Good Advice is Often Ignored
To keep a journal is one of the standard pieces of advice given to every new writer. But I am always astonished by how few start keeping a journal. Keeping a writer’s journal, rather like writing every day, is one of the most important things any writer can do.
Many writers consider it a waste of time. Perhaps they even see it as a distraction, not a real part of their writing life. This way of thinking is a grave mistake.
Not every writer keeps a journal but many successful, creative and prolific writers do. I think there’s a clear link between keeping a writer’s journal and being the best writer you can be.
I may understand why so many new writers avoid keeping a journal – even if they start out with the best of intentions but give up the practice. The responsibility has to be laid on the shoulders of those successful writers who offer the advice with no proper explanation of what a writer’s journal could, should, or ought to be. So first up, it’s worthwhile having a quick look at what a writer’s journal is not and what it should be to be most useful in a writer’s life.
What is a Writer’s Journal For?
It doesn’t have to be a detailed record of every activity undertaken every day: what time you got up, what you had for breakfast, or where you walk your dog. It does not have to be the diary of Samuel Pepys. So why do you keep a journal, and what should you put in it? I’ll answer that question, but before I do, I want to clear up two common misunderstandings about what a writer’s journal is.
A writer’s journal is not the place for your perfect, poetical prose. There’s a place for that and it’s between the covers of a printed book made from your final draft. You shouldn’t even try good writing in your journal. It’s not only okay to write badly in your journal it’s almost an obligation. I’ll explain why later. Your journal isn’t even something which should be retained for posterity. Once it’s served its purpose, you can recycle it, use it to light the stove, make papier maché models out of it, or anything else you choose. There should be nothing precious about your writing journal.
I’ve seen it done dozens of times and I’ve done it myself: that thing of heading out to the stationary store and buying a leather-bound book full of blank pages of creamy, high-quality, handcrafted paper. That will never become a writing journal. It’s just too darned pretty and you’ll never want to spoil it. I used plain notebooks in hard bindings for several years. I moved to ring-bound, loose-leaf notebooks for a while. I’ve settled on nothing other than A4 sized, wide-lined refill notepads; the sort with about 400 pages. They get dog-eared and coffee stained and it’s no problem. They’re cheap. They work. Resist the artisan-crafted notebook. All you need is a pile of paper.
Keeping a Journal and Writing by Hand
While we’re on the topic of paper, I recommend using a physical notebook, not a computer program. It’s not that there aren’t many fabulous journaling programs out there; I’ve never used such software but I’ve heard from reliable sources that there are good ones. But for reasons I hope will become apparent, the journaling experience should differ from your actual writing. It should be physical, multi-sensory, a somewhat tactile way of thinking. There are all kinds of psychological justifications for this approach; the suggestion that working in this way releases greater creativity and leads to results more likely to stick in the memory. I won’t go into those here. I might go into them in another post at some point.
Okay, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Why should you keep a journal?
The simple answer is because it will make you a better writer and it will increase your productivity. The reasons it will do those things should become clear as we examine seven uses to which your journal should be put. Your journal should be:
- An aide memoire
Use your journal to scribble down every thought, image, idea, concept, snippet of dialog. So many ideas get lost in the course of a day. Your journal is a place to capture those thoughts and keep them safe for later. I’ve often forgotten something brilliant that came to me on the train by the time I get back to my desk. Making jotting in your journal into a habit will mean you’ll lose nothing – unless you lose your journal. So don’t.
- A workshop of ideas
As your journal fills up with ideas, images, scenes, snippets and so on, you can work with them, expand them, and try things out. It’s a great place to do it. You can write fast and all over the place – no one needs to read anything you put in here but you. You can reorder pages, scribble, illustrate and so on. Several pages of my journals look more like Jackson Pollock paintings after a few hours of scribbling. But it’s a great way to let your creativity free.
- A commonplace book
My father used always to keep a “commonplace book.” It’s a rather old-fashioned idea now, but worth translating into your journaling behavior. Use your writing notebook to jot down any inspirational or interesting quotations you come across, or news items which might lead to story ideas, or snippets of overheard conversation. All these things are treasures and should be horded.
- A source of inspiration over time
As your journals fill up, you’ll be able to go back and discover ideas, story elements and work-shopped pieces which you abandoned yesterday but are full of promise today. We rarely have bad ideas. Most ideas we reject are good in themselves, it’s just that the time isn’t right for them or we’re not right for them in that moment. Keeping a journal means you are always armed with pages and pages and pages of potential writing inspiration anytime you need it.
- Somewhere to keep writing even on bad writing days
Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know I don’t buy into writer’s block. I think it’s phoney. It doesn’t exist. It’s just that sometimes writing is easy and sometimes, maybe even most of the time, it’s damned hard work. When you hit a bad writing day, you can keep writing by transferring to your journal to rant about how stupid your WIP is, what a terrible writer you are, or how your editor knows nothing about art, or just how sick you are of living in poverty for the love of literature. You’ll still be writing. It’ll be cathartic. Most likely, you’ll get back to work again. And while you’re journaling, you may well find an inspirational quotation, or a snippet of an idea, that reignites your enthusiasm and gets you back to work.
- A running record of progress
I’ve said you shouldn’t be precious about your writer’s journal – it’s a tool not a work of art, so you can just throw it away or recycle it when you’re through with it. But you’ll keep it a while. I keep mine for several years at a run before I have a clean out and purge old ones. During that time, you can also gain much encouragement from seeing your journal as a record of your progress. Finding the original scribbled concept from two years ago and it’s now your NYT best-selling novel must be a good feeling.
- To weed and cultivate the garden of your mind
I lied before when I said there are no bad ideas. There are. But you’ll find they’re not yours. They’ll be clichés and shortcuts you’ve absorbed from years of reading, going to the flicks and watching TV. Bad ideas are unconscious plagiarism. Good ideas can be fragile at first and need cultivation before they flower and then bear fruit. Your writing journal is the garden of your mind. Weed and cultivate in it. It will bear fruit.
So there you have it: 7 compelling reasons to start keeping a journal. I hope I’ve shared with you from my long experience the most useful approach you can adopt to make the most of this remarkable, multifaceted and dirt cheap tool.
If you’ve tried journaling and given up, or if you’ve never tried and would like to start, or if you’re still convinced it would be a waste of time, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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