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Writing

How to Start and Keep a Journal: Complete Journal Writing Guide

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 5 min read

On some level, a motive for all writing is self-expression. Journaling is an effective way to keep in contact with your own thoughts, improve your writing ability, and develop disciplined writing habits.

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Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short StoryJoyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story

Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.

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What Is Journaling?

Journaling, quite simply, is a written record of your thoughts, feelings, or observations about the world. It can short sentences, long paragraphs, or even single words. In a nutshell, a journal is whatever you want it to be, as long as it’s a consistent document of self-expression.

Is There a Right Way to Journal?

For a lot of people, staring at a blank page can be daunting, and the prospect of beginning a new journal for the first time can seem overwhelming. Luckily, the first rule of journal writing is that there’s no wrong way to do it. You can free write, jot down bullet points, or make a to-do list. Whether your preferred journaling practice is bullet journaling, responding to writing prompts, or just writing stream of consciousness-style doodles and observations, what’s important is that you start writing and keep writing.

You also don’t have to keep a literal journal. Some journal writers prefer to do so in a notebook, but if you find that it’s easier to keep up your journaling habit with a sketchbook, or a Word document, or a blog, or bound journals covered with Washi tape and stickers, that’s okay too. The types of journals are less important than the act of writing itself.

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What Are the Benefits of Journaling?

The benefits of journaling are countless. In many ways, to keep a journal is to embark on a process of self-discovery, as journaling can help you sort out your feelings about your own life and the world around you. Journaling can also improve your mental health—studies have shown that people who journal about their problems can reduce their overall anxiety levels. At the very least, journals can serve as a fun and useful time capsule, functioning as a firsthand document of your life’s key moments. Learn why Joyce Carol Oates finds journaling important for your writing here.

How Journaling Can Make You a Better Writer

One of the biggest reasons why you should keep a journal is that it can make you a better writer:

  1. Sharpen your observation skills. Journaling is a way to push yourself to describe the places you visit—who populates them, how they look, what they smell like, what sort of food or plant life or architecture you see—and record dialogue you overhear or conversations you have with the people you meet. Becoming familiar with how people speak and the subjects that move them in conversation will help both with writing dialogue and plotting your fiction.
  2. Help you find beauty in the mundane. Some of your personal journal entries will be ordinary. Some will be inherently interesting. Some may even start out ordinary and become interesting on repeat readings. With distance, a handful of these observations will become profound and potentially engender some ideas for a story. It’s virtually impossible to predict which notes and journal ideas will resonate 3, 10, or 20 years into the future, so it’s important to write them all down and have faith in this part of the writing process.
  3. Develop writing discipline. Free writing on a consistent basis will not only help generate material for your fiction, but it will also help you develop consistent working habits that will carry over into your more structured writing. Simply put, writing becomes easier the more you do it. Consistent journal writing can have a spillover effect, making your non-journal writing more focused and disciplined.

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5 Tips for Starting—and Keeping—a Journal

Think Like a Pro

Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.

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Follow these five tips to establish your journal-writing practice.

  1. Write at odd hours. Scheduling your writing time is important, but it’s also a worthwhile practice to write at odd and spontaneous hours, when your mind and mood are altered. Write a journal entry when you’re incredibly tired, busy, or even feverish. After allowing a new mental state into your process, you might look over what you’ve done and see something with new potential.
  2. Write every day. Some people like to write morning pages when they first wake up. Some prefer to write at the end of the day. The most important thing is that you do it every day, even if you don’t really feel like it. Writing every day will help you build consistent habits and learn how to struggle through writers’ block.
  3. Bring your journal with you everywhere. Sometimes, life gets in the way, and you find that you aren’t able to write during your scheduled journaling time. That’s why it’s important for journal writers to keep their journal with them at all times: you never know when your creative juices will start flowing and you’ll be compelled to start journaling in a given day.
  4. Use journaling prompts. Some people find to think of things to write about every single day. Using journal prompts can be a helpful way to engage in the practice of writing daily. You can try keeping a gratitude journal, in which you write specifically about things that you’re grateful for. You also do the opposite and write about stressful events or things that you wish you could change about the day. The process of daily writing is more important than the content, so feel free to use prompts if it helps the words flow.
  5. Relax. Close your eyes. Take deep breaths. Put on some relaxing music. Seeing a blank piece of paper shouldn’t be stressful, because you can fill it with whatever you want. Remember, expressive writing should be fun, and there’s no wrong way to do it. Just start with the first page and then keep going.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Joyce Carol Oates, the author of some 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. In Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass on the art of the short story, the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor reveals how to extract ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft one sentence at a time.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.

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