Keeping a Writer's Journal

Writing is a lonely process. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to find a group of writers going through similar bouts of frustration and writer’s block, but even then there’s a limit to how much of our own insecurities and our story's weaknesses we’re willing to share out loud. That’s why I highly recommend you supplement your own creative writing work with a journal that sits on the sidelines and you use to catch your feelings and progress as your work evolves. 

What I mean is a journal that is a kind of behind-the-scenes record of your story and process as it emerges in real-time. A record of your story’s growth. When we’re working on something new, there's usually a constant conversation one has with oneself where they’re trying to figure things out. Some of that is negative - self-doubt, envy, procrastination, etc. Some of it is more question-related about all the different possible directions you can take the work - how it can be restructured, workshopping a bit of dialogue, for example. That constant inner chatter is good and can be insightful, but also distracting. A writing journal is a way of getting those voices out of your head, both the negative and constructive. Writing a journal that you know will always be private can be a cathartic process where you can be honest about your own ability, where your story stands, where it needs work, what your greatest fears are, how you wish you could write more, how you’re grateful for the writing time you’ve been able to carve out, etc. Inevitably, I find even when I’m in the foulest of moods and super-pessimistic about my own abilities, somehow writing that out - writing about how much I suck - inevitably leads me to a positive place where I see I do have something, and it’s just a matter of making these changes, or staying patient, or seeking another person’s objective read of the material. 

You can use your writer's journal in whatever way makes sense for you. But I wanted to offer some suggestions to give you a sense of the power of documenting your thoughts and writing process as you create. Here are some ideas and exercises:

  • Use it to warm up - where you write nonsensical, stream of consciousness thoughts, to limber your imagination and voice before the more serious writing starts. For example you could start your work with some morning pages

  • As a form of cooling down - you can use it as a simple log of what you accomplish in each writing session, how long you worked for, what you’ve changed, what still needs work. 

  • On days that you get stuck, you can make a simple note of that in your journal and began to think with pen and paper about where you’re stuck and why. It can allow you to continue to write through your writer's block and frustrations.

  • Sketch out character and location profiles, either imagined or real, related to your work

  • Alternatively, instead of focusing on your own work and process, you can aim your writer’s journal outward at the work of others you find inspiring and related to what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, you can copy pieces of novels, screenplays, poems into your journal, analyse and dissect them, or simply have them in one place as a kind of commonplace book you can refer to later. 

But what is the best tool for recording these ideas? There’s an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of digital versus analog tools. I don’t believe one is necessarily better than the other - but I think your physical memory and history of a tool plays a huge part in that tool’s success. For some of us, and I am part of that generation, we spent a large part of our secondary years writing school reports and stories by hand. If you’re in that group, then this tactile, analog process is very important, and I think it’s something we shouldn't completely abandon. I do have a kind of love affair with physical journals, even though speaking objectively they make no sense in today’s world, a digital journal or app is so much more effecient. But I think it has something to do with my childhood memories of trying to be a storyteller, when I would tweak a sentence over and over again by hand until it felt right. And I think nowadays especially, where we spend so much time staring at screens, the process of writing in a physical journal, with a pen instead of a keyboard, becomes an island of respite from the cacophony of digital distractions.

Over the years I've accumulated a number of different kinds of physical journals. Each has it's own unique personality and in subtle ways affects my work, fluidity and ultimately my ideas. What I love about physical jotting is how quickly you can move from words, to sketches, to mindmaps, and back. I've had some success with Moleskine's Cahiers, because they feel cheap yet are durable, so I'm less precious about what I'm writing. I've recently started experimenting with Japanese stationary, as a way to keep things interesting. Again, speaking objectively the subtleties of a journal's size or paper texture shouldn't matter, but I think they do, I think the choice and specifics of our tools always leaves a mark on our work and you should pay attention to that.

On the other hand, we do live in a digital age, and many of you don't have a romantic relationship with pen and paper, to you it's antiquated and cumbersome. If you feel that way, or lack that physical history I described, then you should totally embrace your digital options. It’s quite amazing the ability to sync, back up, tag, entries and know that you will probably never lose those thoughts. And just like a physical journal’s size and texture can affect your journaling results so can the parameters of a digital writing app. I've had some success with Day One. It's a cross-platform Mac/iOS journal, but I'm sure there is an equivalent for PC and Android devices. In my opinion, the most useful feature is the ability to tag your entries, so that you can gather them up later for reflection. In this way I can enter in several entries during the day on a range of topics or projects, tag them, and they're indexed - a physical journal doesn't lend itself so easily to gathering up such short fragments. And the contextual data that a digital journal like this gathers can also be insightful - it automatically records the date, time, weather and place - so for example it can help tell you in what conditions you do your best brainstorming.

You'll only find out through practice what journalling option works for you, and you might find each project has it’s own approach - a mix of physical and digital recording for example. And part of the fun of writing that work will be finding the journaling tool to use alongside as your story develops into full maturity.

If this topic interests you and you need more inspiration, take a look at how these three great artists used their journals alongside their work to express their highs, lows and messy thought processes: