I’m a big fan of journaling, or what I call writing practice, and I’ve been doing it for more years than I care to tell you about. When I saw this topic come up in The Book Editor Show queue, I was excited to share my experience.
While thinking about this post, I wondered, why don’t more people take advantage of this practice? The usual reasons came to mind: time and energy. I get that. We all have a day job or hefty production schedule, children, elderly parents, or something that demands our attention. When you make time to write, you need to focus on your work in progress to the exclusion of other frivolous activities, right? I think it’s important to spend time wisely, which is why I suggest that you invest in journaling.
The 30 minutes I spend journaling is as valuable as the time I spend working directly on a project. It feeds my life, creativity, and work. It creates energy and helps me make better use of my time.
Perhaps you’ll agree that journaling is helpful when you plan a story. That’s the creative part of a project. But what about when it’s time to revise? (If you say that editing is not a creative endeavor, I’ve got to quibble with you. But that’s for another day.) When I’m in the middle of a developmental edit and realize that I need to replace a scene, it helps to explore several iterations to see what will work best. I also use journaling in the copyediting phase to find the precise word or phrase that is just outside my awareness, teasing me but not coming close enough to grab. A few minutes of writing usually yields a great result.
Unstructured writing stimulates creativity for your work and problem solving. When you allow your mind to wander and record what arises, you’ll stumble upon things you otherwise would have missed. New ideas, solutions, and perspectives.
There are three main ways that I’ve used journaling in my life: morning writing, recording events, and problem solving. Here’s how they work in practice.
Although Julia Cameron made morning pages famous, other creatives, including Dorothea Brande, have recommended that people write as soon as they roll out of bed. In the space between sleep and being fully awake, we collect rich thoughts and ideas that our censor, if he were fully present, would proclaim silly, impractical, and wrong. Within your morning pages you might fall in love with horses again, realize that your protagonist wouldn’t make that choice, or realize that the goal you’ve been pursuing is your mother’s dream, not yours.
Apply it: Set your alarm for 15 to 30 minutes earlier than you normally get up. Keep your notebook and pen or laptop near your bed and start writing as soon as you wake. Don’t worry if it makes no sense or if you’re complaining about the same old things. Repeat every day for a month. At the end of that time, go back through your writing. Highlight (or copy and paste into a new document) anything that intrigues you, thoughts or ideas that come up often, and solutions to problems.
I began recording the weekly events of my life in my tenth grade English class. The teacher had us write whatever we wanted for the first ten minutes of class every Monday. Mostly I recounted what had happened over the weekend, my big upsets, and things I was looking forward to. Pretty mundane stuff. But this weekly ritual created the habit of writing things down that I could return to. I could reflect and make sense of what was happening, which was helpful during that turbulent time.
Apply it: At the end of each day for a month, write four sentences: One thing you accomplished during the day, one problem you solved or didn’t, one thing you learned, and your intention for the next day. At first it may be hard to think of something for each topic, but keep trying. It’s the mental equivalent of a muscle; it needs to be exercised. And hey, no judgment if the thing you learned was that your cat doesn’t like his belly rubbed. Whatever comes up, write it down. Review after a month’s time. What are your big takeaways? What are you most proud of? What would you like to change?
When we think through a problem and we’re not recording our thoughts, we might prematurely disregard a great solution or the idea that would lead to it. We can’t yet see how it might work, or it’s unconventional to us, and it becomes lost. When you write it all down, you can review and reconsider. But it helps to practice to make the ideas flow more easily. Thankfully, big and small problems present themselves every day. Pick one and write about it.
Apply it: Schedule a time every day to write for 15 to 30 minutes on some problem or challenge you have, whether it’s writing related or not. If you don’t know where to start, state the problem, write one of the prompts below, and follow where your mind leads. Each prompt is designed to reveal a different angle of the problem so that you open your mind to what’s possible instead of what you’ve always done.
The annoying thing about this problem is …
The best thing about this problem is …
Everything I know about this problem is …
Everything I don’t know about this problem is …
Your Mission for the Week
Pick one of the activities listed above and do it for a month. Choose a time, set a reminder, and do it no matter what. Write for the entire time you’ve scheduled, and if something exciting or scary or irritating comes up, add five more minutes and keep going. Practice pushing through your big emotions, boredom, and resistance. At the end of the month, assess what you’ve learned. Do you need to tweak the practice or add to it? How can you make it fit you and your work even better?
Do you have a journaling practice that works for you? Tell me about it, or the option you’re going to try for a month, in the comments below.
Leslie Watts is an editor, author, blogger, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: a magazine about cats in sixth grade, staff writer for her college newspaper, editor-in-chief of her law journal, and journaling while writing for an appellate judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com with her writer pal. She lives in Austin, Texas with two rambunctious kids and her patient husband.