As a senior editor at Penguin and a life coach for creatives, I meet a lot of writers. Most who cross my path either keep a journal or feel guilty about not keeping one.
It’s okay not to keep a journal. Like cilantro or Gwyneth Paltrow, writing in a journal simply isn’t for everyone—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
This guest post is by Kendra Levin. Levin helps writers and other creative artists meet their goals and connect more deeply with their work and themselves. She is a certified life coach, as well as a senior editor at penguin, teacher, and author of The Hero Is You.
But if you’re one of those writers who’s been meaning to start a journal for years but doesn’t get inspired by the idea of stream-of-consciousness-ing your thoughts each day, you may not have found the right format for you.
Here are five ways to keep a journal that are especially suited to writers:
1. Do it Steinbeck-style
When writing The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck kept a journal chronicling his progress on the novel. Each time he sat down to work, he’d also record his experiences—his hopes, fears, anxieties, and so on—in the journal, which functioned as a kind of companion to his manuscript. Learn more about his journal, which came to be called Working Days, here or even read the journal yourself. Try keeping a journal that you write a few sentences in each time you sit down to work.
2. Big-picture it
Potter Style makes a journal called Q&A a Day that asks you a different question every day. The prompts are fun, but what makes this type of journal interesting is that you use it for five years. So not only do you answer a question each day, but you also get to see what your answers were in the past. This provides a zoomed-out perspective, and the fact that you get a reading and writing experience puts your brain to work in different ways than if you were only jotting down your thoughts. You can buy this kind of journal pre-made or DIY with a blank book or digital doc.
3. Tweet a poem
If short-form is your preferred writing style, Twitter is your friend—and so is capsule journal writing. Boil each day into one pithy sentence (no character-counting required) that sums up everything you want to remember or express about the past twenty-four hours. At the end of each week, combine all the sentences—feel free to rearrange as needed—to create a poem. By the end of the year, you’ll have a collection of fifty-two poems.
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If your reaction to the idea of keeping a journal is, Hey, I already spend all day writing—the last thing I need is one more assignment! then this one might be for you. Take a few minutes to think about the past twenty-four hours or seven days. As you contemplate your recent experiences, jot down any relevant words or phrases pop into your mind without trying to connect them to one another. In this adaptation of the psychoanalytic method of free association, there are no rules except to write down whatever comes into your head. If you keep this type of journal digitally, it can be revealing to use a word cloud tool to see what words come up most frequently for you during certain periods of your life.
Try choosing one moment from your day or week to write about in your journal. It can be one of high emotion when something major happened, or one that was more introspective. What matters is that you describe your chosen moment with lots of detail, as if it were a scene in a work of fiction or memoir. Dig into your five senses and create a fully fleshed-out snapshot that takes your imaginary readers and places them right there.
If one of these methods appeals to you, start today. Don’t wait for the New Year or some other milestone. Some tips on how to get started:
Want to write in your journal every day? Do it at the same time as something you already do daily. Do you take a medication, supplement, or vitamin? Tie your journal to when you take it. Connecting your journal-writing habit to any daily habit will help you make it part of your routine. This is why many daily journal-keepers write first thing in the morning or right before bed.
Want to write in your journal once a week or once a month? Pick a day when you’re most likely to have a reliably consistent schedule, and block out as much time as you expect to need—I’d suggest ten minutes to an hour. Book that chunk of time in your calendar as a recurring event and set a reminder. Share your plan with an accountability partner and agree to hold each other to stick to these appointments.
Want to write in your journal once a year? Set aside at least an hour on a day that is meaningful to you—it might be the day before your birthday, or close to whatever New Year resonates most with you (Gregorian, Jewish, Chinese). Think about what you want this journal entry to be: retrospective, goal-oriented, creative? Search ahead of time for questions, prompts, or other nudges that give you a jumpstart. As a way to remind yourself to keep this tradition, send your journal entry as a timed email to arrive in your own inbox one year later.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.