Episode 187: September 11, 2009
by Mignon Fogarty
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, so since it's the beginning of the school year and some of you may be keeping a journal for the first time, it also seemed like a good time to cover the topic.
What Is a Writing Journal?
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 you “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 period of 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. 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 on a site like Blogger or Wordpress can be a safer way to keep this kind of journal as long as you don't use identifying information because it isn't something that 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 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 should unless you expect to defend the invention date in court.
Also, don't go back and edit your entries. This 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.
Your journal is primarily for writing, but there's no rule that says you couldn't also paste in pictures or draw photos. I've pasted things into my journal that I wrote on other pieces of paper when I didn't have my journal handy.
Can You Spend too Much Time Journaling?
Here's one question I've pondered: Can you spend too much time journaling? I've met people who say they spend at least an hour a day writing in a journal. For most writers I know, at least those who have families and jobs, one of the biggest challenges they face is finding time to write, to work on their book, or short stories, or blog. So when I hear of people spending so much time journaling, I wonder if it has become a procrastination tool.
If you're spending an hour every day on your journal, ask yourself why you aren't working an hour every day on a writing project that will get in front of readers. There may be times early in a project when you need to spend a lot of time fleshing out ideas, but just because you don't have an assignment doesn't mean you can't be working on writing that could become a project or could be read by real live people.
Finally, don't feel like you're a failure as a writer if you don't keep a journal. I've actually met people who feel guilty that they don't keep a journal. It's a great tool for some people, but if it doesn't work for you, don't worry about it. Maybe try it again in a year or two, but don't think you're somehow obligated to keep a journal just because you're a writer.
That's all. I'm Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestsellers Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and The Grammar Devotional. Thanks for listening.