There are quite a few online writing challenges floating around these days. There’s the big one everyone knows about (National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo) and there’s also similar ones for short stories (StoryaDay), scripts (WriScriVember), and more. What’s the point of these, you may ask?

To answer that, I might have to go back a bit. See, I wanted to be an author just about as soon as I knew what an author was. I wrote stories all through primary and high school. But once I got to uni, I stopped. I was busy and distracted. I became one of those ‘someday’ writers—the type of person who would claim to write a book ‘someday’, when there was more time or a quieter house or whatever other excuse there was. That’s not to say I never thought about writing. I had ideas, characters, floating around in my head pretty much all the time. But I never put pen to paper.

That changed when I heard about NaNoWriMo. It seemed so impossible I felt there was little pressure for me to actually succeed, so I gave it a go. And successfully wrote 50,000 words in a month. After that I hunted around, found StoryADay.org and gave that a go as well. After that, I had the writing bug, and stopped putting my dreams off for that mythical ‘someday.’

See, challenges like these force you to act. The point is to stop waiting for that perfect moment, stop waiting until your idea is the best idea that you could possibly have. Writing is a skill that gets better only through practice. I learnt so many things during those challenges. I learnt how to find time to write, how to build a writing habit, how to get over my inner critic, how to generate ideas and how to actually finish a story. Everything I’ve learnt since has been built on that basic foundation. Those online challenges were essentially a free education for me.

The other thing that writing challenges can do is connect you with other writers. All online challenges come with some sort of forum or comments section, some way to connect with other people going through the same challenges. Other writers give you a sense of camaraderie, a sense of community, a measure of accountability. Not only that, but many of them are smart, friendly, and ready with both advice and encouragement.

So if anyone else is looking for a practically free way to teach themselves writing, I think signing up for online challenges is a great way to go. Writing is a skill you can really only pick up by practicing. You can read every book on structure, character, plot, but really the only way to actually get that is to put it into practice. What these challenges give is an opportunity to do that with a whole bunch of other awesome people. Who would pass that up?