Seventh Annual Spring Break Writers' Challenge Offers Creative Connection During Social Distancing

Writing

Nearly 50 writers participated in the Seventh Annual Spring Break Writers’ Challenge at the School of Law at the University of Montana this year. Participants collectively wrote 132,770 words over five days, averaging more than 900 words per person on most days. 

An opportunity for students and faculty to make progress on writing projects, the Spring Break Writers’ Challenge has become a tradition at the School of Law. Students are writing seminar papers, case notes for law review competitions and trial briefs for legal writing class, while faculty members work on law review articles and other scholarship. 

The challenge is simple: Prof. Hillary Wandler sets a daily goal of 750 words for each writer to meet and provides a Google document in which they report the number of words they wrote at the end of every day.

This year, the usual invitation was sent out on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, encouraging students and full-time faculty to join starting the following Monday. On that Wednesday, the U.S. reported 1,215 COVID-19 cases. Three days later, the number of cases nearly doubled. Suddenly schools across the country, including the School of Law, were discussing how to transition to remote learning.

The challenge immediately took on new meaning. It became a way not only to promote accountability and goals but also to connect during a time of increasing isolation. Prof. Wandler sent out a new email to the entire law school community, including all students, faculty, and staff:  “I’m writing to extend the invitation to our Seventh Annual Spring Break Writers’ Challenge to anyone in need of connection this break,” she wrote. “You do not need to be working on an academic paper to join us. You only need to write. Let’s create together.”

By the first day of the challenge, the number of COVID-19 cases had again nearly doubled as had the number of participants in the challenge to 47 participants. Many writers were working on academic papers, but some were writing purely for creative or therapeutic purposes.

Over the course of the challenge, writers persisted through growing uncertainty, using the daily word count as a way to stay focused on something other than the news. Prof. Wandler sent daily emails reporting collective word counts. As in previous years, she also used a daily theme to help writers break through blocks and keep moving forward.

This year, to inject some creativity and lightness into each day, Prof. Wandler illustrated the themes by writing about Grace, a fictional character who was struggling with a variety of writing challenges. On Day 1, Grace tried to write while her mother and teacher watched over her shoulder and tried to “help.” She finally told them, “Go away, I’m writing!” which became the Day 1 mantra. Subsequent days brought new challenges and corresponding mantras or techniques, such as the mantra to “stay on the page” for those who tend to task-switch while writing, or the “flash writing” technique where a writer uses quick bursts of freewriting to break through writers’ blocks.  

At the end of the week, as writers reflected on their experiences, it became clear the challenge was successful on several fronts. For some, it provided a meaningful path through a chaotic transition: 

“Having a goal to reach everyday kept me sane in an otherwise crazy time. I found great comfort in Grace, and the control I maintained in my response to her relatable struggles. Additionally, this week provided me the opportunity to support a friend of mine also participating in the challenge. Though I readily identify as an introvert, social distancing will still present new challenges. Keeping each other honest, even if just over a string of gifs through text, kept me in contact with the law school community.”

“I may have given up on law school altogether during this most depressing spring break if it weren’t for Grace and the helpful tips. I feel like I accomplished something, and that’s enough to keep on keeping on!”

 “Although I didn't keep up on the last day, I would never have written anything over break were it not for this challenge. Life was too chaotic, I was too distracted, I was too anxious—and yet somehow, I did. I made progress where I would otherwise have made none. The power of accountability is amazing to me.”

 For others, it encouraged them to produce something, leading to feelings of pride and accomplishment:

 “I doubt I would have been near this productive without the writing challenge.  I actually found this fun. Imagine that. But, then again, I am super competitive, and I just viewed it as a competition against my procrastination.”

 “I really enjoyed having a numerical goal to hit each day. It forced me to write even when I wanted to slow down (and probably stall). Now I’m in a good place with my AWR and have resolved a lot of lingering questions by continuing to write.”

 “This challenge felt like coming home. I haven’t written for fun since coming to law school. It felt so good to play.”

 For everyone, it provided something concrete to focus on and accomplish each day as well as evidence of their ability to power through by connecting with one another. Although the COVID-19 numbers increased daily, so did the group’s numbers: 132,770 words for the week, averaging 26,554 words each day, or an average of 4,500 words per writer.