The heart of the Challenge is not a contest. It is a personal challenge for the writer to improve their skills. That was the original intent, and that is still the core reason for it at FaithWriters. This is why it's called a challenge and not a contest. Everything else is icing on the cake.
The original suggestion to have a weekly Challenge was totally informal. Donna Haug (long time member) just posted it on the message boards back in about 2003. It was something like "Hey, let's have a challenge each week to write something on a particular topic and improve our skills. What do you think? Here's the first word. Glasses."
Now it wasn't exactly like that, but it wasn't far removed. Some members jumped straight in simply to hone their writing skills. They posted their Challenge writing in the general articles at FaithWriters, and then came back and posted a link to them on the message boards.
That was it. No winners, no prizes, but good feedback and good experience writing to topic. (There were no word count limitations and no real deadline back then.)
After this very informal Challenge had been running for a few months, the suggestion was made to Scott that it would be easier if there was a category in the General Articles for The Writing Challenge. Still totally informal, but at least all the submissions each week would be in the same place.
That was done, and it continued to be popular with the message board regulars. Only message board regulars knew what it was all about because that's where the topics were being announced each week.
It continued on like that for a little while, until two new discussions began on the boards. One was that it would be really good if we could select winners for the Challenge entries, to provide some sort of recognition for the best. The second thread of discussion was that FaithWriters should compile a book with articles submitted by their members.
With the latter suggestion, I realized that could mean a bit of a hodge-podge of material, so suggested we combine the two ideas, by finding the best of the Challenge entries each week, recognizing them with an award, and using them in a book.
Then I disappeared for about five months. When I came back, the message boards were in uproar. Anyone who was here at the time would remember. The word "disgruntled" doesn't even begin to cover it. People were absolutely incensed over the unfairness of the new official Challenge, which by then was following my suggestion -- just not all that well.
I took one look at the way it was set up and wrote immediately to Scott to explain why it wasn't working. Scott was so disheartened at the time by the reaction from everyone, as he'd tried to give them everything they wanted (as FaithWriters always do), but was now being torn to shreds.
I explained that the system at the time was terribly unfair (and I hadn't even entered). Basically, it was set so anyone (member or visitor) could vote for three entries each week. The entries with the greatest number of votes would win.
Anyone could see that system wasn't going to work. For one thing, people don't always read every entry. Some voted as they were reading, so ran out of votes near the end, which was a problem when they found others that were better. Some were voting for friends (it wasn't anonymous back then). Some were getting their friends and relatives to vote for them.
The latter problem was the biggest. Having a newsletter with nearly 7,000 members at the time, I could see the inequity of the system. If I had wanted to, I could have sent a newsletter out to my list and have a pretty confident 200 to 400 people respond by going and voting for my entry. I didn't do that, but that's why the system failed. I can't stand contests like that. They are largely pointless.
Just as a side note here, around this time, Scott sent me the final proof of the first book. These were the entries that had been chosen by the readers over the first 15 or so weeks of the Challenge up to that time. To say I was horrified at what was about to be published is putting it mildly. Only about 25% were very good. About 50% were average, and another 25% were terrible. One of the original guidelines for entry was that members must edit their work before submitting it to the Challenge as FaithWriters would be publishing the winning entries exactly as they were submitted. Long story, but by that stage it was too late to make the zillions of minor changes the book needed. Every change at that stage would cost FaithWriters, but at least we were able to fix the big ones. There's a sequel to the first book saga, but I'll save that for another day.
Anyway, back to the Challenge problem ... Scott gave me the freedom to recreate the Challenge, and that's what I did. I introduced rating criteria based on keys for good writing (pretty much what we have today, with a couple of inclusions since -- the genre, topic and personal opinion). I recruited about 15 people (some of whom are still serving) to judge on a rotating basis (three each week). We set a word count limit, and the new improved Challenge was born.
Because we knew members had grown fond of being able to vote for their favorite entries, we divided the Challenge into two sections. "The Editor's Choice" which comprised of the eight highest rated entries by the judges on duty, and the "Readers' Choice," chosen by the members. Only the Editor's Choice winners would be used for the books.
That lasted for about six months, I think, but was still creating disgruntled feelings when the winners were announced. The Readers' Choice just didn't work. People who were chosen under this old system were feeling they should have also placed in the Editor's Choice. Unfortunately, the difference was all to do with one group reading for pleasure, the other group judging using set criteria.
So instead of the Readers' Choice, we needed some way to provide official recognition from the judges for entrants at their own level of ability. When we were only giving eight people awards each week, it led to a lot of discouragement. So we introduced the Level awards and made entries anonymous. That really did transform the Challenge.
The system has remained pretty much like that ever since, and it works efficiently and is extremely fair.
There was a marked difference in the first book from the quarter after the introduction of the new system. For the first time, we had set a theme (rather than a hodge-podge of topics), the winning entries were all edited before publication, and the standard of winning entries was very good.
So always remember that the heart of the Challenge was never about winning. It has always been about honing skills. In its present form, it is an invaluable weekly exercise in the discipline of writing to word count, deadline and topic. Everything else is just a bonus.
I hope this little trip back in time may help people to understand the evolution of the Challenge and why things are done the way they are.