Journaling is powerful — not only for your personal thoughts, but as a tool to increase your productivity as a writer.
I read Young Adult author Susan Dennard’s article about her writing diary, and decided to give it a shot. The idea is to keep a journal about your writing. It’s a space for you to keep notes about your project and to reflect on your progress.
I love journaling because I’m able to organize the mess that’s in my head. The writing diary has the same concept; it’s about capturing your thoughts on paper to better understand your creative process.
I put this to the test with my most recent creative writing project, a YA fiction novel. I started my writing diary at the beginning of April, and I’ve learned quite a bit about myself and my writing routine as a result.
How to Keep a Writing Diary
There are no hard and fast rules. If you make it too difficult for yourself, you’ll never keep it up.
I journal immediately after each writing session. It only takes a few minutes. Some days it’s just a few sentences to track my progress. Other days, I may have more to say — for example, if I’m describing a particularly productive session (or an unproductive session).
Each day is different, but here’s a list of the things I like to keep track of in the diary:
- My word count for the day
- Time of day / length of session (ex. AM, 1 hour)
- Brief summary of what I wrote
- Pre-writing routines (brainstorming / outlining / craft advice)
And then I ask myself the following questions as a guide for my journaling:
- How did I feel about the session?
- Was it a productive session? Was I able to enter into a flow state?
- Were there any interruptions? How did I deal with them?
- What went well? What didn’t go well?
- What challenges do I need to overcome as I move forward? (Motivation / inspiration, or character / plot problems)
Ultimately, I’m keeping a record of 2 things: (1) My motivation / productivity, and (2) the writing itself. I think it’s important to reflect on my state of mind in regards to the project. But I also use the diary to jot down details about my plot and where I’m at in the story.
3 Reasons to Start a Writing Diary
Journaling after every writing session is a habit for me now. After 2 months, I’m sold. For an exercise that only takes a few minutes, the benefits certainly outweigh the costs.
Track Your Progress
In Nicolas Cole’s article about the habits of disciplined people, he recommends that you don’t set goals until you know how to track your progress…
“If you decide, ‘I want to change X about my life,’ don’t just write down your goal in your journal. Write down the way you’re going to prove to yourself you are moving in the right direction.” ~ Nicolas Cole
By keeping notes about your work in progress, or “WIP,” you can look back and see where you started and how far you’ve come. As for your own routine and strategies, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s working and what isn’t.
I’m totally bipolar when it comes to my writing. One day I’m up and the next I’m down. My mood swings are frequent and extreme. The temptation on “down” days is to over romanticize what’s come before; I conveniently forget what I’ve struggled through to get where I am.
Our brains have a tendency to block out all the uncomfortable stuff so that all you remember is what was easy or rewarding.
So use the writing diary as a tool not only to track your progress, but to reward your progress.
Sure, it might feel a little weird (yes, it often feels like I’m talking to myself) — but give yourself praise when things are going well or you’ve met a goal. If I meet word count after days of slog, you’d better believe I make a congratulatory note in the writing diary.
These daily wins fuel your motivation.
Let me give you a few examples from my own personal writing diary:
Wed, Apr 8
Having a tough day today. I started my morning as I typically do — learning about craft. And then…well, I feel like I’ve stalled out. I don’t have a solid sense for the feel of the story, or the shape of it. I can’t visualize an opening scene. I can’t figure out how it’s supposed to end. I want to give up.
Thurs, Apr 9
Today is a better day. I was reminded that my story doesn’t have to be perfect — I’m doing this for the practice, to keep writing and to learn / grow as I go. Because if I don’t, I’ll regret it.
Thurs, Apr 23
What’s bothering me, though, is that NONE of this feels right. Ugh, it’s like I don’t even feel passionate about it anymore.
Tues, Apr 28
I wrote 2,662 words today! WHAT?! I’m SO excited. So proud of myself. And I actually feel good about what I wrote. I mean… not that I think it’s good, but I feel good about it because it was a cohesive scene / chapter.
Work Through Challenges on Paper
My writing diary is a dumping ground for all the things that are causing me grief in my novel. When a character isn’t coming to life, or I’m not sure what comes next — I write about it.
I find it helpful and even therapeutic to make sense of my thoughts on paper. The writing diary gives me a safe space to describe the problem, without feeling pressured to find a solution (like in a brainstorming or outlining exercise).
Ultimately, I want to understand the root of the problem and why I’ve come up against this particular block.
Sometimes I can’t work it out, and there is no immediate solution. And that’s ok, because that’s not the point. The point is to get it out of my head.
I pose questions to myself in my writing diary. Sometimes I’ll close an entry with a bulleted list of the questions I need answered about my characters or plot. This gives my subconscious an opportunity to work on it while I’m sleeping or going about my day.
Here are a few examples from my personal diary:
Thurs, Apr 2
WRITING A BOOK ISN’T EASY.
Fri, Apr 3
I wrote about 1,000 words. But when I got to the part I’d actually sat down to write, the words wouldn’t come. It felt awkward. It was slow. It was like pulling teeth. And, ultimately, a reminder that I hardly know anything about this story.
Mon, Apr 6
So I tried discovery writing in an attempt to identify my protag’s moral need / psychological need / lie she believes — and it worked! I set a timer for 20 minutes and started with my protagonist’s name and age. I wrote it in 3rd person, not 1st — it felt too intimidating to try writing in [my character’s] voice before I know her well.
Tues, Apr 7
So it turns out that the best way to get into the appropriate writing headspace (at least for me) is to read books or articles about craft. Some might call this procrastination (maybe it is), but at least I’m learning and using new techniques during this brainstorming / planning phase.
A Roadmap for Future Projects
In essence, you’re documenting a process. When you’re finished with your WIP, your diary will serve as a roadmap for future projects — a guide for overcoming writer’s block, or meeting word count goals, or finding inspiration.
It’s better than a book on craft (i.e. someone else’s words of wisdom) because it’s your own advice. It’s a peek into your own psyche, and that’s invaluable.
Sure, each one of your projects will be unique, and present its own set of challenges. But you know yourself better than anyone else, and you can use your writing diary to “hack” your own brain.
Your writing diary will remind you that if you’ve overcome these challenges once — you can do it again.
Keeping a writing diary has allowed me to make insightful observations about myself:
- I’m more productive in the morning than in the afternoon.
- I write more, and faster, when I outline scenes before I draft.
- I feel more motivated and inspired to write after I’ve read an article or book about craft.
I encourage you to give the writing diary a shot and see how it transforms your process and your productivity as a writer. Happy journaling!