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What is a Writing Journal?

By: Ron Samul


Writer’s block, as a concept, is the inability to write what you want because (for some reason) it isn’t coming to you. But it doesn’t mean you can’t write, type, send emails, and do other things. The best way to leave writer's block behind you is to start a writing journal. Not a regular journal. Not a personal account of your life. A writing journal is a place to write about your own writing and the books you are reading. This is critical commentary about your own work, ideas, concepts, and criticism about other books.

Start one. And keep writing in it for a long time. I have two rules for my journal:

  1. Only write about what you are writing.

  2. Only write about what you are reading.

Your journal can be a vent, a rant, or something that isn’t working. It can be personal, but personal only as it pertains to writing. I am not suggesting you take personal, emotional elements out of this journal (emotions are important), but keep it tied to the writing, your ability as a writer, and what it means to the writing.

Just Start Writing

I have some entries that are a few sentences. Some are pages and pages. Sometimes, as I am discussing a scene, I just start retelling it and -- guess what -- I’m writing. I often get so sick of talking about it that I stop, and just start writing. Then I transfer whatever I write into the manuscript. The act of typing is the way we work, so just thinking on paper about your writing or your next step can be enough to get things to fall into place for you. Even now, typing this article, I feel like I am falling into the voice that guides my words. It comes easier. Boxers talk about coming back to their punches, moves they know work for them. Coming back to your hands is important in typing too. And once you get back to the act of thinking on paper, you start to connect to those seemingly lost connections with your writing as well.

Make Connections

I also use my writing journal to connect things. If I read a good article about third-person narrative and then I find a good example in a book, I make sure to reference these connections. This journal becomes a collection of samples and research for documenting the reading and thinking I'm doing. Though writing a journal might feel better by handwriting -- a digital journal allows you to search your journal for keywords. This is your research notebook where notes, connections, and new ideas come together all the time.

Good Citations

In terms of my reading, I always use my writing journal when I find a great passage or when something I read connects to something I am writing. I quote long passages and highlight places where I need to focus my ideas. I use MLA citation and sometimes document the books so I can go back and find them if I need them someday. Sometimes, I hyperlink an article or connection if it is appropriate. This turns your reading habit into a purposeful, close reading that may contribute to the way you think or write.

What You Think About Writing

And when you can’t write, but you know you should, come to the journal and discuss what is bothering you. Talk about some idea you have. Write about what shifts and changes in your life to make writing a beautiful cascade of ideas one day and a desert of lost fleeting ideas the next. It has been said that only a small portion of Samuel Talyor Colridge’s ideas are in his published work. Only a fraction of his poetry and his vision of the world made it to the printed books that we know. But he wrote in journals, letters, and other places in order to create those epic and public pieces.

Your Audience

Some people ask me what I think about who may read my journal -- or who the audience might be. It is a process tool. It is for you and only you. But if you need to write for someone -- write for your unborn characters still waiting for you to write the next page of the novel, the poem, or whatever you have in mind. They are waiting. And the more you work on getting words on the page, the more you will draw out what’s important, what makes it to stories, and what defines you. Some say that this kind of journal may be where a writer's voice takes shape.

Your writing journal is a record of your thought process through time. It will evolve as the months and years pass, and it will become a powerful tool. Not only can you think and process your ability on the page, you can also see the history and the arc of ideas as they develop. It can be very powerful to see where you’ve been and realize where you are all at once.

Start yours today. Write today’s date and say something….

Today, I wrote an article about writing journals…

Someone said something today that really surprised me, they said….

In the book The Night in Lisbon, there was a passage that still confuses me….

Why does anyone use narrative omniscience anymore?

My main character needs a job...


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About the Author: Ron Samul is a writer and college educator. He is a mentor in the Western Connecticut State University MFA in Creative and Professional Writing. www.RonSamul.org