Friday, 5 March 2010

A Writer's Journal - An Essential Tool

I did this as a guest post for Editing Hat. But I think it might be of interest to people on this blog too.

A writer’s journal can be an essential tool for any writer, at any stage, writing in any genre. I will share my views and experience on it, and I hope you will enjoy the post, perhaps find something useful, and share your views.

The Journal

Depending on your life style, it could either be a notebook, a binder or a computer. Though I think most people, except for the extreme hermits, would need a notebook of some kind when they are away from their computers.

I personally use a moleskine because I love the quality of their pages, sturdy covers, an elastic band around it to keep notes and things from falling out, and a back-pocket to keep more notes which I might have ended up scribbling somewhere else despite the best intentions to keep everything in one place. (When an idea occurs at work, I can’t very well take out my writing journal, so a hasty scribble on a post-it has to suffice)


You have a journal, but you don’t really want to go through the whole thing to find a page, or if you have been keeping them for a while, several of them. So basic organisation is necessary.

If you are using a binder, you can simply have dividers, and label each section – plot ideas, future project ideas, character notes, editing tips, new techniques learned, etc. You can have as many categories as you like. It has to work for you.

If you are using a PC, you can just keep separate files, or using excel, you can have a column where you add tags, so you can find items by that. Using things like y-writer or liquid story binder, you can have separate notes.

I keep two pages free for an Index at the front of my moleskine, and add to it as and when I have time. That way, I know exactly what’s on which page.

You could, in theory, keep separate journals for separate books, but remember that the objective here is flexibility. I don’t know about you, but my mind doesn’t always obey me when I say I want to think only about a specific book. So if I am carrying around a journal for Book 1, but my mind decides to bombard me with ideas for Book 2, then I am buggered. So I find it easier to keep just one writing journal. To make things easier for myself, besides having an Index, I also title each page clearly, usually in large letters, so just by flipping through it, I know what I am looking at.

I am personally of the opinion that keeping a hand-written journal is much better than a computer one. For one thing, you can just flip through your journal during a quiet moment, and might find ideas that you weren’t particular thinking of at the moment, whereas people don’t usually go around opening unneeded files on the PC.

What if you don’t have a journal?

In writing, or in any art, there are no necessities besides basic supplies. People wrote things before computers and type-writers, even before electricity. So obviously you can manage just fine without keeping a journal.

But keeping a journal could make things easier for you – and it could be an excellent record of your growth as a writer. Do you ever look at something what you wrote years ago, and wonder what the hell were you thinking? I certainly do. But what I don’t always remember is what did I know then? What techniques did I learn over time? How did I learn them?

Why is that of any use? You might say, once you know something that’s what matters. How you know it is irrelevant. Perhaps. But besides having a keen interest in understanding my own mind, this recording also tells me what works for me and what doesn’t.

I use my journal essentially to capture or explore ideas, rather than facts. I use it when I am trying to get to know a new character, work out kinks in a plot line, scribble new ideas that occur to me for novels I may or may not write.

I also use it to write things I learn about writing craft that resonate with me. Techniques I would like to refer to later, or inspirational quotes.

It’s my creative soundboard. It’s also something very tangible that shows me how far I have come, and on the days when either inspiration or motivation is low, there are plenty of ideas in there to mine.

How about you? Do you keep a writing journal? Would you give it a go?


  1. I like this post.

    I keep a daily journal (well, "daily") of life and I keep notebooks of story ideas. I, too, like to know how my mind works and sometimes I'll look up why I came up with that plot idea or character.

    It's fun and interesting and ends up giving me more ideas to play with.

    I 100% agree about flipping through a journal and seeing something you otherwise wouldn't vs. going through a computer folder with various files you wouldn't look at randomly.

    I see journals, notebooks, handwritten notes as the start or continuation of creativity, there's an aliveness there. Computers are after the fact, holding the ideas already formulated.

    I love ink and paper! (Or post-its. Or napkins. Backs of envelopes...)