It’s a piece of advice that has popped up time and time again: Writers should keep journals and diaries. I had several professors tell me to do this, saying that I should keep a personal journal for myself as well as create fictional ones for each of my main characters (a topic that will be covered in a future post). Geoff Dyer says to do it, adding that his biggest regret as a writer is not keeping a journal or diary. But why? Why would daily journaling be a good habit for writers to have? Isn’t it just something you do when you’re feeling a little bit angsty and need to rant or whine about something or someone in a place where no one (hopefully) will find out?
First of all, yes, journals and diaries can be an outlet for ranting or writing out melodramatic “oh woe is me” whining sessions that would make Shakespeare proud, and sometimes this is the best place for these things. I use my personal journal for this purpose more often than I’d care to admit. However, this is not the only way a journal or diary can be used. It can also be used to foster your writing and help you hone your craft, *if* you use it correctly and don’t just treat it like your shrink.
Here is my rational for why journaling on a daily (or semi-daily) basis is beneficial for writers:
- You write a little bit every day. Lets be honest. It can be hard to get in the habit of writing every day. If you’re like me, you need the external motivation (i.e., the deadline) to really get yourself going, and without that you tend to go “Oh well I’m not really in a ‘creative mental space’ today, I’ll just work on it tomorrow when I’m feeling more creative.” And sure, there are days when the words just aren’t going to come for whatever reason, but more often than not if you actually sit yourself down and start writing, the words will flow. Journaling is an easy way to do this, because there’s very little pressure involved in this type of writing. It doesn’t matter what you write, just write something! And then once you get in the groove, move on to whatever piece you’re working on right now.
- Writing in a private journal/diary means no editors or critics, including yourself. With journaling, you’re not writing anything that will ever see the light of day (unless you want it to), which means that you don’t need to worry about it ever being edited or critiqued by *anyone.* This includes yourself, by the way. The most effective journaling I’ve done has been when I turn off that pesky self-critic I have in my brain that’s always nagging at me, going “why the hell are you a writer, this is crap.” Shut that self-critic up and just let the words flow on the page. You can always let her talk again when you’re working on your other pieces.
- You have the freedom to experiment in a safe environment. This is tied into not worrying about critics: by not worrying about anyone seeing what you’re writing, you can literally do whatever you want. Play around with phrasings, structure, content, anything you feel like. Let your imagination run wild, and don’t worry if some of your experiments don’t work out. That’s the natural process of experimentation. And besides, what does it matter if there are a few duds here and there? It’s not like anyone’s going to see them.
- You get to write what you want. This is another handy perk of nobody reading your journal: you can write *literally* whatever you feel like writing. This is a very liberating thing, because it frees you up to write about people or subject matters that you wouldn’t normally write about for fear of judgment or hurting someone’s feelings and/or pissing someone off. You can also write about things that you’ve personally been thinking about or things you’ve been dealing with that maybe you’ve felt uncomfortable sharing with others.
- Sometimes you find material for your stories. Now, I personally don’t think you should approach journaling thinking that you’ll be able to use it as a means to get content for your stories. Rather, I think it should be a safe outlet to play around with your writing and your thoughts and keep in the practice of writing on a regular basis. That said, every once in a while you’ll write something down in your journal/diary that just *works.* Maybe it’s an event or situation that you find might be the basis for a story or a scene within a story, or maybe it’s just a nice turn of phrase that you want to recycle in your other creative work. Either way, when this happens (and this *will* happen, by the way) don’t be afraid to use it!
At the end of the day, the whole point of journaling for writers is to practice their writing on a regular basis, even if all that comes of it is this: