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Monday, April 23, 2012

Do Writing Contests Help or Hurt Creativity?

In the aftermath of the Genesis Contest results (contest for unpubbed writers sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers), I feel that it would be helpful for writers to talk about the creative writing process in general, and how a person's expectations upon entering any kind of writing contest can definitely effect their creativity afterward.

First, a few questions to keep you reading:

  1. Have you ever taken a writing course in high school or college and had a far more difficult time completing assignments than you had hacking away at your work-in-progress on the side?
  2. Have you ever signed up for NaNoWriMo to complete a novel in 30 days and had serious writer's block, but were able to knock a story out in under 30 days when not on a deadline?
  3. Have you ever entered a writer's contest, received feedback, and never wanted to pick up that story again--or even write anything, for that matter?

These are classic examples of how sometimes our inner creativity can be stifled by things like contests. Rewards and evaluations are extrinsic motivations that can actually drive out our desire to write simply because we love it, which is called intrinsic motivation. (This is the intrinsic motivation theory of creativity in a nutshell, as published by Amabile in 1983.)

Unfortunately, the same things that tend to diminish creativity are the very things that increase competence and learning. Entering contests and receiving feedback and evaluation of our work will definitely help us in the future to do something in a more creative way--and certainly a more competent way--than is possible for us currently. So it's a catch 22.

Why should you concern yourself with this? Because you can't have both enhancing creativity and acquiring skills and knowledge, at least not at the same time. 

It boils down to your goals and expectations upon entering a contest as to what you will get out of it. If your goal is to develop better writing skills and knowledge of the craft, then entering a contest is perfect for you. You'll receive feedback, both positive and negative, and you will ultimately grow as a writer. Yes, your creativity could be stifled somewhat, but contests are for those writers who are in the industry for the long haul. A little speed bump won't amount to dropping out of the race.

If your goal is to increase creativity, then contests are not for you. Perhaps not even NaNoWriMo, which has the extrinsic motivation of receiving the coveted, cool "winner" button to put on your blog. Research has shown that anticipating evaluation, even positive ones (because you think your story is so fantastic that it will win), has a negative effect on creative performance.

Let's Analyze: Anyone want to comment on the three questions I asked earlier? Help me put some actual faces and names to the research.

Be sure to join me Wednesday as I discuss how the way that writers perceive evaluation actually determines its effect. You'll be able to look at your Genesis comments in a whole new light.

And HUGE CONGRATS to the semi-finalists!