How to Use a Journal to Become a Better Writer - Craft Your Content

How to Use a Journal to Become a Better Writer

Am I a writer?

How do I come up with ideas?

How do I find an authentic voice?

What if I’m no good?

How can I keep my content interesting, day after day?

How do I make my writing more engaging?

Ever wondered any of these things? Well, I’m not here to sell you a webinar, or bribe you to join my mailing list with an ebook. I’m here to propose a very old-fashioned solution that can help with all of the above: writing a journal.

Think you don’t have time? Can’t see the point? Tried already, but got stuck? Have a read through this wonderfully persuasive argument and see if I can convince you otherwise.

I can tell you from firsthand experience that writing in a journal, done well, can be an extremely effective tool for freeing our creativity, generating discipline and confidence, and honing our ability to craft captivating pieces of writing. Plus, there’s the rather lovely side effect of getting to know ourselves better.

Interesting people make interesting writing, so get yourself a journal and a nice pen, and get intrigued with yourself.

Call Yourself a Writer?

We’ve done funny things with the word “writer,” mythologizing it in a way that we don’t other roles, like “salesperson.” When you see the word “writer,” you may think any or all of the following: published, starving, creative, messy, depressed, lives in a garret, papers everywhere, solitary, alcoholic, genius, victim of their muse, tortured, rich, award-winning, writes all day and every day, single-minded, eccentric.

Whew! No wonder aspiring writers (even those actively producing work) may question their right (or desire) to call themselves a writer. However, writing in a journal can help us bypass this sense of uncertainty.

In The Right to Write, Julia Cameron (of The Artist’s Way fame) helps us cut through the mythologizing, asking, “What if there were no such thing as being a writer? What if everyone simply wrote? What if there were no ‘being a real writer’ to aspire to? What if writing were simply about the act of writing?”

By redefining a writer as simply someone who writes, Cameron strikes a blow against the tendencies to think of ourselves as not “proper” writers, or not good enough, or to wait for validation.

Think of it this way: everyone who has written a prize-winning novel, or a beloved blog, or a non-fiction classic, was at some stage writing without a publication record or the smell of success. Were they a writer then?

Writing a journal involves writing. Therefore, you are a writer. Job done! Now to get on with the actual activity, freed from the anxious search for validation and self-definition.

“But a writer is someone who makes their living from writing, and no one is paying me for my journal time,” you may argue. Well, sadly the latter is true for me, too, but the former is just too narrow a definition. Think about… well, numerous now-beloved literary figures, for starters.

William Blake, Kafka, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson, Keats, and Zora Neale Hurston (to name a few) were all incredible writers, but none were able to make a living from writing.

That’s not to say that you can’t — especially in these times of global internet audiences and content marketing. It just means we can’t define a writer solely as someone who makes cash money off their words.

The good news is, writing in a journal will give you numerous skills that you are likely to be able to use in the quest to earn a living as a writer, including…

A Tool Against Perfectionism

A journal can be a potent tool against the tendency towards perfectionism, common in literary types. Perfectionism is a real creative buzzkill, leading to the kind of lockdown we romantically refer to as writer’s block.

Are any of the following thoughts at all familiar?

There’s no point starting that because it won’t come out any good.

I don’t want to waste time writing that in case it’s not the best thing ever.

I’m waiting until the perfect ray of inspiration hits.

Real writers don’t have to work; they just transcribe effortlessly from their muse.

I can’t write a novel in case it doesn’t win the Booker Prize.

I’m not ready yet.

Logical? No. Common? Yes. Helpful? Absolutely not.

So, how can a journal writing practice help us out here?

Well, journalling — particularly first thing in the morning, which we’ll get into below — is a private space. It’s a safe space, free of all worry of publication and the opinions of others. It doesn’t have to be any good.

It doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to be correctly punctuated. It doesn’t even have to be legible!

You can break all the rules in a journal: write in lists, use cheesy metaphors, write DAMN DAMN DAMN in capitals all over the page, scribble things out, and skip wildly from one idea to another and back again.

A journal helps us overcome the ghosts of our old English teachers, who tarnished our early writing attempts with severe red pen comments like “unclear progression of ideas” or “watch spelling.”

Too often, a teacher’s ideal piece of writing is something correct but gutless, with grammar but no exuberance, wildness, or spirit. If you went through a school system (or even worse, university), you have probably learned to tame your writing.

A journal is the place where you can let the wild beasts out again! Don’t worry, they may be a little timid at first, expecting the red pen to descend at any moment. Give them a while roaming free around your pages, and you’ll be amazed what comes out.

A Place for Dangerous Ideas

A journal may be a safe space for wild words and a place where anything goes, but we might need some practice getting them out. Austin Kleon, poet and author of Steal Like an Artist, describes a journal as “a good place for bad ideas.” He uses it as a space to write whatever, no matter how radical or offensive: a place to “think the unthinkable” and “say the unsayable.”

If the only places we write are generally public forums, whether it’s our own Twitter account or ghostwriting for a company with a reputation to maintain, the chances are we know how to play it safe in our writing.

That’s a useful skill, but only if it doesn’t become the default setting. Great writing needs to dare a little and push boundaries sometimes — to say what is true for us, rather than just what is safe.

Use a journal to test out the things you would NEVER write publicly. What you really think of your boss. What you’d say to your family if they weren’t so emotionally fragile. Your secret doubts and hopes.

Kleon invites journalers to write something that would get them “fired, expelled or disowned,” or even “jailed or deported” and then, if they prefer, to scribble over their most contentious thoughts.

As someone who has waded through considerable heartache and drama as a result of the invasions of illicit journal readers, I can recommend the last measure — or else burn any particularly contentious pages (or the whole lot, if you like).

Don’t think you have any radical thoughts? Try answering the following questions:

  • What would you do if money were no object? How would you live?
  • If you were running your workplace, how would you do things differently?
  • If you could absolutely guarantee that they wouldn’t freak out and leave you, what would you like to able to tell the person you are closest to?
  • Who has undermined, sabotaged, or unfairly criticized you, and what would you really like to say to them?
  • What are the things you carefully don’t say to your friends, for fear of hurting their feelings?
  • How would you live differently if you thought you only had five years to go?
  • That should open a few journal-worthy cans of worms.

It’s worth asking, though, what makes certain thoughts so dangerous, and whether we would like to be able to be less secretive. A journal can be a potent invitation into living a more authentic life, as what we REALLY think, like, hate, hope for, and dream of makes its way onto the page and into our lives. Cautious types, beware!

Unlocking the Brain’s Vocabulary

As you find topics close to your heart — these can be as simple as “what am I feeling right now” — your writing will gain momentum and flow more easily. Not every day, perhaps, but more and more often.

As it does, we have a chance to express ourselves with less self-consciousness, which helps stimulate and access the brain’s latent vocabulary.

One of the things I love about the English language is the precision that its vast array of words makes possible. What is that person feeling? Contented? Satisfied? Fulfilled? Glad? Tranquil? Benign? …You get the idea. Every word has a subtly different flavour, meaning, and sound, and can be used to pinpoint our experiences with artful precision.

Writing in a journal gives me an opportunity to dance around in my brain’s vocabulary, trying out words just for the hell of it. New acquisitions from reading might creep in, and old friends will be called for at just the right moment as I describe what I am most familiar with: my own experience.

This serves us in wonderful stead when we come to write about other things, like an article on electric cars or the history of the internet.

Particularly if you’re writing a lot of internet content on the same topic, you’re going to want to keep your vocab in shape so you and your readers don’t get bored. Good writing uses a wide range of words — you don’t want to end up describing everything as “nice.”

It’s like practicing any language: use it or lose it. To keep our vocab muscles in shape, we need to give them a good regular workout. Otherwise we’ll end up as the linguistic equivalent of an old person who can’t even remember if they have feet anymore.

I also find that whatever I’m reading starts to subtly come through in the tone of my writing — so read broadly and well! The strengthening of a writerly mind is not linear: reading only about the topic we write about might make us a technical expert, but we’ll probably be a dry and weak writer.

Journal as Creative Source

A journal can be a wonderful well of inspiration and ideas, as well as a dumping ground for utter crap. The point is not to eliminate the latter, but rather to let it all flow, as it’s often only in a space with absolute freedom to write badly that we come up with gems.

Keep a journal for a few months, and then read through it for inspiration. Yes, you’ll probably feel a bit sick of your own whinging and moaning, but hang in there.

Over time, you’ll see repeated themes that attract you, or repeated problems that you’re dealing with. Consider writing a blog post, article, or other piece about some of these ideas and publishing it yourself or pitching it to a website.

Many sites and magazines have a “write for us” option — consider the audience your scintillating insights would be best suited for, and go for it. You’re already a writer, so there is absolutely nothing to lose.

You also might get broader insights into your life — areas you’re stuck in or patterns that you seem to repeat. Reading over a journal can be a challenging but rich opportunity to reconsider some of these areas from a “zoomed out” perspective.

The Practice Itself

Ok, ok, you say, I’m convinced! But how do you go about starting a journal practice or transforming a tired one?

Well, I’m a big fan of Julia Cameron’s practice of “Morning Pages” where you write a certain number of pages longhand every morning, first thing (ok, ok, you can make a coffee). Make a set number of pages or time, and keep to it.

There are multiple benefits to writing first thing in the morning. Firstly, we get a chance to express ourselves before the rational, critical mind has fully kicked into gear for the day. Wavering thoughts, illogical ramblings, and creative detours all have a place here.

Secondly, we get a chance to skim all the dross off of our brain first thing in the morning (as well as the occasional goodies, hopefully). First thing in the morning we haven’t quite suppressed the full range of our emotions and thoughts yet, and you may be surprised to find what comes out of your pen once you get your flow on.

This leaves our brain more free to function for the rest of the day, having unburdened itself first thing (kind of like, ahem, the digestive system). We can develop any intriguing ideas and leave behind any tedious or ridiculous ones.

Thirdly, first thing in the morning is the easiest time to set a routine, as the day usually gets less predictable as it goes along. Having a set time creates a routine and discipline. You don’t have to wait for inspiration to arrive; you write anyway.

This is hugely empowering for our writing overall, as it allows us to get on with the work of writing without believing in a magical external source of inspiration, which may or may not turn up. Inspire yourself! Just write, whether or not you’re feeling inspired — think of the latter as a lovely bonus. Build a solid routine by making journal time absolutely non-negotiable, no matter how you’re feeling.

Make It Messy

Writing by hand is important: it allows us to build a cognitive relationship between brain, hand, and page, and allows for more freedom of expression than the keyboard. Try writing larger or smaller, heavier or softer, in relation to the thought or feeling you’re expressing. Don’t be afraid to scribble or draw diagrams if you feel the urge.

It’s important not to hesitate or doubt yourself. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, logical flow, or whether you’re being mean or unfair. Don’t worry about whether it’s any good or not. This is about loosening up our critical muscles.

If you’re a (recovering!) perfectionist, you might want to buy an absolutely cheap exercise book to remind your mind that it doesn’t matter at all what you write and help avert blank page syndrome, which I’ve found can be worse in expensive, shiny journals. (So pretty… Want to write nice things… Can’t write anything!)

However, there is definitely something to be said for having beautiful stationery and a pleasurable-to-write-with pen — a scratchy ballpoint is NOT what you want here. Setting the scene with quality, enjoyable tools helps our brain get the message that we’re here to honor our experience.

Go for It!

So there you go, no more excuses: a daily journal practice is beneficial to our writing in all sorts of ways, whether we’re a frustrated poet or a prolific writer of online articles on assembling filing cabinets.

It can loosen up our inner critic, provide a source for great ideas, rid our minds of the not-so-great ones, exercise our vocabulary, create a discipline of writing, and give us writerly confidence.

To really enjoy writing in a journal, you need to find yourself fascinating — not in a narcissistic way, but in a healthy self-esteem, not-taking-yourself-for-granted kind of way. I hope that along the way you’ll find yourself enjoying your own company more and more — the more you enjoy yourself, the more your readers will, too.

Photo credit: rsedlacek

About the Author Rosalind Atkinson

Rosalind Atkinson works as a freelance writer and editor. A great fan of an elegant sentence or a tasty word, she has authored academic pieces on William Blake, and articles for Greenpeace, elephant journal, Overland, and the Vessel Magazine, among others. She escaped academia with a Masters in English Literature, and has done time as a blogwriter, a research assistant, a baker, a costume illustrator for film, and a (kinda seasick) sailor around the Pacific and Subantarctic. She lives in a converted cowshed in the lush far north of New Zealand, where she writes, saves for an old-school printing press, and marvels at how clever and awesome nature is.

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Sandra Knight says

Rosalind, This is a great article for me. I have been trying to journal but all I could think to write about was how my day went…ugh!! You spell out a lot of great ideas for a daily journal that has me ready to start. I want to expand my creativity and hope I keep up this daily routine.

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