The time for New Year’s resolutions has come and gone. Why are we talking about journaling now? Because, as a writer, you’ve probably noticed that it’s a fad on Instagram and contemplated joining in. Maybe you even started a journal but couldn’t keep it going.
Journaling is hip and artsy and soothing. But it’s also time consuming, requires discipline, and seems pointless (beyond the obvious cool factor). Journaling intrigued me, but I straddled the fence for years, unsure why it was worth my time, what I would even say, and how to fit it into my schedule. If you’re wrestling the same doubts, I hope to show you that journaling is a beneficial, feasible, and even enjoyable habit for writers.
1. Why Journal
I wanted to journal. That’s where it began. But I’m a guy—guys don’t grab a handful of colorful pens and unabashedly pour their musings into a notebook, you know. Plus, I was too busy. At least, those were the flimsy excuses I leaned on.
Then, at a writer’s workshop in KC, Nadine Brandes presented a session on incorporating real-life experiences into our stories. One of her top recommendations? You guessed it. Journal. About this time, one of my best friends mentioned that she’d been filling up a line-a-day journal and loved it.
Fast forward to last July, and I’m at the bookstore standing in front of the journal shelves. I bring a shiny blue one home a little bashfully, not yet ready to announce my new hobby to the world. I still don’t understand why I hanker to journal. But I’m excited, and on the first page I accidentally scrawl some inspired words: “I can’t wait to see what secrets these pages contain.”
That’s the purpose of journaling in a nutshell. I write words and reveal secrets. Sometimes about me, sometimes about the world I live in. The secrets I’ve discovered in my journal have shaped my life the past few months.
Distractions abound in our hectic society, and thinking is difficult with all the noise. (I won’t finish this speech. You’ve heard it.) God gave humans minds with the ability to produce brilliant ideas, tantalizing questions, and even (occasionally) accurate answers. When I sit down with my journal and a pen, the distractions around me fade, and my mind grinds out interesting thoughts, which become the secrets hidden among the pages.
But wait, journaling boasts even more advantages!
Writers are told to be authentic and “flow onto the page,” but I struggled to grasp what that meant until I tried journaling. Journaling stimulates an unobstructed stream of thought. I’m not worrying about plot holes, character inconsistencies, and passive verbs. Yes, my journal entries are messy. But they are me. I don’t filter, beautify, or tame my thoughts. I put them on paper.
After developing my journaling habit, my characters’ internal monologues improved. Jotting down my own reflections enabled me to write those parts more realistically.
What were your teen years like? How did you express confusion, depression, and euphoria? When you saw mountains for the first time, how did you describe them? How did you cope with your first move and your first love?
Some events happen so rapidly that you miss them. Others (like growing up) are so gradual that you’re oblivious to the changes until you look back. Writers need to be able to articulate these feelings and states of being. But will you remember them vividly after ten years have passed? Your journal will become a databank to pull from when you need to capture an old experience in your novel.
When you’re writing a novel, sometimes you need a diversion. To vent frustration that doesn’t belong in your middle-grade fantasy. To use modern slang that’s incongruous with your historical drama. Journaling allows you to follow these whims and return to your project refreshed.
2. What to Put in a Journal
Have you ever opened a journal entry with “Today I did…”? That gets tedious quickly, doesn’t it? When I was younger, I didn’t realize that a journal could be a powerful tool or how to tap its potential. As a result, my journal became boring, repetitive, and (eventually) dusty.
Daily status reports are not an effective strategy for learning about yourself and the world around you. You need to delve deeper. I’ve catalogued five ideas to start you off, but ultimately your journal has to be yours, so feel free to add a topic or disregard my suggestions entirely.
About a year ago, some friends and I began sharing five things we’re grateful for each night. Maybe that seems cliché, but if you search for little blessings every day, your outlook will brighten. I record most of my lists in my journal, where I can revisit them to gauge the parts of life I draw the most satisfaction from.
I like to ramble in my journal about broad concepts and values that I can’t wrap my mind around. Friendship is a favorite. I’ll scribble a thought like “A friend made me really happy by ____.” Then I ask a question: “Why do these random people affect us so much?” The answers I come up with are usually wordy and unprofound, but sometimes I mine a nugget that can be turned into novel content.
Who is important in your life? How does your grandpa make you smile? How does your spouse encourage you on hard days? Is your brother thoughtful in ways that you don’t usually notice? If you spend time writing about the people close to you, you’ll cherish them more and be better equipped to portray similar relationships in your novels.
What am I even doing with my life? Before I bought my journal, I rarely dwelt on that question, but now it’s a discussion I frequently have with myself. Outlining your goals and the reasons behind them will help you determine whether you’re headed in the right direction and taking the steps to get there.
Random but Meaningful Memories
I still don’t recommend focusing on your daily activities, but magic often appears in seemingly insignificant moments. Shortly after buying my journal, I was hauling the trash out and noticed a car parked at the end of our driveway. When I approached, the elderly couple smiled and introduced themselves as the people who built our house. We had a short conversation, and I invited them in, but they politely declined. Later, as I glanced at the mess of weeds in our front lawn, I wondered if they were happy with our upkeep of their house. Then I thought about God’s earth and how we damaged it. It was an unexpected occurrence and thought train, so I decided to journal it. Even though that happened months ago, I remember it in detail. Those kinds of snapshots can provide material for believable scenes and settings in a novel.
3. How to Balance Journaling and Life
Maybe I’ve convinced you that journaling has merits. But your writing time is devoted to your novel, and your agenda is packed. How can you find time to explore your thoughts? Here are a few quick and dirty tips:
- Don’t commit to journaling every day. If you have to catch up after skipping, you’ll feel reluctant. Writing when you can is enough.
- Place your journal in a prominent place so you won’t forget about it and will pick it up to write in it regularly.
- Make a point of journaling when you’re faced with tough choices. If you record your thought process, you’ll be able to review it when doubts creep in.
- Fill your journal with whatever is on your mind instead of adhering to a system. Don’t limit yourself to a page per entry or try to organize topics by sections. Writing (or doodling) is easier when your thoughts can leap directly onto the page.
- Journal when you don’t have access to your computer, such as before bed or while you’re running errands. Better yet, purposefully keep your computer out of reach at those times.
- Journal when your eyes can’t stand to stare at a screen anymore. Have the blood veins in your eyes ever popped after a day of writing at the computer? Mine have. Get your eyes real paper to look at for a change and they’ll thank you (by hurting less).
- Have fun. Fact: You’ll do it more if you enjoy it.
Are You a Journalizer?
Now you’ve read my story, skimmed my tips and tricks, and know (some of) the benefits of journaling. But are you going to start?
If you want to say yes but are intimidated, let me confess something: I’m not a life-long journalizer. Since I started my journal last summer, I’ve written about thirty pages covering twenty different days. I’m no expert. I don’t spend all my time doing this.
Yet journaling has changed my life. I have a process for making hard decisions. I’m more thankful. I’ve written short stories driven by an internal narrative voice I didn’t realize I was capable of creating.
Journaling doesn’t have to be complicated or momentous or overwhelming. All you need is a pen and paper. Where’s your notebook?
“Well, I’m back.” The emotion those words spark in Lord of the Rings fans across the world perfectly describes how Brandon feels on a daily basis when he finishes writing and starts working on homework. (Yes, writing comes first.) His fictional worlds, where the suns never set and Rutel is Servant-Lord of the Sky, leave him wanting more…but unfortunately life is still a thing. When Brandon can’t hang out in Faërie, he fills his time with normal mortal things like homework, work, friends, (oxford commas) and family. He enjoys backyard football (or any sport), board games, English country dancing, and reading. He doesn’t particularly enjoy (but still spends time) driving, doing math, and waiting for YouTube ads to end.
Brandon enjoys writing-related-but-still-not-actually-writing activities including critiquing, outlining, and updating his blog, The Woodland Quill. Some of his favorite books (there are too many to list) are The 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson, Look and Live by Matt Papa (warning: nonfiction), and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. (Due to his Lord of the Rings reference at the beginning of this blurb, he’s not going to bring that pinnacle of literary genius up again, although he probably should and sort of just did.)
Brandon lives on the Nebraska plains, where the people don’t actually live in teepees but do plant as much corn as the stereotypes suggest. His wonderful family keeps him somewhat grounded in reality, his friends keep his extroverted personality from imploding while he’s writing, and his ice cream keeps him…happy.
Poor ice cream.