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Keeping a Journal: 7 Compelling Reasons Why Every Writer Should

Posted in creativity, discipline, finding time to write, finishing your novel, how to be a prolific writer, how to complete a novel, journaling, Learning to Write, motivation for writers, Productivity for creatives, prolific writer, writer's journal, writer's notebook, writer's workshop, Writing a novel, writing books, writing life, and Writing Tips

 

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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.

Portrait of Eleanor Anne Porden, on a chaise-longue by Flaxman, Mary Ann (1768-1833) Private Collection © Rafael Valls Gallery, London, UK English, out of copyright

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.

Keeping a 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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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6 Comments

  1. I use a combination of a black leather-bound notebook, the sort with an elastic band to keep it closed, and an Evernote app on my mobile (because it conveniently syncs with my laptop) – whichever is closest to hand.

    Sometimes, I have even been known to record idea by recording them on my phone.

    I have a memory like a sieve, so without my journals I would lose loads of valuable ideas.

    Thank you Austin, a useful article.

    Nick

    August 30, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment – really appreciated! I think in the end, whatever works for you is the best type or combination of note-taking devices. My favorite “device” is a scrappy refill pad and a clutch of different colored pens. Someone else’s may be a memory chip inserted directly into her brain (well, maybe in a few years’ time). The key is that you do keep a journal and whatever that means for you, it works for you.

      And, of course, what works can and often does change over time.

      Thanks again.

      Austin.

      August 31, 2016
      |Reply
  2. I don’t keep a paper journal, but I probably should – I hate my handwriting! 😀

    I try to keep the majority of my notes digital now for easy access and there’s no risk of me losing it. I’ve starting blogging this month and you’re right, it is very cathartic to write whatever I want. I don’t know if it’s helped me to think up ideas but it’s been nice to have a brain dump each day when things get tough. I think I must have written close to 45k words this month if you include my blogging, commenting, novel writing. That’s a crazy number for me. 😮

    Cliches aren’t necessarily a bad thing – you can always develop/subvert them in fresh ways. 🙂

    September 28, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      I’m rather old fashioned and fond of paper and ink. But if you prefer pixels, that’s your free choice!

      Keeping a journal is a very personal thing. Mine are workbooks. For some, the journal is a therapist’s couch. For others, a simple memory back-up. You make of it what you will.

      September 28, 2016
      |Reply
  3. Hi Austin,
    Thank you for your tips – I enjoy writing anything and everything in my notebooks and have now started adding small drawings and scraps of paper, theatre tickets, pressed flowers etc. I started because I had a scary life changing experience and it helped me put it into perspective. My journals are personal therapy but also great for remembering the details of life. I’m not sure how or if I will recycle or destroy them as yet. I started by using small plain leather journals mainly black but now use colourful hard cover Leuchtturm 1917 dot grid note books. Paper quality is an issue too as I use a fountain pen.

    October 17, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Pauline,

      Thank you for your comment – I’m glad you found this interesting. For the kind of personal journaling you describe, having a crafted notebook and a fine fountain pen can be an advantage. As a writer who uses notebooks as portable writing workshops – cutting a part out here, pasting a part in there, scribbling in the margins, crossing out and overwriting all the time – I find a cheap-and-cheerful refill pad and a collection of colored microball pens perfect for my purposes.

      For personal correspondence I still prefer high quality paper and a good fountain pen.

      October 17, 2016
      |Reply

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