Are friendly writing contests a useful exercise?
Yes, I know that - in theory - any exercise is a good exercise.
Context: Lately I've been running a writing group were multiple creative-writing/reading enthusiasts meet. As a group activity, we've been issuing a number of writing contest. Writers are asked to write about a particular theme or following a prompt, submit their work, and then go read and give impressions on work of others.
Another kind of example would be contest given on websites for amateur writers, or the very same Writing prompt challenge that used to run on Meta a few months back.
Now, a few common characteristics for those challenges:
- They usually require short stories (up to 4k characters max)
- They often lack a judge and jury, meaning that the stories are loosely evaluated in a friendly way (often avoiding criticism)
- They often require one writer to stray from his more "serious" projects
- They do give valuable feedback, in a way, and help learning by seeing and reading the work of others.
At the end of the day, the short stories produced in this way will be exercises, nothing more. While - again - I personally find them fun and refreshing, they still steal commitment from my main goal - that being, finishing up my novel. So the legitimate question.
Is writing short, unrelated, and probably unfocused pieces worth the hassle? Should it be somehow kept in check, or is it a good habit? Can something good - in terms of skills acquired - come from a playful competition?