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Why Keep a Journal?
Journaling is an effective way to keep in contact with your own thoughts. It can take almost any form, but is usually a private record of expressive writing not intended for publication, allowing the writer freedom to work out new ideas without too much judgment. For writers, journals can also serve as records of experiences and observations that can help you brainstorm new writing ideas.
Writing in a journal or diary is a way to record the raw thoughts and observations you have during the day. Journals can be written in stream-of-consciousness style, in bullet points, or with the aid of writing prompts or even with doodles. Although journaling can be done on the computer, writing with pen and paper can give your brain and eyes a much-needed break from screens. For writers in particular, self-expression in a journal could turn into a work of art.
The 3 Key Benefits of Journaling
If staring at a blank page is anxiety-inducing, a daily journaling practice, whether done with the support of journaling prompts or dear-diary style, can help get you more comfortable with starting writing every day. The benefits of journaling for writers include:
- Taking down your thoughts before they escape you is a good way to sharpen your observational skills, especially when you’re traveling.
- Becoming familiar with how people speak and the subjects that move them in conversation will help both with writing dialogue and plotting your fiction.
- Looking back on your old journal entries can provide inspiration for future writing projects, whether you’re writing short fiction or working on your first novel. Some of these 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 observations will resonate three, 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.
8 Thought-Provoking Journal Writing Prompts
These journal topics from MasterClass Instructors Billy Collins, Neil Gaiman, Judy Blume, Dan Brown, and Joyce Carol Oates are designed to help build writing skills and overcome writer’s block, but they can also serve as a moment for self-reflection.
- Billy Collins: Try an exercise in association. Look around you—wherever you are—and identify an object or concept to be your “seed” concept. What associations come up when you think of that object? What associations stem from those associations? Do a free write detailing the concepts (objects, events, etcetera) and various associations they generate. Now, are any of these associations particularly interesting? Try to write a poem using this exercise as a prompt.
- Billy Collins: In the evening, write a list of 20 things you did that day. Use this form: “I did this, I did that, I washed the dishes, I ate an avocado, I read the newspaper,” et cetera. The only rule is: Don’t list these things in chronological order. Review your list of 20 activities and see if any of them spark a line of poetry. Try to make use of one of these seemingly mundane (or not!) activities to write a longer poem. Once you have a direction, have a seat somewhere busy and write. This could be in the grass at a park, inside a noisy café, at a bus stop, et cetera. As you write, let certain distractions make their way into your poem. What do these distractions add? How do they surprise you?
- Neil Gaiman: Go to a busy, public place where you can observe other people. Choose one person and invent a few details about them. What’s their name? Why are they there? How do they feel? Now write a one-page description of them. Find one detail that will make them distinct for a reader. Show their thoughts, but try to blend it in with the world around them. Don’t be afraid to make their inner world completely different from their appearance or surroundings.
- Neil Gaiman: On a page in your notebook titled “Green” come up with as many adjectives or descriptive words as you can think of that convey the idea of green. Aim for at least 50 words. Sort the contents of your page into positive greens and negative greens. Do this with other adjectives.
- Neil Gaiman: Choose a folk tale or fairy tale that you know well. Select one of the characters from the story for the following exercise and write a few stories about them, using the following prompts: Pretend you’re a therapist treating the character. Write a scene in which you discuss the character’s life and problems, then arrive at a diagnosis. Write a newspaper article describing the events of the story. For example, “Snow White—Woman Hiding in Woods for Ten Years Found by Wealthy Hiker.” Then write a story for that headline using journalistic objectivity. Have your character explain their actions to a jury.
- Judy Blume: Judy says that “no kid...grows up without having a lot of problems...the things that you have to come to terms with and go through, and the way you’re treated, and the way you’ve treated other people.” Consider this statement and describe a problem from your own childhood in a freewriting exercise. What issue did you face that was so important? How did it make you feel? What did it make you realize about yourself?
- Dan Brown: Visit a location you’ve never been to before—either an actual place from a setting you’ve chosen or simply a place near you that you find interesting. When you first arrive at the location, don’t record or photograph or write anything down, just spend some time absorbing it through your senses. Pay attention to the things that strike you most. Go home later and write a description of the place. Remember to include the sensory details—what it felt and smelled and sounded like.
- Joyce Carol Oates: Allow yourself to daydream about your stories and take notes. Go on a walk, Joyce says, and then return home and write down any thoughts about a particular story: characters, details, dialogue. If you repeat this action for a few days, you’ll likely have the disjointed outline of a story. Getting out of the house and moving—going for a walk or run—has been a part of Joyce’s process for years. Many writers have found physical activity to be a way to both activate new ideas and facilitate the creative processing that physicality and distance create. However you do it, engaging in an activity that activates different parts of your brain and body is an important aspect of the writing process. Running, painting, playing music, going on a walk, or any other activity that stimulates you in a different way can lead to a new perspective on current work or pique entirely new ideas for fiction.
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