Making the Most of Your Journal

by Brandi Reissenweber

Recently, I was going through some of my old writing journals, which are an intense and exploratory look at my development as a writer. I often used journals as a place to freewrite, jot down ideas, write about the fiction I'd been reading. Flipping through the pages, I can even see the evidence of where I'd gone back to those journals—notes in the margins and highlights of kernels that might turn into a story, or ideas I wanted to mull over with more intensity.

Today, I keep a more casual and loose journal and that softer touch works. It's come to serve a slightly different purpose in my process, one that suits my needs, now. Certainly, the journal is a different experience for each writer. Ron Carlson, in The Writer’s Journal discusses his own journaling, which started out as a shopping bag full of notes jotted on scraps of paper and evolved into a file folder of similar scraps that he occasionally types into a computer file called "Notes."

Whatever way you record your raw material, enact your explorations and experimentations, the process is an important one. Not only does it help us hone our craft, it also trains us to keep our writer's eye open and observing and to translate our experiences, emotions and imagination into words. And, it helps create additional ideas and writing. After all, writing begets writing. Whatever your approach—faithful daily journaling, casual journaling or a non-journaling appreciation of journal-like activities—I've compiled some ways you might enhance, organize or otherwise evolve in your own journals.

Keep a Project Journal

At a recent workshop I led in Venice, Italy, a participant brought a small leather bound journal to use during the weeklong workshop. She used it for the exercises we did in the workshop as well as for the writing she did on her own while there. Keeping a journal for that specific experience was a fantastic way to capture the work and the spirit of the week in a way that she can easily return to in the future.

Some writers keep a journal for each longer project they enter into. A novelist might keep a journal for one specific novel as a place to explore any of the concerns of that one project—character sketches, plot lines, structural organization, drafts of scenes, radical revisions of tricky moments. Everything relating to that project is in one place and there's not a lot of wading through other stuff to find what you need. I have a journal that, over time, has become the place where I keep notes from conferences and readings I attend. It helps me separate that type of information from the creative stuff of other notebooks.

Track your Progress

At a writing residency, I used a few minutes each evening to keep a daily log, which I broke into five small sections, documenting: 1) what I wrote, including the actual numbers of pages written and some harder to quantify craft issues, like accomplishing more dialogue in a story that needed it, 2) what I read, 3) progress on revisions, in terms of what I did that day and what still needed to be done, 4) a plan for the next day and, if appropriate the larger goals of the rest of the residency, and 5) thoughts, in general, of how the day went. It took only five or so minutes in the evening and it allowed me to stay focused on what I wanted to accomplish and to stay on track. This could be a useful tool for writers struggling to maintain a consistent writing schedule or to focus on a particularly tricky writing project.

Do Random Exercises

Exercises are a great way to get your creativity flowing. They help you think outside your own ruts and start from a point that isn't familiar and, as a result, can cause you to go in some interesting directions. Exercises are also a fantastic way to work on your craft, isolating an element and experimenting within the framework of a shorter passage.

If you're feeling beyond exercises, take this into account: Tim Gautreaux's story, "Good For the Soul," which appeared in the Best American Stories of 2000 came out of an exercise he initiated. He had some free time coming up and so he asked his wife for a story idea. She gave him the basic idea—a priest who has a problem with alcohol—and he took it from there. If you're looking for good collections of exercises, check out Beth Joselow's Writing Without the Muse.

Reread Your Own Journal

Many times, writers don't take the time to go back through their journals. A writer might run with a spark created while writing, but dismiss the other entries because they didn't come to anything immediately. You may find that you connect with something after you've written it in a way that you didn't in the moment you wrote it.

Read Other Writers' Journals

We read fiction to see how it's done and to gather additional tools for our own practice. The same can be useful of other writers' journals. These, of course, aren't always terribly easy to track down and you'll have to stick to those that have been published or made available at libraries. (Talk to a librarian in the rare book or special collections section of a library to learn about specific library holdings of original diaries or journals.)

Some collections of journals and diaries that have been published are Sylvia Plath's The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac's The Windblown World, Anais Nin's Nearer the Moonand Fire, and Henry David Thoreau's Journal of Henry David Thoreau.

Collections of letters can also be useful, like The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis and Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote.

This article originally appeared in Letterpress.