I call it the Blank Page Syndrome. It’s when you have to write something, and you know it will require thinking and work. Even if the topic is something you enjoy–such as me writing blog posts–there’s still that reluctance in the back of your mind. It would be easier to check social media, play another game of ToonBlaster, or find someone to chat with.

Our students have Blank Page Syndrome, too, and who can blame them? In fact, writing is more daunting to some of them. And the longer the assignment or project, the worse it can be.

To help students overcome this first step, we have Word Count Challenges.

On word count challenge days, the goal isn’t to write beautifully; it’s to write prolifically. I start by challenging students to put away their perfectionism–first drafts are about getting words and ideas down, not making each sentence perfect. Also, I encourage them to close any tabs of temptation–social media, email, prom dress e-boutiques–and focus on the task at hand.

Then they write to a goal. Many days, it’s a simple 100 word goal. My mantra is “the first 100 words are the hardest.” Whatever big task we’re working on, the hardest part is getting started. Once we’re going and we’re in Flow (as coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)┬áthen it’s much easier to continue the task.

Sometimes I give other incentives. The other day I exchanged the word count for gold in students’ Classcraft accounts. Each word equaled one gold coin. Other days, I might give a flat amount of XP for reaching a 100 word goal. Or anyone who reaches the goal gets their name entered for a free snackcess card (a punchcard for five pieces of snacks in our class snack box.)

Granted, it’s a bit of external motivation. But what do we do on big projects? We set mini goals, and when we reach those goals, we often reward ourselves. For example, after I comment on five student essays, then I get to play Clash Royale for ten minutes. Or eat a brownie. Or take a walk.

You can also add another step if you want to focus on student goal setting. Have students set their own minigoal for the day. Maybe it’s 50 words. Maybe 200. Or maybe it’s finding five sources.

Doing this teaches our students what most of us already know: The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Hosting a Word Count Challenge is one way to help them with that first bite.