Along with llama-shape coin jars and unicorn piñatas, journals seem to be one of the most common items you’ll find in a gift store these days. They’re certainly not a new development: people have been keeping journals for centuries. Just ask Samuel Pepys.
However, in this age of smartphones and short-hand texting, journals can be a great way to express yourself through a semi-physical action. To some, it can even be downright therapeutic! The practice of keeping a journal also helps people organize their thoughts: mixing their reflection on the day with to-do lists and random ideas. And If you’re a writer, journaling can also help you fight off that most dastardly gremlin of all: writer’s block.
There are countless ways to fight off writer’s block, as you know. From free-form writing and using creative writing prompts to taking long walks through the woods, there’s no fool-proof strategy for combating an inspirational dry spell. But here are a few extra benefits you can expect from starting a journal:
The beauty of journaling is that you’re not under any pressure to make it interesting or to imbue it with meaning. You can simply recount the past 24 hours or describe a specific incident that happened during the day. What if your New Year’s Resolution is to read 100 of the greatest sci-fi novels and you’d like to record your progress to motivate yourself? Turn to your journal. If a memory springs to mind or you want to get a rant off your chest, then you’re free to do that, too!
There’s no wrong way to journal: if you ever draw a blank, you can simply revert to writing down what you ate for breakfast.
There’s a reason why plenty of authors choose to write in the first person for their debut novel: it’s a great way to show off a writer’s unique voice. When you first start journaling, you might yourself writing a bit self-consciously – using florid prose that you hope will elevate your journal to the level of art. This habit will pass. After a few weeks, you’ll likely settle into a groove and start using a more natural voice.
A big part of developing your craft as a writer is to burrow down to what makes your work unique. A daily blast of journaling will help you find your voice quicker than staring at a blank screen – that I can promise you.
One of the greatest tools a writer can have is human empathy. If you understand why people behave a certain way and how they can change, then you’re one step closer to creating characters who do the same. And perhaps the best way to get this kind of empathy is being able to see the change in yourself.
This particular benefit of journaling won’t come until you’ve been journaling for at least a year, maybe two. But at some point, you’ll sit down and look through your early entries. Be prepared to cringe – as there’s bound to be a lot of things you wrote early on that you no longer believe. Given enough time, you won’t remember writing most of what is in your journal. You’ll start reading it as an outsider and getting some perspective on this character you’ve written; the person who happens to share your name.
You will also see how far you’ve come as a writer. You’ll see writing tics drop off over time; long passages of waffle transform into tight prose. You’ll be able to track your evolution as a writer, in chronological order — something that will inspire you as you defeat the next wave of those wretched writer's block gremlins.
Martin Cavannagh is a writer at Reedsy, a network connecting authors and publishers with top editorial, design and marketing talent. When he’s not writing fiction, he works to educate authors by curating a series of free online courses and live webinars.