by John M. Floyd
All of us have heard plenty of advice on how to write, and how to write better. Some of the more common tips include “show, don’t tell,” “write what you know,” “don’t overuse adverbs,” etc. And one that shows up on at least a few lists is “keep a journal.”
What does that mean, a “journal”? Well, it’s different things to different folks. By definition, I suppose it’s a written record of personal observations or experiences — almost a diary if it’s done regularly — but from a writer’s point of view I think of it as sort of a paper Dictaphone, one of those shirt-pocket writing pads that you can use to jot down plot ideas or character descriptions or pieces of dialogue, for later use. (A mini-recorder or a laptop also works, and I know one lady who sends herself a voicemail whenever she gets an idea that she needs to remember.) Others say it should be a regular notebook or a word-processing file in which you record your daily story thoughts, maybe at night when you have time to sit down and give them your undivided attention. Bottom line is, journaling can take any form you want it to, if you choose to do it at all.
Personally, I don’t guess I keep what one might call a journal. I do find myself writing down ideas sometimes as they occur to me — but it’s usually on whatever scrap of paper might be handy, like a Wendy’s napkin or a roadmap from the glove compartment or the envelope for the electric bill. The obvious disadvantage of my approach is that when I need to find and use my kind of notes, I might have to look around a bit for them, and hope they haven’t found their way into the garbage. But that’s just the way I do it. (If you’re wondering at this point how the hell I ever manage to get anything done, writingwise . . . well, I sometimes wonder the same thing.)
I recently heard an interesting observation about the use of a journal, for writers. I’ve forgotten who said it, but here’s the gist:
Don’t waste your time writing in a journal; save your creative efforts for paying work.
That makes sense, in a way. I suspect that some people might use a journal as a substitute for real writing, and could wind up with loads of story material recorded in notebooks or Word files that never make it into an actual manuscript that could be submitted and sold to a market. Those folks can rationalize that they are in fact “writing,” when what they’re doing is avoiding the kind of writing that winds up getting published.
I realize, of course, that keeping a journal is helpful to many writers, and it’s not my intention to discourage that. All of us have brainstorms at the most inconvenient times, and it’s good to have a way to record those so they won’t slip our minds later. (I must confess, in recent months I have adopted the habit of folding a blank sheet of paper three times and stuffing it into my shirt pocket along with a pen whenever I leave my castle and mingle with the townsfolk. That way I can at least scribble urgent thoughts when they occur to me, wherever I am. So I suppose I do “journal” in a journal now and then.)
To those of you who are writers: what are your own journaling habits? Do you do it on the fly? Later, at home? Meticulously? Haphazardly? Never?
Vive la difference . . .
- Illustration by Baron C. de Grimm for late the 19th/early 20th century humorist Marietta Holley’s Samantha at the World’s Fair.