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A few weeks ago, I embarked on a free Open University writing course called ‘Start Writing Fiction.’ I have found everything I’ve learnt so far very useful but the most helpful thing I’ve learnt is that as a writer, I should be keeping a journal. I had heard this before I started the course but I’d been a bit half-hearted about the idea of taking a journal with me everywhere I go. It seemed a bit pretentious, I thought, and anyway, what would I have to write in it?

So when the course started, I decided that I should give it a proper try. They suggested using it to make notes about everything from story ideas, to character portraits, to everyday details and thoughts you might have that you could come back to later. I have found myself writing in it most days now and as a result, I have a long list of story ideas that I could use in the future. One of the things that really works for me, is music lyrics. For example, I wrote down a couple of lines from a Taylor Swift song that I’ve always loved, which also happen to tie in with my favourite Shakespeare play (you know the one I mean, right?) and as romance is my genre, this got me thinking about the idea of love at first sight. Next thing I knew, I’d written a whole page of story ideas.

I also like to use the phrase ‘What if?’ as a story idea prompt and have found that just letting my mind run free with these words often leads to ideas for stories. The important thing is to write them down whenever you have them because then you can use them later, at a time when you might find yourself fresh out of ideas otherwise. Now, whenever I go out to visit places, I try to take my notebook with me because you never know when an idea might strike you. I do have Evernote on my ‘phone though and that can also work well for note-taking if you get caught without your journal. Personally, I like to rewrite any electronic notes into my journal by hand because there’s just something so nice about writing longhand into a proper notebook 🙂

One of the other suggestions I found helpful was to write down ideas for characters: names, descriptions, observations about personality types, clothes, hair, behaviour etc because you won’t remember these details later on. These everyday details about people that you absorb without even noticing are the very essence of your writing and it’s only by making a note of them that your characters can start to come to life. I find that these are the kind of details that you relate back to other members of your family at the end of the day as a natural part of your routine but once told, you tend to forget them. If you write them down though, they become rich material to be used later. Even if you don’t use them, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to write them down, just in case.

I have now taken to writing down all kinds of details. I took a group of children to the cinema the other day and as soon as I got out of the car at the Leisure Park, my nose was assaulted by the smell of fried food. This is something that has happened to me many times before but I’ve never made a note of it until then. This time I did because the sounds, smells, sights of everyday life will add depth to your description of settings and your reader will be familiar with them too. These everyday things may also prompt other memories for you as the writer, taking you back to something you might well have forgotten until the moment that you made a note of the new memory. Our minds are full of memories of course but they might be buried deep within and our minds work in very unusual ways. It’s a bit unnerving for example, the way that my husband remembers some events we’ve shared over the last nearly thirty years we’ve been together and I have no memory of those things at all, and vice versa. Other things will be crystal clear for both of us. So if you write it down, it will be there forever.
I am now using my journal for all kinds of different things and I find it great fun. I note down words I like and why. I write down the context I’ve heard them in as well, especially if it’s an exotic context because I may use both the word and the context one day; I write down words, phrases, speech patterns I hear people use in conversation; I make notes about the way people behave; I make notes about what I hear on the radio or what I read in the newspaper or magazines. If you’re finding it hard to get writing, using your journal for a short while can often be a good way to get you going as well.

Do you keep a journal yourself? Let me know in the comments how it works for you and I’d love to hear any tips you might have about how to expand my use of my journal. Thanks for reading and have a good writing week 🙂


11 Comments on Why it’s a good idea to keep a writing journal

  1. Great post and such a good idea – it’s such classic advice for writers ‘always have a notebook handy to write odd ideas in’, but I’m afraid I’m just like Jilly Cooper said she is; her odd ideas are scribbled down on the margins of newspapers and then thrown away, or like Bill Bryson, who would write unintelligible things on beer mats and in the morning think, now, what the hell was all that about???!!! I’m with you on the memory thing – a few weeks ago I dreamt a good short story and actually wrote it down as soon as I woke up, instead of just thinking I would and not doing it. Now, I haven’t got a clue what it was about, but I do know I’ve got a short story plan written down…. somewhere….!!!

    • Thanks for commenting, Terry. As I’m now of a ‘certain age’, meaning I forget everything unless I write it down, I’m finding this such a good idea. I’ve had a filofax for years for my to-do list and I did keep a diary throughout my childhood so it’s just been a question of reviving that habit. A notebook is easily found as well, should you mislay it 😉

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, Julie. Funnily enough, I’ve just been kicking myself for not keeping a journal. I’m about to write a story set in Cambridge in winter, and those sights, sounds and smells you refer to, made specific to a season as well as a place, would have been really handy! So, I’m planning to start keeping one now!

    • It’s amazing, isn’t it? Just those little details are so difficult to recapture but it takes no time to write them down. It’ll soon be winter again though and you can write it all down then 😉 Thanks for reading and commenting, Clare.

  3. It’s a good idea. People hear “journal” and think they have to document what happened during the day – like a dear diary thing. Like the approach with notes, ideas, etc.

    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Greg. You’re right that some people probably do think it’s more onerous than it really is but it doesn’t need to be at all. I’m finding it makes me much more aware of what’s going on as well, in case there’s something I can make a note of 😉

  4. Julie I clearly remember writing in my first notebook, rather self-consciously, prompted to keep one by a creative writing class. Now, I don’t know what I would do without it. A random flick through the one picked off the shelf at random includes a short story written in a coffee shop while waiting for an appointment; notes from a visit to the National Archives at Kew when I was researching family history; suggestions on characters to carry forward from Rose book one to book two; notes on the ‘Quilts’ exhibition at the V&A; early ideas for Rose book four; and thoughts on a book I was reviewing. Until I started looking back, I had no idea the content was so varied! SD

    • That’s fabulous that you found such a wealth of material in your notebook. I love the whole idea of it and I’m enjoying writing in mine so much. It feels a bit self-indulgent but when I read it back, I can see how useful it is. I’m doing the next part of the course today and it’s focussing more on developing the habit of using a notebook for research and developing characters and plot. It’s so useful and it’s making me think really carefully about my next story 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting, Sandra.

    • Thank you for reading, Margaret and for taking the time to comment. I’m glad it has prompted you to go back to it. Thanks for following too, much appreciated.

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