#atozchallenge J is for the Writing Journal

There are so many kinds of journals for writers nowadays. And I’m not talking the physicality of them (notebook or digital), but the reasons or themes for the contents – why we actually journal.

Today’s post will simply list some of the reasons for keeping a journal.

Types of Journal Themes

I’m going to break down the writing journal into three types, for the sake of clarifying the content themes. In fact, I, and many other writers mix and match, or combine into one journal.

1. The Ideas, Exercises or Daily Journal – The Writing Journal

Mark Twain's Notebook (via Steal Like a Writer)
Mark Twain’s Notebook (via Steal Like a Writer)

This is the journal that most people think of when we say the words  “Writing Journal”. It’s the journal (or several) that we keep beside us, accessible at all times in case we catch an idea.

“I have notebooks everywhere. In my car, my bedside table,kitchen drawer,in every handbag I own.I’m sure if I put all of my notes together, there’s a book or ten in there :)“~ Trish Nugent – Commenting on the I for Ideas Inventory post yesterday.

Contents can include: morning pages/dump pages, daily dairy entries, dreams, ideas, snippets, conversations overheard, thoughts, free-writing, writing exercises or practice work, doodles, warm-up or practice writing, dreams, free-writing exercises…

2.The Writing Progress Journal or Log Book

Austin Kleon's daily writing log book (Via Steal Like a Writer)
Austin Kleon’s daily writing log book (Via Steal Like a Writer)

This journal is often combined with the above into an overall writing journal, but whereas the daily journal above is often associated with writing first thing, or for warm-up writing; the Writing Progress Journal is more for documenting the process of writing, and the entries are likely written after the writing session.

Includes: writing progress, what worked, what didn’t, writing gratitudes, writing moods, statistical data like wordcount, or hours spent writing.

3. The Project Journal

Journal_thumb.jpgFiction writers often talk of a ‘Story Bible1&2’ whereas the ‘Project Journal’ is more likely used for non-fiction.

These journals are specific to a writing project, and can be found often as a big ring-binder full of sections, or a computer file folder of several documents.

For a novel, the journal may include sections for : character and setting profiles, timelines, plot or scene planning, themes, research, and anything else relevant to the novel.

A non-fiction book may have: chapter topics, research, structuring plans, quotes, images etc.

Both types of project journals should include plans for publishing and promotion, cover art and the like.

Although sounding more like a repository for multiple documents – which they are – project journals also allow room for the planning out of these areas for the project, in written form. Goals, milestones and tasks sit well in project journals.

I also include wordcount per day, daily goals, and hours spent on the project within the project journal. Such data is helpful when trying to plan out a new project later on.


1 More names for the Story Bible – the Novel World Guidebook, Story Guide, Novel Guide, Novel Lexicon, Novel Reference Guide.

2 There is also a larger entity for novel series – the series bible will keep track of character and main events as they alter and move through the series.

Why Keep a Journal? And How Not?

Privacy and Planning and Therapy

Many who maintain a journal mention the therapeutic nature of keeping a journal, free-writing and working with our consciousness or opening ourselves to our sub-conscious. Therapists and psychologists often advice clients to take up journaling. Schools teaching writing and many other subjects often get their students to keep journals on the subject. Plus – it’s writing, right?

Nick Cave's notebook (via Steal like a Writer)
Nick Cave’s notebook (via Steal like a Writer)

Keeping a journal is a very personal thing, and no journal keeper is the same as the next. So saying that, every aspiring writer is advised to keep a journal because we are also told that biggest of writing maxims – “writers write”. Understandably, keeping a writing journal or a combination means we are writing (and no longer loaded with the unfortunate title of ‘aspiring’).

Journals are (normally) private, and therefore great for goal planning, and trying out things – experimenting and practicing to better our writing.

Procrastination, Excuses, and Personality Types

But there is an onus on writers to keep a journal, when for some – including me – the relationship with regular journaling is a tempestuous one. For years I felt guilty over not being able to keep at journaling. Whereas I struggle with daily journaling (and no longer do it), others struggle with moving on from the journal entirely –

I recently got off a teleconference shared with several aspiring writers, with my mouth agape. One lady, who spends her working days writing for six clients, couldn’t find the time to write for herself. Not even half an hour first thing in the morning? ‘No’, came the reply – she had to do her morning pages then.

The woman had been doing half an hour – at least three pages, of morning pages – religiously for thirty years. Wow, I thought, there’s a memoir in there, surely? When asked what she got out of her journaling, she admitted that the pages often made her feel awful, not refreshed, and all those journals over the years were thrown out once filled. However, when it was suggested she cut down by half, and use those saved 15 minutes for actually writing the book she was supposedly passionate about, the wall went up.

Journal-writing, for this lady, is a procrastination tool.  As can be writing blog posts (er, like this one), or spending many hours filling our journals with the results of writing exercises or prompts. On the other hand, she’s happy, and she’s writing in a very habitual way. And other writers may feel great success in their own journaling.

Extroverts vs Introverts

I mention below, that coincidentally I happen to be taking a journaling class this month (originally scheduled much earlier in the year) with journal tutor Mary O’Gara. I had planned this post out last month without the knowledge shared through Mary’s course.

This week Mary had participants take a Myers-Briggs online test. I’d previously taken these in my career, so although the findings have altered a little with changes in my life, it was no surprise to me that I came out as an introvert analyst.

It’s pretty well known that many creatives are introverted in nature. What may not be well known is that the Myers-Brigg original estimation that only about 25-30% of the population are introverts has been since changed – now up to 50% of our population can have an introvert preference in some situations.

My own Myers-Brigg type shares with many well-known literary personalities, plus Einstein. Happy face :-). However, these types of quizzes are pretty rudimentary – remember that all of us have functions of intuition, introversion, extroversion, feeling and thinking, and for certain work tasks, these traits differ.

My Daily Log - hand-written in Penultimate app, synched through to Evernote for digital storage.
My Daily Log – hand-written (on a tablet)  in Penultimate app, synched through to Evernote for digital storage.

Mary’s lesson was an epiphany for me, however. She gave two exercises – suggesting that extroverts would get on with free-writing journaling (perhaps timed writing) while introverted journalers love lists.

Mary suggests that:

  • Extroverted writers need to work with ideas, play around with them, and enjoy getting those ideas out into the public arena. Free-writing lets them explore those ideas and work on them.
  • Introverted writers may require more privacy, and like to plan, outline and organise. Mary also suggests that introverts as writers sometimes don’t enjoy critique groups and other public arenas for their writing.

I tried out both exercises Mary requested of me this week – I did some more free-writing, and continued with my new daily list journal. I don’t get on with to-do lists very well but I’ve recently found much more journaling success with simply using a daily list with one-sentence journaling to cover my work day. Like Austin Kleon’s example log diary (above), I now feel like I’ve found the key to a successful journaling life for myself. One of my recent days is shared with you to the right.

If you are still struggling with maintaining a journal (or unkeeping it, as I call it), re-assess your personality type (the online Myers-Briggs test is here – take the free Jung Typology Test, but remember, it’s rudimentary, and we all possess these traits) and try out the different types listed above and below. If you’re an introvert, try out listing types, if an extrovert, morning pages / dump pages or free-writing may be the way to go. Or you may, like most of us, enjoy a mix.

Different Types of Journaling.

One line a day journal
One line a day journal

Aside from the daily journaling often free-writing or stream-of-consciousness style, there are other options for those, like me, who don’t enjoy regular dairy-type journaling but want to have some form of documenting the day. Consider the following approaches: –

  • Use it to handwrite a story into – in To Journal, or Not to Journal—Now, THAT is the Writer’s Dilemma, Danielle Bannister admits she tried journaling for years, but now has found a use – she’s writing a novel into it.
  • One Sentence daily recaps – mentioned in Journaling for the Chronic Journal Abandoner.
  • Bullet Lists – this is what Roni Loren does in Journaling for the Chronic Journal Abandoner. And above, in Austin Kleon‘s daily writing log notebook, you will notice he does the same, just with doodles and things also. Nick Cave appears to have a similar listing technique.
  • Machine Gun Notes – in Roni’s post above, note Andy Shackcloth‘s comment. For recaps needing more, he uses a scattered word in clusters approach on the diary page.
  • The list / one sentence and machine gun clusters lend themselves easily to using our own handwriting / drawing in a nice physical journal, or using a note-taker app on mobile devices (such as Penultimate (now owned and supported into Evernote) or Paper by FiftyThree– which looks like a journal page). Combine with typed notes, and voice and sound recordings?

The Writer’s Core Habit Pack for The Journal

  1. Keep a journal or journals and write in: exercises, dump pages, plans, writing goals, writing progress, ideas, thoughts, quotes, snippets, writing learnings, warm-up exercises, free-writing… when and if we want.
  2. Be flexible with your journal – don’t follow taut rules like having to write daily in a journal if they don’t suit your needs, or contrarily, keep you from the real writing work, and producing a writing product.
  3. Never accept feelings of guilt over your usage – or not – of a writing journal. It’s a tool. Try them at different times. Try different types. See how you get on.
  4. Be mindful of not forming a procrastination habit around journaling – the successful writer keeps and uses the journal as a tool, on the path to a productive writing life – but journals don’t get to ‘keep’ the writer, right?

Points 3 & 4 are why I prefer the term ‘UnKeeping’ a Journal – using it as a tool that works for me.

Further Resources

  • Like digital journals? Easy Journaling is a website dedicated to journaling electronically, providing app reviews, tips and some ebooks on the subject.
  • Mary O’Gara is a writer and certified journal instructor who is currently doing a workshop entitled “Your Journal Your Way” available online via SavvyAuthors.com. The course offers many topics and ideas for writers who want to get more out of journaling, and I recommend it.
  • IAJWThe International Association for Journal Writing provides a lot of resources for members, including links for ebooks on the subject, and an affiliation with the LifeJournal 3 Software which has an addon specifically for writers.

AtoZ2013 _thumb

A-to-Z-Core-Habits3-_thumb.jpgThis blog post participated in April 2013’s Blogging from A to Z Challenge, along with many other blogs on subjects as diverse as writing, foodie blogs or mummy blogs.

This blog post is part of a themed series or pack on Writer’s Core Habits. I acronym this as WCH or WCHP © . Do a search for these tags, and you will find more in the series.

No affiliate links are used in these posts.

6 thoughts on “#atozchallenge J is for the Writing Journal

  1. Oh, yeah! I’m all about keeping a journal, although I’m slacking a bit this month thanks to the whole #AtoZblogchallenge. Even so, keeping a journal is a deeply engrained habit for me. When I fall behind, I get anxious, grouchy and depressed! ~Tui, #AtoZchallenge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s