7 Reasons Why Every Writer Should Journal

I have three physical journals and one electronic journal. I also use the Notes application on my iPhone to write thoughts and observations down if I’m caught journal-less. The three journals are all pocketsize so I can take them everywhere. The first journal is for quotes, life lessons and realisations I pick-up throughout the day. The second is for story ideas, snatches of dialogue and observations. I like to keep the first journal positive so it can inspire and uplift me on those darker days but the second journal is ‘anything goes’. The third journal serves less as a conventional journal and more as a to-do list. If I remember something I have to do it goes in the journal. There’s an interesting article on Lifehack that suggests a link between writing and remembering, so if it boosts my memory all the better. The electronic journal I use is The Five Minute Journal. It self-describes as “a toothbrush for your mind: do it every morning and every night to have a clear and positive mind”. While I’m not sold on the toothbrush analogy I am sold on The Five Minute Journal as a great tool for gratitude, affirmations and positively starting your day (I recommend completing The Five Minute Journal before any social media or email engagement). But enough about my personal journaling and more on why every writer should journal.

An Instant Bank of Story Ideas and Characters

Whether you’re recording observations, writing about personal experiences or just capturing story ideas, you’re collating a story bank of ideas and characters. When Graham Joyce was asked at a This Is Horror event about which parts of his fiction were taken from reality and which his imagination, he said the bits you’d guess are made-up really happened and the more mundane details are fictitious. That’s to say there are some pretty crazy things that happen in real life. One only needs to pick up an Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, or for that matter William Burroughs’ non-fiction works and letters, to see that life can be strange. As can our thoughts. So record everything, even the stuff you think is mundane, because it might be the dose of mundanity your story needs.

If you struggle with a daily writing routine this is a great way to guarantee you’re writing something.

The Just-In-Case Approach

Leading on from the above, write everything down on the off-chance you might need it. What might be a throwaway line of dialogue from a stranger could transform into an entire story. A scene in the park can escalate fast in your imagination just by asking, what’s that person’s story or how did they arrive at this point in their life?  

And let’s face it, with a bank of story ideas and ‘just-in-case’ thoughts captured, the notion of writer’s block is gone. You might find yourself blocked or creatively stuck on one piece of work but you have a well of ideas to drink from.  

Write Every Day and Become a Better Writer

If you struggle with a daily writing routine this is a great way to guarantee you’re writing something. Sure it might not be deep, creative work. It may not be your magnum opus but practice is important. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he asserts it takes ten thousand hours to achieve mastery in a discipline. Practice might not make perfect, but it’ll help make you a better and more competent writer.

Monitor Your Progress

The great thing about journaling is you can look back on your own life, memories and thoughts. Not only can you observe how you’ve evolved and improved as a writer but you can see how you’ve grown as a human being. In some ways this is sentimental, but observing changes in yourself and your views can help shape your fiction and characters. Just as a difference in opinion between friends may challenge you in a political, religious or any other contentious debate, so can a difference in your own opinions. You can ask why your views have changed, what led you to this point, why did past-you think differently? By all means monitor your progress and look back fondly (or not so fondly), but also use this as a tool to challenge yourself and your characters.

Cathartic and Meditative

There’s something cathartic about inking your thoughts onto the page to make sense of what’s inside your head. You can deal with anxiety, frustration, anger and all that bad stuff (that makes great story fodder). But this isn’t only about journaling as therapy (though there’s a good case for it). Journaling is a great problem solving kit, even if the problem is simply understanding and dissecting your own thoughts and opinions. It will help you mentally declutter and become more mindful. To understand yourself more.

This may sound a little woo-woo, but recording your thoughts helps release them so they’re not running circles inside your head. Couple journaling with meditation and you’re well on your way to some serious mental decluttering. And with so many voices, so many characters, competing for our attention, mental clarity is welcome.

Similarly, Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, recommends Morning Pages. The idea is to begin the day by simply writing three pages, stream-of-consciousness, onto the page. It’s a clearing exercise that helps purge thoughts that might otherwise cloud and interfere with the creative process. Julia describes it as “the bedrock tool of creative recovery” and you can hear her talk about it on her website.

Keep A Longstanding Tradition Alive

Diaries, journals and personal musings have been going for a long time. One of the oldest in-print is Meditations, a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 121 to 180 AD. In Japan Sei Shōnagon wrote The Pillow Book during the 990s and early 1000s in Heian Japan. The text focuses on her time as a court lady and includes poetry, musings, interesting events in court and opinions on her contemporaries.

Keep the tradition alive and don’t feel restricted by rules as to what you can and cannot write in your journal. Write whatever you like, create your own rules, and then break your own rules. It’s your journal, use it as you please and to your own advantage.

All These Writers Kept Journals  

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.

—Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde is one of many renowned authors who kept journals: Virginia Woolf, C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Franzen, Sylvia Plath, Ray Bradbury, Franz Kafka to name a few. Goodness, if there’s strength in numbers check out Wikipedia’s list of diarists. Of course I’m not saying, hey these writers kept journals and were successful so you keep a journal and success will come to you, too. Sorry, folks. But keeping a journal won’t hurt your chances of success and on the basis of all those who have and do keep journals you’ll be in damn good company.  

Helpful Tools  

As I mentioned at the outset I use three pocketsize moleskine journals and The Five Minute Journal app and have no reservation in recommending you do the same.

If you’re looking for a traditional electronic journal I encourage you to check out Penzu. You can download Penzu straight to your phone or tablet but you can also use it on your computer. What’s great is your journal entries sync up, so you can start an entry on one medium and move onto another. The basic version of Penzu is completely free and there are premium versions, too. One of the cool things about Penzu is if you’re at a loss as to what to write about you can click the ‘prompts’ button. Prompts include “What does the colour green remind you of?” “Was there anything in your day that made you exhausted?” and even quotes like “Great and good are seldom the same man”—Winston Churchill. Add to this the ability to tag entries, password protect your journal, and a great looking interface, and it’s clear to see why Penzu is popular.

Day One is another good looking electronic journal app. I’ve yet to use it but I’ve heard good things.

Do you keep a journal? If so what tools do you use? If not, are you willing to try it for thirty days and see if it helps improve your writing and mental clutter? See you in the comments.

Michael David Wilson

Column by Michael David Wilson

Michael David Wilson is the founder of the popular UK horror website, podcast, and publisher, This Is Horror. Michael is the author of the novella, The Girl in the Video, and the novel, They’re Watching, co-written with Bob Pastorella. His second novella, House of Bad Memories, lands in 2021 via Grindhouse Press. His work has appeared in various publications including The NoSleep PodcastDim ShoresDark Moon DigestLitReactorHawk & Cleaver’s The Other Stories, and Scream. You can connect with Michael on Twitter @WilsonTheWriter. For more information visit www.michaeldavidwilson.co.uk.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami September 18, 2016 - 6:21pm

I certainly keep a journal and sketch book.

Logged 10080 hours as of right now. But thats cause I'm been writing every day.

KrystalF's picture
KrystalF from New York, USA is reading mortal instruments October 2, 2016 - 7:12pm

I keep a journal because it helps release my overflow of emotions but this helped me to see it can also help keep my thoughts down so i dont forget anything :) thank you

JaiNicklin's picture
JaiNicklin June 21, 2020 - 4:10am

Lit reactor has a community on their website from where you can learn and Polish yourself. It has a column available with craft essays that includes what's the easy way a journalist do. You can get paperial reviews to manage thesis assignment easily. They have a bit different between electric journal or physical. Join them.