Keeping a journal is a good way to practice writing and develop the habit of writing every day.
How Journalling Can Make You a Better Writer
Many writers say that it is important to write every day. But not everyone is in the middle of a writing project; if you’ve written a novel, you may be in the process of revising it, waiting for edits, or even promoting it, so it may be hard to get to work on your next project.
But you can keep a journal. You can write, daily, of your experiences and feelings. You can write character sketches of people you meet and impressions of places you visit. You can write micro-fiction, poetry, and unstructured texts. Your journal can be a repository for your thoughts and ideas, and you can use it to flex your writing muscles.
Through the centuries, many people have written journals, or diaries, about what they did, who they met, and thoughts they had. These journals were sometimes private, but often shared with friends and family, just as letters were passed around.
Journals and diaries are historical records, and many famous journals and diaries have become beloved literary works. The duc de Saint-Simon kept accounts of the goings on of the court of Louis XIV, and his Memoirs have become a much loved text, both for their history, and for the way they captured court life of 17th century France. Samuel Pepys’ Diaries tell the story of mid–17th century England, and he was a witness to the plague and the Great Fire of London. His narratives about these events are as riveting as novels. Ralph Waldo Emerson kept a long journal that he called his “Savings Bank.” He used the journal to write out his thoughts in preparation for lectures and essays, but also filled it with the day-to-day events that moved him. And the Goncourt brothers’ Journal relates French literary and political life in the second half of the 19th century. The brothers started their journal in December 1851, on the day their first co-written novel was published, which also happened to be the day that that Louis-Napoleon launched a coup d’état, that led to the imposition of martial law in Paris.
Why you should keep a journal
The most important reason to keep a journal is that it helps you develop the habit of writing daily. Don’t set a word count target; just write. You can write first thing in the morning, or sometime later in the day, depending on when you feel best primed. You can write on the go, during your lunch break, or whenever you feel you have something to jot down.
Your journal can be where you practice, where you do your “writing scales,” where you try out new techniques and voices. You can be as messy or as florid as you want: it is your safe space, where you can write what you want without being judged.
While it can be a simple diary, telling of what you did and where you went, a journal can also be much more than that. You can use your journal also to store brief ideas, impressions, episodes, and even drafts to use later in a story or novel.
If you’re working on dialog, you could write out a scene of something that occurred during your day, perhaps trying to capture different rhythms and speaking styles. If you’re developing characters for stories or novels, you can write brief character sketches of people you meet and interact with. These may serve as fodder for other works. When you need a character to do something specific in a story or novel, you may recall one you sketched in your journal, and you can go back and get inspiration from that text.
You may not plan to publish your journals, as some of the above did while they were writing, but Emerson’s idea of using a journal as a “savings bank” is quite practical. Sometimes you have ideas that don’t fit in a story or novel, and it’s a shame to let them pass by without taking note of them. Jot them down in your journal; you never know when you’ll come back to them. Entries in your journal can serve as a source of inspiration for future writing projects.
Your journal can also be a commonplace book, a place where you store your favorite quotes, ideas, links to websites, pictures, and more. Your journal can be your second brain, which you can return to when you want to find something that you noted months or years before.
Scrivener is an ideal tool for journaling. In Journaling with Scrivener, we explained how to set up a Scrivener project to keep a journal. You can create folders in the Binder for years and months, and create a new file for each journal entry. Or you could create just one folder each year, with files for each month. You can start a new file each day, or you can continue writing in your monthly file.
When you want to go back and find something in your Scrivener journal, you can either browse the year or month in the Binder, or use Scrivener’s search feature to zero in on what you’re looking for.
Journaling can helps you organize thoughts and ideas, making it easier to develop cohesive writing projects. Writing observations and experiences can hone your ability to describe details effectively, and keep you in the habit of writing. And, above all, entries in your journal can serve as germs for future writing projects.
Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.