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Vocal Challenges Made Me a Better Writer and Keep Me Writing

A New Writer's "Lessons Learned"

By Sara FrederickPublished about a month ago Updated about a month ago 5 min read
Top Story - May 2024
Vocal Challenges Made Me a Better Writer and Keep Me Writing
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

For new writers like myself, this article is meant to convey the things I’ve personally learned by participating in the various types of Vocal challenges; things that I think made me a better writer. I’m sure there are many more lessons than what I’ve listed, but these are the ones that brought me “aha!” moments.

The Impetus

In 2020, the midst of the pandemic, the world went through an existential crisis and I was no different. Facing what felt like a lottery of death, on lockdown, watching the Johns Hopkins pandemic worldwide death counter, while drinking daily and heavily, I thought to myself – You might die before all this is over. What haven’t you done but want to do before you die? My answer was, I want to be a writer. I think that would be cool.

My Pedigree

None. I have no history of short story writing or writing classes outside the required courses for my Bachelor of Science degree, nor are any of my family members writing-inclined. But I am a voracious reader--always have been--and I think it would be cool to be a writer.

Each challenge taught me a writing skill

Through trial and error, and my sweat and struggle over every Vocal challenge I entered, I’ve gained new skills and insights into the craft of writing. While I’ve grouped and ordered my "lessons learned" below, they didn’t come to me in that order. My path was and is a hodge-podge of lessons from short stories, poetry, and flash/microfiction. If each genre’s lesson were a musical note it would sound like chaotic jazz.


Admittedly, my poetry is Vogon-esque (those who know, know). My analytical nature makes these the hardest challenges for me. The idea of conveying a feeling (at all) without naming (telling) it is still difficult. But each poem I struggled over brought me a new understanding with the doing of it. These are the poetry challenges "lessons learned" that I bring to my flash/microfiction and short stories.

Poetry Lessons for Story-Telling – Things made clear to me through my struggle to create poetry:

1. The rhythm and cadence of language. Syllable count and the stacking rhythms of poetry, when applied to a story, can put the reader into a kind of trance that places them “in” the story and creates a smoothness or flow to a story.

2. How to emote feelings, sensations, and pictures through word selection, and combinations (show not tell). Story example: “Jimmy went down to the store and returned with only one ice cream cone for himself and I feel hurt that he didn’t think about me.” Versus: “My heart sinks with every drip of Jimmy’s ice cream, his hand holding the melting cone purchased for one.” What a dick. Jimmy should be less selfish.

3. How to say it differently. Story example: “The big bent joists of the old barn were a perfect place for a hanging.” Versus: “Large and looming, the arch and thrust of the joists make for a perfect hanging place.”

4. Word Selection – each word has a different connotation and feel. I didn’t pay much attention to this until the poetry challenges. For instance, the word naked is usually the word of choice to describe embarrassment, unwilling vulnerability (stripped naked), and sometimes freedom–to name just a few examples. The closely related word bare is often used to describe voluntary vulnerability (to bare one's soul), bravery, and strength in spirit in the revealing. I could say: “I stood naked before the mirror waiting for my lover” (implying a forthcoming physical encounter). Versus: “I stood bare before the mirror waiting for my lover” (implying both a forthcoming physical and emotional encounter).


Soooooo haaaarrrrd! For someone who’s used to telling, with a lot of words in the name of clarity, these challenges are almost as hard as the poetry challenges. The limited word count requires a boiled-down essence of the story while keeping it exciting.

What Flash/Microfiction taught me:

1. The use, importance, and value of good dialogue to move a story forward. Before flash/microfiction, I wasn’t much for dialogue. Imagining what a character would say and what the other character would say back--bland and boring, to say the least. Then I wrote flash/microfiction. Dialogue, for me, became a necessary ingredient, as water is to soup. It sets the tone, gives insight into the characters, sets the scene, implies the back story (that I can’t write), and quickly moves the story forward. Before these challenges, I didn’t know dialogue could be used for these things.

2. Much like poetry, precise language and the economy of words are at the heart of these challenges. They force me to find a different way to say a thing. Example: “The huntsman swung his axe and sliced open the wolf's stomach, as the wolf leaped over him.” Versus: “The wolf leaped up as the axe came down, slicing open its belly” (17 words vs. 13).

3. How to imply a thing vs. using all the words. Example: “Panicked, my eyes dart to Midge and hers to the ogre beneath us.” From this one short sentence, we know there are at least two people. One is panicked probably due to the ogre beneath them, one is female, and they're above the creature hiding (presumably on a rock wall or parapet or something high). It feels like they're not supposed to be there – either sneaking in or out of somewhere. The genre is likely fantasy because there’s an ogre.

The short story challenges taught me:

1. Show not tell, but not too much – balance. My very first story was all “tell.” When I tried incorporating “show” it was too much, too detailed and the story wasn’t moving forward. Most of it had to be cut. For me, I learned that “show” should be woven into the “tell,” like weaving a tartan plaid.

2. Editing – cut the fluff. I’ve heard this a thousand times and it’s true. If that paragraph or line doesn’t give a piece of information that we need to know for the story to move forward, cut it out. Leaving it in makes the story drag and become boring.

Vocal Challenges Keep Me Writing

To be a writer, you have to write. It seems a simple and “duh” kind of statement, but doing it can be tough when it’s done in my spare time. However, when a Vocal challenge is put forth it hits me like a gauntlet to the face. And, like any “double dog dare” I feel the obligatory need to respond. I don’t always successfully meet the deadlines, but the motivation is there.


About the Creator

Sara Frederick

I often write about broken or damaged beings. But I love, love. I believe everyone, person or creature, deserves love and acceptance. Thank you for reading.

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Comments (11)

  • Carol Townend24 days ago

    I've never managed to win a challenge, though I have achieved a few top stories which I am proud of. I do love doing some of the challenges though, because every time I do them, I find my writing improves, besides, I love challenging myself. That way I learn new skills which help me polish my technique.

  • Khan25 days ago

    Woww, that's inspiring 😘

  • Randy Baker29 days ago

    For someone new to writing, you've certainly presented a pretty good lesson on the subject. Lots of good tips and points are made here. Well done! Oh...and congrats on Top Story!

  • Anna 29 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story! :)

  • Alexander McEvoy29 days ago

    You have so many amazing tips for newer writers here! I learned all of those lessons too, though I think I had a little more creative experience starting out. I took a creative writing course in high school and have tried my hand two novels, but nothing serious, professional, or even consistent. Poetry is HAAAAARRRRRRDDDDD!!!! Mine also tends towards the poor end of the spectrum says I, but Donna Fox thinks otherwise, so I suggest leaning on your readers' opinion above your own for the quality of any given work :) We are, after all, our own harshest critics! (Thankfully no one has had to survive my poetry by gnawing his own leg off.) (Yet.) This was a wonderful essay and a very deserving Top Story, Sara! Short stories have definitely helped me learn to be a better writer for my still theoretical future novels :) and the challenges are especially good because they put hard limits that I have to live within. Even if I want more out of the story, I am forced to kill my darlings to fit the count and the story is almost always better for it!

  • Kendall Defoe 30 days ago

    This is a perfect Top Story that more people should read!

  • Belle30 days ago

    Congratulations on Top Story! I love all of these tips! I have found myself using Vocal to exercise my creative muscles, trying to use challenges to inspire myself and get better at writing both poetry and flash fiction. All of these tips speak so well to me! A fantastic work, and well deserved top story! 🥰

  • Congrats on the Top Story! I've come across much of the same. The challenges here are really great for honing writing ability. They offer so many avenues for trying new things and looking at our writing in a new way.

  • I really enjoyed this. I’m new to participating in Vocal challenges, and I suspect my particular style doesn’t align with the judges’ tastes. I’ve gone through the archives and read first and second place winners for tons of challenges. I can say I know exactly why they won, and that they deserved to. I can’t say that is how I personally write, though—and I can only be me. However, I think submitting work to the challenges has benefits beyond winning, for all the reasons you’ve outlined here. Btw, I don’t think I had time to comment on it the day I read it, but your story for the Time Traveler challenge was incredible. I’m always excited by speculative fiction that draws inspiration from mythology, and your writing is so immersive.

  • Christy Munson30 days ago

    Congratulations on Top Story! 🥳 You've gathered a great many nuggets that new writers should absorb and apply. Definitely worthy of a TS.

  • Congratulations on top story! Great job here and I appreciate your honesty & perspective on the topic of writing

Sara FrederickWritten by Sara Frederick

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