Keeping a Writing Journal

I have been keeping a writing journal all of my adult life. With virtually zero time to devote to novel writing, my writing notebooks have kept me sane.

What goes into my journal?

All of those creative thoughts and ideas we all have buzzing around in our heads on any given day...

  • an idea for a fictional character
  • a snippet of overheard dialogue
  • a great title for an as yet unwritten novel.

Although I have been hooked on novel writing from an early age, I haven't had the time to do as much writing as I would like. Earning a living - not least, building this website over the past four years - has got in the way.

This article isn't about me - it's about you and your writing. But indulge me for just a moment...

I'm planning to write a lot more fiction in the coming year than I did in the one just ended. I've got a novel to edit, plus an experiment in online novel writing to get off the ground.

But that's for the future. In the past, I just haven't had the time to write much and, like I said, it was my writing journals that kept me going.

I get through one journal a year, give or take, and I like to use an expensive notebook bought from a fancy store. Each notebook is destined to become a treasure chest of thoughts and ideas, so I figure treating myself is justified. But a cheap notebook, or maybe just scraps of paper stored in a dusty drawer, will do just as well.

(For the technophiles among you, I believe there is such a thing as journaling software.)

Why Keep a Writing Journal?

Okay, I'm going to stop talking about me and turn the spotlight back on you now. More specifically, I'm going to give you three reasons why you should consider keeping a journal or a notebook (or whatever you want to call it).

1. It Is a Great Source of Raw Material

In the section on Finding Ideas, there is a lengthy article on how to brainstorm for writing ideas. This intensive brainstorming is how you find a winning idea for your first novel.

Keeping a writing notebook is just like brainstorming but not nearly so intense. Instead of working on it for a few days or weeks, you will work on it for months or years - however long it takes you to write your first novel. Whenever a thought or an idea occurs to you, or you get hit by one of those little flashes of inspiration, put it in your journal...

  • An idea for a character (one who has no place in the novel you are currently working on).
  • A few scribbled notes on a theme you would one day like to explore in a long work of fiction.
  • An idea for a plot or a setting.

When the time comes to write a second novel, you will have amassed a vast stockpile of raw material to inspire you.

2. Writing Journals Provide a Great Creative Outlet

The fact that you have decided to become a writer means you are a naturally creative person, and that on any given day you will have an idea or three bubbling away in your subconscious. Whenever one of these ideas enters your conscious mind and demands your attention, get it down on paper in your journal. Then forget about it.

The great thing about your inner-artist is that he or she doesn't much care if your creative thoughts take the form of messy notes or polished prose - just expressing them on paper is all it takes to satisfy the artist's creative urges.

Your notebooks are unlikely ever to be published - not unless you happen to become one of the literary greats (and then only after you are dead). The only person who will ever want to read your notebooks is you.

But that is fine. As far as the little artist living in the right-hand side of your brain is concerned, writing a journal is just as creatively fulfilling as completing a polished manuscript.

3. It Clears the Mind

This is the big one, so listen up good here - particularly if you are working on your first work of fiction.

It is a common mistake among beginners to try to cram too much into their first novels. (And by "too much" I mean material - characters, themes, subplots - that has no place in the novel.)

Novels take a long time to write (more like years than months). And given that on any particular day you will have a dozen ideas pinballing around in your mind, the temptation is to channel all of these ideas into the book. Don't do this.

  • Many of the ideas will be relevant to the current project, and these are obviously welcome.
  • Ideas which have no obvious bearing on the novel in progress (and which will therefore potentially spoil it) should go into your writing journal.

Always strive to keep the current project unpolluted by renegade thoughts and ideas. Keep your focus on this novel and channel everything else into your journal.

Getting these wayward thoughts down on paper will be enough to clear your mind of them. And you can take comfort from knowing that you can always return to them another day - in the next book or the one after that.

In all likelihood, though, you will never use most of the material in your notebook.

If life is too short to read all the books you want to read, it is way too brief to write all the books you would like to write. But that is okay. Like I said above, taking a thought or an idea from your mind and giving it expression in a writing journal is creatively rewarding in itself.