5 Ways to use Journals as a Writer

As writers, we are often encouraged to keep a journal. But what does that look like? Can you have different types of journals?

Woman writing in a Journal

In my life as a writer, I have learnt to use separate journals for different journaling activities.

Journaling is often referred to as a writing practice, but I believe that the terms should not be used interchangeably. You can have a journal for a writing practice, but the activity of journaling and the activity of writing practice are quite different. I will talk about writing practice in a separate blog post. In this post I will talk specifically about the use of journals in the life of a writer.

Currently, I have five different journals.

Journal 1: A Journal for Personal and Spiritual Development

I write in a brown faux leather-bound journal most mornings, and in pencil. Yes, I am mostly a pencil writer in my journals. I use this journal to express my faith, to grapple with personal development issues, and for spiritual growth writing. I use it to tussle with questions I have about life simply because I am a person who lives and breathes on this planet. The purpose of this journal is to give me the opportunity to write as I ask questions of God, grapple with heartache, go deep with anxieties or frustrations, and write my gratitudes. In the mornings I love to write on the page. I get whatever is inside of me out onto the page so that it no longer lives in my head.

This journal was my go-to journal when I was going through grief. Almost daily, I journaled my grief and my heartache. It gave me an avenue to explain with pencil and paper what I was thinking and feeling. Interestingly, when it came time to write my memoir, When God Says No, I had rich notes for my book tucked away in my journal. It was a valuable resource for my memoir.

However, that was never the focus or intent of my journal. The idea was never that my journal would be a resource to feed my memoir. Rather my journal was to feed me as a living breathing person, someone who is also a writer. The fact that it became such a valuable resource was more serendipitous than planned.

A Common Journaling Mistake for Writers

I made the mistake of jotting down all sorts of different things in the same journal. I would write thoughts, do a timed writing practice, record writing ideas, jot down notes about writing, and scribble new words I liked. It would be a real mishmash. Of course, you can do that just as well as I did. However, the problem is that I did not have like ideas in the same notebook. As a result, I did not know where to find what. This motivated me to have different journals for specific purposes hence the other four journals that follow.

Woman writing in a Journal

Journal 2: A Journal to Curate Writing Advice

I enjoy reading books on writing. The ones I have read and recommend in order of preference are:

  • Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Escaping into the Open by Elizabeth Berg

When I read books on writing, I like to jot down nuggets of writing advice I find pertinent and valuable. I now use a journal for that purpose only. By curating writing advice I have gleaned from different writers, I have essentially created a tailored- for-me mentor writer advice journal. Of course, you are not actually journaling your own ideas. You are capturing the ideas of others to enrich your writing and to guide you as a writer. It becomes your little mentor book. This collation of writing advice means that anytime I want, I can sit down, open my journal, and read a condensed summary of stellar writing advice. It is a great journal every writer should collate for herself and have on hand.

Journal 3: A Journal for Timed Writing Practice

A good way to warm up for a writing session is to do a timed writing practice. The journal I use for this is a spiral bound notebook. The fact that it is spiral bound is ideal because it means that I can fold it backwards, get comfortable, and simply write. A timed writing practice I enjoy is power journaling. Power journaling is free flow writing. The objective is to get out of your own way, keep your hand moving, and to let your pen do the writing. It is a stream of consciousness type of writing where you simply write the next thought.

Journal 4: A Sleek Small Journal to Keep with You

I have a spiral bound mini notepad that I love because of its smallness. Its size means that I can keep it with me to jot things down. I use it to track my writing ideas including ideas for my YouTube channel, Brenda Smit-James Write Your Story.

Guess what. Would you believe that I like to read memoirs? Often, when I am reading my favorite genre, I will come across a gem of a topic or something I want to reference when doing a memoir review. I use this journal to document the page and reference that interests me. In the past, I would make a mental note of it and continue reading. I would get to the end of the book and think, what was that quote again? What did I want to say? Where was that idea? I would invariably need to go through the book again. There have also been times when I have not been able to find what I was looking for. I am learning to discipline myself to use this little notepad journal to document those ideas as I come across them.

Woman writing in a red journal

Keeping a notebook and journal on hand is a good idea for all writers. It is a good discipline to immediately record writing ideas when they come to us, or to capture those memories that surface as we write our memoir. Trust me, you will think that you will remember, but there is more chance that you will forget than that you will remember. Admittedly, this is not classic journaling, but I have noticed the term journaling used to refer to the practice of capturing and recording writing ideas.

Journal 5: A Journal of Dreams, Goals and Aspirations

One of my favorite journals is my red journal of dreams. I have a notebook where I journal the dreams I have for myself. It is a journal of things I would love to do, books I want to read, places I want to visit, and goals I want to accomplish. When I want to be inspired and motivated, I get out my red journal of dreams. It helps me think about my goals and my plans for the next year, the next month, even five or ten years from now. This is not a personal delving into my inner being journal, for that I have my personal development journal. It is a journal of dreams, hopes and aspirations for my life.

Those are five examples of how I use journals in my writing life.

How do you use journals? Do you have a suggestion for me that I have not covered here? Do you find that they enhance your life as a writer? Drop me a note in the comments below, I would love to hear from you.

Click here to watch my video on this topic and see my actual writer journals.

You can find links to my three most recent blog posts right here.

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1 comment

  • Tracy Danton

    I’m a pencil girl too :) I genuinely struggle to write in pen! I love good old HB pencils, a sharpener and eraser! BOOM done!

    I have a journal for writing advice (and technical information, as I call it.) I’m taking notes from your videos, blogs etc in this particular journal.

    I have two huge scrap books, which I started in 2005, due to a specific situation in my life. (These are the journals, which, like you, will become the basis for my book – eventually!)

    I have a few journals which have a mix and match of stuff in them, but like you say, that is not the ideal way to keep information/writing, as it is hard to recall where you wrote what.

    I love your suggestions and ideas. I will be starting a timed writing practice journal now too. I think that’s a fabulous idea. I enjoyed the information shared on your other blog about this (reference Natalie Goldberg) Thank you!

    I hope to learn more from you and will happily share my journey as I go along!

    Warm greetings from South Africa :)

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