Writers are collectors of ideas, and where do we keep them? On scraps of paper, napkins, the notes app of our phones, and sometimes in journals. But as anyone who's started a journal can attest, sometimes it's hard to begin and even harder to keep one going. So how do you write a journal? Let's look at some simple ways to start capturing ideas.
There are a number of ways to capture ideas, from keeping a gratitude journal, to a reading journal, to a project journal. No matter what type of journal you keep, let me share with you some tips from my journaling experience for how to keep a journal.
Click here to download our free calendar of journaling prompts.
Download Free Prompts Here
4 Advantages of Keeping a Journal
Julia Cameron, acclaimed author of The Artist's Way and more recently a 6-week program outlined in a book called Write for Life, begins the writing and artistic life with a practice she calls morning pages. In essence, she suggests writing three pages each morning to explore ideas and life, and to clear the mind.
The benefits of journaling this way are numerous. Writers who establish regular journaling time may find it helps them clear their minds and explore new ideas.
There are many reasons why it is a good idea to keep a journal. I want to share four big reasons this daily habit may help you with your writing process and develop your writing skills.
1. Remember details
When I traveled to Europe in 1978, I kept a journal of my daily life. I have notes from the trip to Greece where I wiped out on a moped, weeded sugar beets on Kibbutz Reshafim in Israel, and hitchhiked through occupied territory in the south of Israel.
There were several details of my trip that I had completely forgotten until I re-read my personal journals.
December 16th, 1978
Walking to the orchard from the kibbutz the sun was so hot I stopped and just listened to the silence. (Walking I could hear stones crunch) I had to take off my sweater the sun was so intense.
Recording the details of your life can enrich your stories. One year when for The Spring Writing Contest at The Write Practice, I wrote a story about when the IRS called me to say I owed money.
In my first draft, I wrote that the amount they said I owed was, $638 dollars. After I had completed the first draft I went back to the notes I had written in my journal, and the correct amount was over six thousand dollars: $6,846.48 to be exact. Well, maybe there are some things we don't want to remember.
Thankfully, I didn't send the money. It wasn't the “real” IRS. But it was even better than a writing prompt for a story idea.
“People who keep journals have life twice.” —Jessamyn West
2. Find old friends
Keeping a journal can help you find old friends. One of the women I met on November 26th, 1978, wrote down her address. I found her on Facebook and just sent her a message. (Social media and Google can also help, but the journal did remind me of her name.)
We'll see if she responds to my Facebook message. It has been almost forty years since she lent me a pair of gloves when I scraped my hand on the pavement when I fell off my moped.
3. Help process feelings and ideas
When you keep thoughts in your head it can be hard to know how you think and feel. Writing down how you feel will help you process your emotions, as feelings become words, which can be then be edited.
That expressive writing can be therapeutic, but it can also help you flesh out characters later.
4. Preserve the writer's history
When you are dead and a famous writer, your journals will give your readers insight into your life, thoughts, and process.
You may never sell more than one hundred copies of your book, you may never publish your writing, or your journals may only be read by the mice that crawl through your basement. Or your journals will be read by zombies after the zombie apocalypse, sharing insight into your life and daily routines.
If you don't want anyone to read your journal, keep it in a locked box and swallow the key. (Please don't really swallow the key. It would be unpleasant to have to find it again, and you might choke.) Put the key in a safe spot, and then remember where you put it.
6 Tips for How to Write a Journal
Now you know why journaling can be helpful. But how should you journal? It is very personal, and you should do what works best for you. But I will give you some tips to help you get started on a journaling practice.
1. Choose your kind of journal
You have several options for how to keep your journal.
A book, where you write with a pen or pencil onto paper: Write in a book that is not so pretty you are afraid to write in it. Keep the size small enough you don't mind carrying it in your messenger bag, and big enough you can read your handwriting. Do not try journaling at night when the only paper you have on your bedside table is a bandaid. The next morning I couldn't read my writing on the band-aid, and the idea I wanted to journal was lost.
The advantage of pen to paper is you can write without having to be plugged into an electronic device. You don’t have to worry about a dead battery, and you can write even when the sun is bright or the airline makes you turn off your electronic devices.
The disadvantage to a paper journal is if you lose the journal and you didn’t make a copy of it, you have lost all of the writing. But either way, the journal writing helps you pay attention and record the moments of everyday life that will fade with time otherwise.
Software: There are several software applications on the market you can use to keep a digital journal. Be sure they sync to the cloud, as you don’t want to lose your entries because you fry your computer's hard-drive.
Journey and Day One can add photographs and text, and export all of your entries into a PDF. You can also journal in Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or Scrivener and save your files to a cloud-based program that will keep your files safe if you lose your computer or pour water on your keyboard.
2. Date your entry
You think you will remember when it happened, but without a written date, you might forget. Make it a part of your journal writing routine to date the entry.
3. Tell the truth
The journal is a record of how you felt and what you did. Telling the truth will make you a reliable storyteller.
If you haven’t cleaned the seven litter boxes for a week, don’t write that you clean them every day simply because you want your readers one hundred years from now to think you had good habits. The beauty of journal writing is that you can record things honestly for yourself that you might not otherwise record or share.
4. Write down details
Record details like the time, location, who you were with, and what you were wearing. Details will help bring the memory alive when you record using your five senses.
To this day, if I smell a certain kind of Japanese soup, I can remember vividly the day I flew to Korea to renew my Japanese visa, only to discover the Japanese embassy was closed for a traditional Japanese holiday.
5. Write down what you felt
What you were thinking? Were you mad? Sad? Happy? Write down why.
6. Write a lot or a little
A journal entry doesn’t have to be three pages long. It can be a few words that describe what happened, a few sentences about the highlight of your day, or it can be a short description of an event from your day, where you describe details to help you remember what happened. What time of day was it? What sound do you remember?
Your journal entry might be a drawing, a poem, or a list of words or cities you drove through. It is your journal, and you have the freedom to be creative.
You can use journal writing prompts or simply tap into a memory that floats into your mind.
Bonus tip: How to write a journal entry
Aside from the date, you can write your journal entry in a number of ways. You can write stream-of-consciousness, you can use various art materials, or any form that speaks to you. Try a list or a mix of writing and doodling, or even dialogue exchanges.
The most important thing is just to take the journaling time and make a regular habit of it, even if it isn't on a daily basis. The words will show up when you do.
When to Journal
There is no right or wrong time to write in a journal. Write when you will remember to do it. Do you always brush your teeth before you go to bed? Have writing in your journal be part of your bedtime routine. Perhaps put it on your bedside table, or beside your hammock, or on the floor beside your futon.
If you are a morning person, consider keeping your journal on the table where you drink your morning coffee, tea, water, milk, or orange juice.
These are only suggestions. You don’t have to write down your feelings or why you felt a certain way. I hate being told what to do. Even if it is a good idea. But I hope you'll give it a try and see if you find it unlocks your own writing.
Do you write in a journal? Why is keeping a journal a valuable practice? Please tell us in the comments.
Click here to download our free calendar of journaling prompts.
Download Free Prompts Here
Do you write in a journal? Do you think writing in a journal is a good idea for a writer, or a bad idea? Please tell us why in the comments.
Write for fifteen minutes about some aspect of your day as though you were writing in a journal. Your journal entry might be a drawing, a poem, a list of words, or a list of cities you drove through.
Please share your writing in the Pro Practice Workshop here and leave feedback on someone else’s practice today. We learn by writing and by reading.