so for me this meant: my Masters writing activities, journaling and these blog posts.

In the end, I managed 23 of the 28 days. I was slightly disappointed with this initially as I would have liked to have completed the full 28 days, however, I’m not being too hard on myself (a first for me) as my schedule has been pretty hectic over the past month. We’ve had antenatal classes on the weekends and I had a couple of sick days. Despite this, I have managed to gain some great insights into my personal writing practice:

Writing is free therapy

Reading my work back once I finished, I noted that my writing often went to some dark places. When journaling, I found that by writing freely my mind went to places that I was aware existed, to issues that I wasn’t aware were affecting me so deeply.

This is heavily linked to my post a couple of weeks ago on how writing helps improve mental health. After writing these, what could be seen as depressing journal entries, I felt better. I felt like I had dealt with something. I had released these negative thoughts onto the page where they were able to stay rather than crowding my mind.

This is not just the case in my journal writing but also my fiction writing. My course has provided me with some fantastic opportunities to create and develop characters I doubt I would have without them prompting me to. I have noted though, that I have created very dark, complex characters with deep-seeded issues. I like how I have been able to place the characters in situations and have them react differently to how I would react myself, maybe how I wish I were able to react. It is incredibly therapeutic.

Writing shared is writing halved 

Karen posts on the Facebook group every morning enticing all of us to post a comment when we we had achieved our target. Essentially, I get a push notification to my phone every day reminding me to write 500 words every day. It works wonders. I’ve tried having a task in my bullet journal to write every day and this doesn’t work half as well.

I don’t know what it is particularly but suspect it may have something to do with my hatred of disappointing others. In reality, I’m sure Karen and the rest of the members of the group don’t really care whether I write or not. However, somewhere in me this does not compute and I view this as a public obligation I must meet. Let’s not question it, shall we? It works for me and I’ve done way better than I ever would on my own.

I also noticed that as soon as I achieved my target I wanted to share with the rest of the group. I wanted to be all ‘look at me, I did it!’. Again, this is probably stems form another social need I have: that of social approval. Getting a like on my post or a reply assisted this greatly but even without this, I felt just the presence of my comment meant I was one of the members who had publicly met my target and this felt great.

The support and togetherness of the group was also a fantastic contributing factor to me meeting my target. There were days I shared problems that I had with achieving my target with them or days I just read their comments on their difficulties and it was nice to not feel alone. Knowing others were struggling halved my struggle and made me feel more capable.

Step away from the desk 

If I am working clients, the desk in my office is perfect for this. It’s set up with a PC with two monitors. I have my bookcase behind me for anything I need for reference. Notepads to the left and speakers to the right and I’m stuck in the middle of work. But this did not always bode well with my personal writing. I often found myself becoming anxious or overwhelmed when trying to complete my personal writing in my workspace.

I have this little cafe a ten minute walk from my house that I have been going to for years. They know my order and I see the same regulars there every time I go in. It feels like a home away from home. I end up doing some of my best writing there. When writing fiction, I have access to a font of characters right in front of me. I imagine what they were going home to, why they looked sad, what they were saying to the person on the other end of their phone, anything. And the writing flows.

This wasn’t always the case. Some days I was perfectly fine doing personal writing at home, but I found this was more likely to a blog post, maybe because this is essentially still to do with business in my mind. It has something to do with my ‘brand’ (vomit). Journaling again is something I needed to do away from my desk. Not at a computer or laptop but handwritten in my journal. I feel more honest and in touch with myself when writing by hand so this lends itself well to journaling.

No breaks for me 

An important thing I noticed is if I take a break from something I am writing, it takes a whole lot of mental effort to get back into the same frame of mind I was in when writing it before. It’s all about getting in the zone for me. I put headphones on and that’s me off for a 1 to 2 hour stint. It’s a bit like meditation, I want to create a space where I can’t be interrupted or bothered to help me retain focus throughout. This is difficult to achieve when I know I have a meeting in the middle of the day or someone calls with an enquiry.

I actually read an article that discusses this in more detail regarding working within either a ‘manager’s schedule’ or a ‘maker’s schedule’. It’s more geared toward the tech industry but is relevant here as it mentions how having a meeting changes the mode in which you work. To write and write well, I have found that I need to remain in writing more a sustained length of time.

To plan or not to plan? That is the question.

I thought I hated planning. But this challenge made me realise that actually it was my relationship with planning that I hated. I had an idea of planning of something you set up that laid the foundations for what you intend and didn’t change. I can be quite flighty, changing my mind like the wind and making decisions based on my current mood. Yet, I am also the type of person that likes to know what I am doing and hates completely flying by the seat of one’s pant as it were. Look, I’m complicated.

So did I find that I planned my writing more in this challenge? Well, what I did find was having a topic I am going to write about works very well for me. For my blog posts, I have an editorial calendar which I populate with topics for the entire month. I can currently tell you all my intended blog post titles from now until 30 November. I won’t but I could.

This works for me because I don’t come to my blog post writing day faced with both a blank page and a blank mind instead I have a title to get me going. Some weeks something else will come up and I change my mind about what I want to write, other weeks I keep coming up with ideas related to the blog post title and will make note of them to add to my writing. This allows me to be flexible but not completely free of any plan.

This is also the case with writing fiction. I worked much better when writing from a prompt provided in my educational materials than having to come up with an idea myself.

Size matters

My target was to write 500 words, a target I knew I’d be able to achieve as it was so small. You may think why have a word count target at all if I know it is more than achievable? The fact is there were the odd day where writing 500 words was actually quite difficult. I wasn’t feeling it. I would be writing while looking at the word count go up painfully slowly and it was like pulling teeth.

To be able to still feel like I had achieved something on those days was incredibly important. I doubt I would have gotten there if my word count target was 1000 words. The days I achieved over and above this target, which was actually most days, was great. I never felt the urge to stop just because I’d achieved my target.

Join the next challenge

I learnt a lot about myself and my writing sweet spots through this challenge and taking part meant that I was able to achieve something I’d wanted to achieve for a long time: a writing habit. What was lovely was the camaraderie created within the group; we basically begged Karen to continue the challenge (she didn’t really need much persuasion), which has meant that we will still be recording meeting our targets every day as usual. I feel like this is going to ensure I keep up with this habit.

If you would like to join the next challenge, you can! The plan is to start the next challenge on Monday (7 November) so if you want to join everyone, please do! You set your own rules of how much you write and what you write about, you just make sure that it is not client work.

You can join us in the Facebook group by clicking here.