Five Ways to Make the Most of Your Writing Journal

Writers have been using journals of one kind or another for as long as there have been writers. Among them, Victor Hugo, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and J.K. Rowling who famously wrote out the first draft of her first Harry Potter book in a journal in a café in Scotland while on government benefits to help support her child – they all used them.

You have a journal, right? Or perhaps you have two? Or three or more? If you call yourself a writer, you keep a journal of one kind or another. (It could even be electronic these days but many modern writers, otherwise technologically savvy, still keep hand-written journals.)

So, you have that journal but are you using it to its fullest capacity?

Here are five ways to use those journals:

  • To practice your writing. Just like athletes and musicians, writers need to practice. You need to take every available opportunity to free-write to hone your skills, to develop your voice, to keep your writing muscles in practice. Many wannabe writers skip this to the detriment of their writing and their development as writers. Give yourself permission to write whatever you want however you want without worrying about whether or not it’s suitable for publication. Believe me, it’s not.
  • To keep a record of your ideas. Ideas come to us at the most inopportune times. In the shower. During Zoom meetings. During in-person meetings (if we ever have those again). While having dinner with your family. While meeting with your boss. While sitting on the subway. While having dental work done. If you always have your journal with you, you can jot down those ideas at that moment, or as soon as it’s feasible. Never lose another idea.
  • To work out writing conundrums. Every single one of us who writes encounters dilemmas, problems, predicaments in our writing that we sometimes have difficulty overcoming. These impasses can hamper your momentum. Having a journal to write it down in (preferably by hand) permits you a safe place to consider several ways out of the problem without committing to one too soon. Write down all possible solutions – even the crazy, implausible ones – then write about the pros and cons of each one – how each one will affect what comes next. You’ll have your solution before you know it.
  • To improve your dialogue writing. This is especially important if you write fiction of any kind. (But narrative nonfiction writers benefit directly – all other writers at least indirectly) No matter where you are in the run of a day – at the grocery store, waiting in line at the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, sitting in you doctor’s waiting room, on the bus, in a taxi, waiting for the light to change at a street corner, having dinner at a restaurant – you hear conversations. A real writer will be listening for snippets of conversation. Often people will say the most interesting, bizarre or erudite things in the most unique ways. Writing these snippets down word-for-word helps you to hear voices in your head and provide each of your characters with a unique voice.
  • To keep a record of your progress as a writer. This kind of journal is a bit like a diary but the focus isn’t on what you ate for breakfast or what the weather was like each day, rather it is your daily consideration of how you feel about your writing, where you are in your journey, your goals and your accomplishments. For many writers, this is a daily journaling process; for others, it’s less frequent, but what they all have in common is that it is periodic and it is scheduled.

These are some of the most important ways to use your journal. It’s likely, though, if you embrace all of them, you’ll need more than one journal. And that’s just fine. After all, you are a writer.

“In the journal, I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.”

~ Susan Sontag

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