Write It Sideways

The Most Obvious Writing Tool You’re Not Using

I have a confession to make:

Even though I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and even though I’ve written about the benefits of this particular tool in the past, for many years now I have largely ignored my own advice.

It’s a writing tool suitable for everyone, regardless of skill. It takes very little investment of time or money. It’s readily available and portable.

If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m talking about the humble journal.

And now you’re thinking, “Um . . . duh.” But bear with me.

By “journal,” what I don’t mean is Dear Diary, Today I met the dreamiest of boys!

A journal, yes, can reflect on life events, but it can also reflect on a book we’re reading or on a spiritual conviction. It can be as unstructured as free-writing to a prompt, as structured as a to-do list, as creative as a poem, or as mixed-up as a combination of any of these things.

Really, a journal can be anything you want it to be.

While I’ve always kept a computer file with story ideas and snippets of writing that come to me in moments of inspiration, I haven’t kept a journal, as such, since high school.

Misconceptions about Keeping a Journal

Using a journal may be the most obvious writing advice ever, because it’s usually the first writing advice we receive.

But it’s precisely because this is such a simple and often-recommended strategy that we erroneously perceive the journal to be a beginner’s tool. We see our kids keeping journals at school as part of the curriculum, and we think we’re above it, or that it’s boring because we, ourselves, were forced to do it in school. We’ve so often been taught that reflection and practice are good for us, maybe we’ve just stopped listening. And maybe that’s because we see these things as a duty rather than a delight.

But in the past few months I’ve rediscovered this writing tool and have fallen in love with it from a new perspective: the perspective of an experienced writer. The worst part about becoming a more experienced writer is that your self-expectations are higher, therefore you put more pressure on yourself to write well.

That’s the beauty of the journal—it’s private, so there’s zero pressure to produce quality or quantity. Even writing a blog post comes with a degree of pressure to ensure our writing is free of mistakes, to form logical, coherent ideas others can connect with. Writing something we plan to submit to a magazine or literary agent or publisher is even more pressure.

Also, because these days it’s so easy to publish our work online and instantly reach thousands, it can be tempting to think that the writing we do in private is less important than the writing we do in public. Why waste time writing something no one will ever read? We worry we’ll spend too many words in our notebooks and have none left for our blogs or our works-in-progress.

But with the right habits and attitudes, creativity is a renewable resource—something that replenishes itself with use. No need to hoard our words.

Go Back to the Beginning

Recently, a woman contacted me through my blog. She said she’d had writer’s block since her sister died and couldn’t seem to get anything down on the page. Did I have any advice for her?

What a horrible thing for anyone to have to endure, but I was glad that I did actually have a piece of advice based on my own experience: Go back to the beginning, I encouraged her. Start a private journal where no one will see your words. Write whatever comes into your head. Don’t worry about whether or not it makes sense. I told her how much of a help journalling has been to me, that it took away all pressure.

The funny thing is that I actually apologized somewhat for this idea. It might seem a bit cliche, I said. But thankfully the woman recognized that journalling is a good strategy, one that she hadn’t tried in a long time. She was eager to give it another shot.

I suspect many of you reading this are in the same boat. Perhaps you’ve used a journal in the past but gave it up once you began to see yourself as a more accomplished writer. Or perhaps you overthrew your notebook for a massive work-in-progress (a novel, a memoir, a collection of stories); yet, though you thought this would be a step forward, you find yourself stalled.

Your journal gives you the opportunity to work through anything preventing you from putting your ideas down on the page, so you can move forward. I think of my journal as a bridge. As an often burnt-out mother of four, sometimes I feel like I’m standing at the edge of a river; on this side is the self that has no time to write anything, and on the other side are all my “important writing tasks” that I really should be doing. This river feels far too wide to jump in a single leap, to go from writing nothing for weeks to writing something that someone plans to publish. My journal gives me a chance to gently ease across that divide. It provides a sense of accomplishment with little commitment, a refreshing reminder of I can do this! 

As long as I keep writing in my journal, that bridge remains there for me to cross any time I like.

Journalling Tips

Here are some things to think about as you either begin to journal or return to it:

  1. Embrace freedom. Your journal belongs to you and only to you, which means there are absolutely no rules about what you must write—unless you impose those rules on yourself. While I think self-imposing word-counts or frequency of entries or other guidelines can work for some people, I’d encourage you to be a little more open with yourself about the possibilities. For example, my own journal includes stressors and fears I face in everyday life, insights into myself and my relationships with others, reflections on readings, written prayers, ideas about where I want to go with certain aspects of my writing, and more. I journal most mornings, but it’s not an absolute requirement. Some days I write half a page, some days five pages. What does freedom in writing look like to you? This is the place to let go!
  2. Consider format. I spend so much time typing on my computer that I welcome a notebook and pen when it comes to journalling. And while I really like those leather-bound journals and fancy-schmancy pens, I decided my budget would thank me for using plain, spiral-bound notebooks and Bic ballpoints instead. But this is your journal, so you get to choose what suits you. If you prefer to journal on a computer, Evernote or Scrivener could work well, but there are also dedicated online journal websites such as Penzu. Finally, you can opt for audio recordings of journal entries using a mobile phone or dedicated voice recorder. I have tried each one of these forms, and each one has its benefits.
  3. Try writing at different times. For me, journalling during my morning coffee is a no-brainer. It helps me wake up and gives me a sense of setting my day in motion. I’m way too burnt out at night to care, but mornings always feel fresh and new for me. If you’re just starting, try experimenting with different times of day to see which ones suits you best.

If you’re not currently keeping a journal or notebook of some kind, do yourself a favour and try again. You may find it’s the puzzle piece you’ve been missing for much of your writing life, that somehow it helps everything fit together the way it’s supposed to.