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Should Writers Keep a Journal?

Pros and some surprising cons.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #187
keeping a journal

Today we're going to talk about keeping a journal.

If you're an aspiring writer, you've probably heard that writers should keep a writing journal. The first time I kept a real writing journal was in my freshman English class in college, but since it’s a new year, and I’m sure many of you have made writing resolutions, it seems like a good time to talk about journaling.

What Is a Writing Journal?

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Keeping a journal is a very personal thing, so I'm going to give you guidelines and advice based on my experiences, but know that whatever works for you, is the right thing for you to do.

The idea of keeping a journal is that writers need to write, and you don't always have assignments or projects underway, or you have ideas that aren't fully formed and need to be worked out. Your journal is where you work out those ideas or write when you don't have anything formal to write about.

An Ideas Journal

You may keep a journal on hand to write down those flash ideas that come to you out of nowhere: a great topic for a blog post, a great title for a short story, or the perfect background detail for your main character. That's the kind of journal I keep these days.

A Daily Journal

Or you may set aside 15 minutes every day to write in your journal as a way to stay disciplined or get in the writing spirit before you start working on your “real” projects.

A Freewriting Journal

I know one author who loves to freewrite a bit before he starts working on his novel. Freewriting is when you sit down and force yourself to write whatever comes to mind without stopping for a set time. It often helps people brainstorm or overcome writer's block.

A Dream Journal

Some people have frequent dreams and keep a notepad by their bed to write down notes.

Some people have frequent dreams and keep a notepad by their bed to write down notes as soon as they wake up. Cherise Wolas, a novelist I recently interviewed for a bonus episode, keeps a phone by her bed and uses it as a sort of journal to write down dreams or ideas she gets when she wakes up in the middle of the night, and then she compiles them every morning into something more permanent.

Other people like to write before they go to bed every night to get things out on paper and clear their mind, whereas other people find that writing before going to bed can get them to start thinking about things and then make it hard to sleep.

A Diary or a Journal?

I'm not a big fan of keeping a journal about your daily life, your feelings, and your deepest darkest secrets. My mom told me to never put anything in writing that I didn't want others to read, and I ignored her advice and learned that lesson the hard way.

With that said, some people find this to be the most inspirational type of journaling, that the easiest thing to write about is their personal life, or it's a helpful way to work through feelings. A personal journal can also be the most rewarding type of writing to go back and reread 20 years later in that boy-was-I-a-goofball kind of way.

If you're going to keep a personal journal, and you want to really explore your feelings, take care to keep it secure. An anonymous blog isn’t impenetrable protection, but as long as you don’t use any identifying information or leave an obvious digital trail, it can be a safer way to keep this kind of journal because it isn't something someone can find in your room or physically take from you. You'll never accidentally leave it on the bus.

I met one writer who keeps this kind of very personal journal, but keeps them in a locked cabinet and has specified in her will that they be destroyed without being read upon her death, and she has designated a person to do it who has promised to carry out her wishes.

What Format Will Work for You?

So, let's say you've decided to keep a journal. Are you the kind of person who will be inspired by a fancy, leather-bound journal or intimidated by it? Make sure you pick something that will work for you. Don't make it feel too special. You can even do it on the computer, Doogie Howser style. Maybe the best thing for you is something small that you can carry around with you so you always have it handy when you have an idea.

I like to date my journal entries, but I can't think of a particularly good reason why you must unless you expect to defend the invention date in court, but it can be nice if you go back and read your journal years later.

Also, don't go back and edit your entries. Writing in a journal isn't about getting perfect writing. It's about practicing writing and exploring your ideas. It should be something that won't be judged, graded, or really read by others. It's most effective if it's a safe place for you to experiment.

Your journal is primarily for writing, but there's no rule that says you couldn't also paste in pictures or draw illustrations. I've pasted things into my journal that I wrote on other pieces of paper when I didn't have my journal handy.

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