Keeping a Writing Journal: Why & How
For most writers, a journal is their most prized possession (I may or may not be exaggerating). Some writers have twenty mostly empty journals, some have two notebooks with no remaining white space, and others are somewhere in between. Today’s post describes the purpose of note-taking for a writer and how to do so effectively.
Handwritten vs. Online
For writers who typically type their works, handwritten notes can create a change of pace. Your creativity may flow better on paper, and new ideas may come to you. Not to mention, it’s nice to get your eyes away from the screen for some time.
It’s also easier to draw on paper, so if you like idea webs or sketching your setting, you should consider keeping handwritten notes.
If you do keep a physical journal, keep it with you at all times (and don’t forget a writing utensil). You never know when inspiration may strike!
When taking notes online, you have less freedom with formatting. If you use a platform that is built for bullet points and typed notes, you might have difficulty drawing diagrams or characters. However, it’s a lot easier to revise/edit notes. If, for instance, you’re writing your story’s timeline, you might want to add a few events in one place later on. Online platforms allow you to add a line between two previously written points, but if there’s no space between your handwritten notes, you can’t magically add any. Of course, you can solve this by leaving a lot of room between notes, but that might waste paper unnecessarily.
Additionally, it can be easier to return to online notes. The last thing you want is to have a story idea you can’t read because your handwriting got messy when you were rushing. The Ctrl+F feature also makes it easy to find that plot twist you thought of a week ago (assuming, of course, that you remember a keyword or important phrase).
So, What Should I Use?
Use what’s comfortable for you. Think about whether you are more likely to have a notebook or a phone with you when inspiration strikes. Does handwriting or typing help your thoughts flow better? Do you type faster than you write or is it the other way around? Also, consider which one you can keep more organized. Will you lose physical papers or forget which online platform you took your notes on?
Experiment. Even if you think online notes are perfect for you, a physical journal may be helpful. You’ll never know if you don’t try.
What to Write About
Anything. Everything. That story idea that strikes you right before you go to sleep. That conversation you overheard on the bus. The story your friend told you.
Real life is pretty interesting if you pay attention, and it’s even more intriguing if you exaggerate. Notice the problems that people face on a daily basis and see if you can apply that to your characters. Focus on differences in syntax and speaking style, and feel free to take notes on interesting conversations.
Also, notes are the perfect way to keep track of names, titles, dates, and other details that are important to your story. Keep sections for worldbuilding and character development. Note down the backstories and other things that aren’t mentioned in your writing but are the reason your story takes place.
I can’t stress how important this is. How you keep organized is up to you, but whether you do is not. I mean it is, but keeping your notes organized will make them so much more effective.
Keep different sections of a notebook or file allotted to specific things. Maybe you separate your notes by WIP. If your ideas don’t relate to a single story, you might make different categories for them. For instance, worldbuilding, character development, plot twists, dialogue, etc.
Never, ever, ever delete anything (except fillers—delete those at free will). Save previous drafts of your WIPs, keep that line you were forced to cut from your short story, and that subplot idea may lead to another one you are more interested in. Unless you handwrite your WIPs, your archive folder for actual story content will probably be an online document where you just copy and paste the things you don’t delete.
But of course, the topic of this post is notes, so how does this apply to note-taking? There are notes you will take that you might look back upon and realize you don’t have any use for them. Maybe it’s a story idea that you now think is too cliché or the outline for a previous draft of your WIP. It can clutter your notes and make it hard for you to find what you really need.
Find a method for archiving your notes. If you use a binder, loose papers, a spiral notebook, etc. you might be able to just take the papers you no longer think you’ll need and file them in an archive folder. If not, try highlighting the sections you no longer need. For online notes, you might keep an archive folder.
Taking notes can help you keep track of everything that goes on while writing. There’s the big picture to consider: how your world and characters behave and what major events take place in the novel. Then, you need to remember the little picture things: foreshadowing, figurative language, and other literary devices that help develop your writing style.
Meanwhile, you will have ideas and observations that don’t fall into either category. You may not know what use you will have for these things just yet, but it’s important to keep note of them for future reference. There are so many details to keep in mind, which is why keeping a writing journal (or multiple) is so important.