Journals have got a bit of a bad rap. For a lot of people, the act of sitting down each day to record their experiences and reflections feels… well, a bit on the soppy side. A lot of us wrote diaries as children or teenagers, and remember the habit (and what we wrote) with embarrassment.
But keeping a regular journal is an incredibly useful exercise for writers, no matter their age or gender. Famous writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf all kept diaries. More recently, writers including David Sedaris and Joyce Carol Oates have been amongst those to praise the practice of keeping a journal.
So how might keeping a journal help your writing?
- Journals help you make writing part of your daily routine
“Putting words on paper regularly is part of the necessary discipline of writing. A journal is a great way to do that.”
– Pearl Cleage
As writers, it’s surprisingly easy to fill your days with pretty much anything other than writing. From doing the dishes to reading blogs such as this one, we’re all sometimes guilty of procrastination.
The solution? Making writing part of your regular routine. Keeping a journal makes writing part of your day – no ifs, ands or buts. We all know that the hardest part of writing is sitting down and staring down the blank page in front of you. Once you’ve made yourself write something – anything – then the words often flow from there.
- Journals remove the pressure to write ‘well’
“When I write notes in my journal, I’m just trying to scribble down as much as possible. Later on, I decide whether to follow some of those first impressions or whether to abandon them.”
– Natasha Trethewey
A journal entry doesn’t have to be a certain length, discuss certain themes or be written in a certain style.
If you want to write, “Today was shit. GREG FROM ACCOUNTING IS THE WORST!” that’s your prerogative. Similarly, if you want to write five pages analysing Greg’s various shortcomings in detail, that’s fine too. Hell, if you want to devote ten pages to writing out numerous fantasies in which Greg meets an unsightly (but deserved) end in increasingly innovative and unpleasant ways, so much the better.
It’s easy to get so caught up in the pressure to write something ‘good’ that you end up writing nothing at all. A journal gives you the freedom to explore different things, in different ways, without worrying about producing something publishable.
- Journals improve your writing style
“It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments. Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.”
– Anaïs Nin
It’s said that practice makes perfect, and that’s certainly true when it comes to writing. It’s only by actually sitting down and trying out different things – from experimenting with dialogue to capturing different characters – that these techniques can become second nature.
It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something – so think of writing a journal as an easy way to clock up those hours fast.
- Journals clear your mind of clutter
“I sometimes start keeping a journal about the writing process itself. Particularly when I get the ideas, and I am trying to brood over the chaos phase.”
– Sue Monk Kidd
Our lives are busy. Sometimes it’s difficult to get the headspace you need to concentrate on fiction. Worries about work, anxieties about your car… everyday niggles can prove very distracting.
Or perhaps it’s the fiction itself that’s getting you in a tizzy – that you’ve got so caught up in tangled plotlines and mixed metaphors that you’re now completely blocked.
This is where writing a journal can help. Letting your feelings out in one big brainfart and using the empty pages to explore possible solutions is not only incredibly cathartic, but will also clear up some much-needed mindspace in the process.
- Journals are an endless source of inspiration
“To me, reading through old letters and journals is like treasure hunting. Somewhere in those faded, handwritten lines there is a story that has been packed away in a dusty old box for years.”
– Sara Sheridan
Don’t worry – we’re not saying you should think about publishing your journals, à la Samuel Pepys. But just because your journal contents are for your eyes only doesn’t mean that they can’t be reworked for use in future pieces of writing.
Of course, if you end up writing a piece about a particular experience you’ve had – such as a memoir or travelogue – then a journal will prove invaluable. But it doesn’t have to be that direct. It might be that a description of a particular location serves as inspiration for a future fictional setting. Or that an exaggerated version of a person you encounter in real life ends up in one of your stories.
The fact is that life is filled with material, and that writing it down is the only way you can ever even hope to keep track of it all.
Words by Leah Eades.