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Writing Duels: Don't just break out of your comfort zone, destroy it

Writing prompts are nothing new. Timed writing exercises aren’t exactly all that inventive. But take those tried and true writing ‘games’ and now put yourself head to head with another writer… and make every word you write immediately viewable to an audience. Now you’re in a word duel.

The duelists (masked for anonymity and fun)

The duelists (masked for anonymity and fun)


I got to take part in my first word duel on a Saturday night in a bar. Bars are normally where writers go to escape the notepad or keyboard. Word dueling mixes the rather internal world of trying to write creatively with the external world of community and performance.

This may sound terrifying in the abstract, but in practice it is a lot of fun and quite a rush for the participants and entertaining for the audience. Here’s why YOU should go to a word duel (or put one on with your friends).


Devour your fears

For some writers, exposing a work as it comes to them could sound like a mortifying experience. First drafts are designed to be unpolished, they’re certainly not “perfect”, but at a word duel that’s the whole point. There's no real time to be afraid, and you find that there is nothing to afraid about.

 That is not to say that it is not a nerve wracking experience. About the only thing you can do to protect yourself is know that the crowd isn’t sure if you’re “writer A” or “writer B” (as was the set up at the word duel I attended). The words I was writing were showing up on a Google doc that the audience could read immediately. Not just everything I wrote, but they could follow my cursor as I fixed typos or revisions. There isn’t much time for either so the whole thing can look like a bit of a mess.

Having an audience and hearing their reactions leads to all kinds of shifts. At one point I created a character and someone immediately said “kill him!” so I then set about trying to manufacture his demise. Just know that regardless of anything else they aren’t laughing at you, they’re laughing as a means to relieve tension, marvel that anything at all is being done and revel in your creative process. The only true failure is the failure to put something down on the page.

No such thing as writer’s block

It’s a great way to disengage your normal writing blocks. There’s no time to dawdle, no reason to be truly distracted- which is ironic given that the entire premise is something of a distraction. I usually need to write with big headphones on, isolating myself from the world around me. At the word duel I was writing with giant TVs showing olympics coverage and 90s music. I was completely out of my little cocoon. It’s different enough from your normal writing process, like taking a “polar plunge”. For a moment you feel completely overwhelmed, but before too long it’s over and there sit a few hundred words that didn’t exist before.

There's also only your brain to aid you. There is no outside research because the prompt is given mere seconds before you begin writing. Never has "write what you know" been more applicable. However, in a word duel I would add "write what you feel," because you're dependent on a certain amount of raw momentum to carry you through to a semi-satisfying end.

At a word duel you can revel in other people’s struggle and creativity. After a round, the pieces are collected and read aloud, top to bottom as is. This includes typos! But it really doesn’t matter compared to the ideas being presented. Some people go for a straight prose approach while others my write in the style of essay or letter. The sheer variety is refreshing.

The crowd deliberates...

The crowd deliberates...

It’s all ephemeral

Many people write to commit things permanently. They’ll write their memoirs as the narrative of their life and their place in the world. They’ll aspire to write, “the great American novel” or some award-winning piece of fiction.

The word duel cares not about such lofty aspirations. It’s here, it’s now and it has to land a few emotional connections with the people who are there in that moment. Perhaps some of it will transcend the event and get reworked into something more polished. But that’s not for the word duel. The game is to cease the moment, be a little freaked out and bond with each other over the fact that, ultimately, nobody knows what they’re doing but it somehow ends up being okay anyway.