Sunday, October 3, 2010

Writing a journal: It’s not as difficult as some think

A journal – especially for a first-time journal writer – does not have to be an elegant and expensive leather-bound tome. Start off with a composition notebook. You can buy a more expensive journal later one once you’ve learned if journal writing is for you. Photo by Keith Michaud

[Author’s note: This entry is on general journal writing, the kind of writing everyone can do and should attempt at least once in their lives. This entry is the result of an email from a reader who asked my advice about writing and how to get started. Writing a journal is the easiest way to write in a disciplined way, to practice the craft of writing, and for a person to get a feel for whether they would like to pursue writing as a profession. Below are some of my thoughts on journal writing and a few tips for those who have not written a journal before. – Keith Michaud]

A journal is more than a mere diary. A diary tells about what happens in a person’s life and how they feel about it. A journal is different in that it is constantly evolving as a document. It can do for a person what a diary does, but it can do much more.

A journal:

Allows a person to recall, rethink and analyze the events of the day, week, month, year, and lifetime;

Allows a person to work out decisions by providing a place to list pros and cons;

Allows a person to work out problems by providing a place for an internal discussion that is written down and analyzed;

Allows a person to express views they might not feel comfortable expressing in a more public forum;

Allows a person to draft letters – letters to family and friends, letters to the editor, letters to companies, etc.;

Allows a person to draft passages, poems, essays, etc.

Allows a person to doodle or sketch;

Allows a person to plot goals and aspirations;

Allows a person to plot the progress in achieving those goals and aspirations;

Allows a person a place to keep photos, papers, movie ticket stubs, postcards, letters, newspaper clippings, etc., that are personally important;

Allows a person to keep track of books read, movies seen, wine tasted, places visited, and more;

Allows a person a simple reminder to write, write, write.

To me a diary is written by a person about what has happened in their life. A journal is that, but more. A journal can be a place to put down on paper a more analytical view of things going on in a person’s life and around them, to add perspective to events in a person’s life. A journal can be used to work out drafts of passages or poetry, or to work on writing exercises, and to outline longer, broader works. Really, a journal is what a person decides to make it.

Keeping a journal can be incredibly cathartic and there are many reasons and motivations for starting and maintaining a journal. A traumatic event in a person’s life might spark in them a desire to put down on paper or on a memory stick feelings about that traumatic event. A person wanting to express themselves in words – prose, poetry, lyrics – might use a journal to organize those thoughts. A person setting goals or documenting accomplishments or jotting down information to be used later can do that in a journal.

I’ve written in a journal off and on for more than 30 years. And for that I blame Janice Webster, my high school English teacher. She had students in her class write in journals. She was supportive of my writing efforts and I just kept it up.

It wasn’t until I attended California State University at Chico, however, that I had an inkling that writing might actually be a career for me. It was there that I changed my major to journalism, it was there that I joined the campus newspaper, it was there I earned a journalism degree, and it was from there that I went on to work for more than two decades in small- to medium-sized newspapers in Northern California.

There’s quite a bit about journal writing on the Internet. Some of it is good information. Some of it is unnecessary for a typical journal.

Where to start

My personal choice is to write in a journal rather than tap out journal entries on a computer. I have a couple of blogs and do enough tapping on the keyboard. So the tips I’m giving are more related to old-style journal writing.

• Picking a journal is a personal choice. It can be as simple as a composition notebook. It can be as elaborate as a leather-bound tome. I would recommend for someone just starting out in journal writing to go with an inexpensive composition notebook. I’ve used them before and they work well for the task. If you take to journal writing – or if it takes to you – consider investing in a nicer journal later and after the composition notebook is filled. (The big bookstores – Borders, Barnes and Noble, etc. – often have journals on their sale tables. Look there before spending a lot of money on a leather-bound journal.)

Spend as much time deciding on a pen with which to write in your journal as you do on the journal itself. But go with black ink and go with a pen that writes smoothly. You can spend a lot of money on a good pen, but Parker retractable with black gel ink works very well. Photo by Keith Michaud
• The writing instrument is often overlooked when journal writing. It should not. It is incredibly important equipment in journal writing and some time should be devoted to selecting the writing instrument that is just right for you. Make that writing instrument your journal writing instrument. Do not use it to jot down a grocery list or things-to-do lists. It is for the journal only. I highly recommend black ink over all others; it’s the color of ink that writers use. I also recommend an instrument that deliveries the ink smoothly. I would go with a smooth ink delivery system over a flashy pen, unless you have the money for a flashy pen that writes smoothly. I use a simple black and silver Parker pen with black gel ink. It is not flashy, but it writes beautifully. (Some might think that fountain pens were made for journal writing. I have used fountain pens in the past. Two large problems: 1. the ink smudges easily; and 2. water can wash away the ink quite easily.)

• Find the right place to write. It should be quiet, either a quiet corner in your home, a quiet corner of the coffeehouse, a quiet corner in a park. Find a place where you can concentrate on writing.

What to write

• What a journal writer writes about in a journal is up to journal writer. There are several suggestions given above. But there are also several websites that provide ideas for writing. It might be as simple as describe a person’s earliest memory. It might be a list of goals for the next five years, 10 years, 20 years. Then write, write, write. Write about what’s going on in the world; write about things that bother you; write about something overheard in conversation; pets.

• Write, write, write may be the best piece of advice. Writing will help improve your writing. Write, write, write.

• Read, read, read may be the next best piece of advice. Writing is improved by reading what others have written. It does not mean reading Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Mailer … unless you want to read Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Mailer. Read about history and popular culture; read about philosophy and entertainment; just read. A person who reads a lot can write better than the person who does not read regularly.

A couple more tips

• Always date each entry. Multiple entries on the same day might include a time or “Later” to help give context later. (One online article about journal writing suggested that the first few pages of a journal could be devoted to a table of contents complete with headers and page numbers. That seems a little much. If having a table of contents is so critical to a journal writer, using a computer and a writing software that allows for a table of contents seems a better way to go.)

• Set a goal to write at least something every day. It can be a paragraph, a page, something. But write every day.

• Journal writers should not become frustrated – especially when they first start – because they feel what they write isn’t very good. It will improve with time. And bad writing can be rewritten. Keep writing.

• Go back every so often and scan earlier entries. The journal writer then can update progress made on goals that were set or update a life circumstance or simply update progress made in writing.

• Find a special place for the journal and pen. A desk drawer or book shelf should do for most people. A more private person might want to lock the desk drawer or put the journal in another secure place. But put it in the same place each time and return it to that place after each use.

Really, there isn’t much more about journal writing that a new journal writer won’t learn along the way. Writing in a journal will lead to better writing and the germination of new topics on which to write. Just write, write, write. It will be worth it in the end.

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