Is there value in keeping a writing journal?

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I don’t keep a writing journal. It feels like a waste of words. But back in 2007, a writing journal was the required major assessment piece for the final subject in my master’s degree. And not just any writing journal. A writing journal consisting of “a record in about 3,000 to 5,000 words of your development as a writer with particular emphasis on the period of this unit”. (If you’re a regular follower of my blog, you would have spent the July just gone reading it.)

I really didn’t want to write a writing journal. Why use up the time and effort when I could be writing my novel? That’s certainly what I thought at the time. I wrote:

“Writing journals are a waste of time. Five thousand words spent on something I’d rather not be writing. Five thousand words that could comprise 25% of the last 20,000 words I need to write to finish my novel.”

I requested to be allowed to submit something else. Twice.
The first alternative was to use the weekly 500 word discussion pieces we had to write for each 12 week subject I’d studied over the previous three years (meaning I had 96 of them) as the basis for a how-to book about writing. It would be humorous and witty and it would be called “Everything I Know about Writing: A Short Book”. (Great idea, right? No kidding. That’s actually the earliest genesis of Project December but it’s a story for another time.)

The second alternative was a journalistic article investigating the value of studying writing and whether writing can actually be taught. As someone about to finish a postgraduate degree in that very subject, I thought it would be a perfect way to reflect on my development as a writer throughout the course.

Both requests were approved. Both ideas subsequently failed and I eventually gave in, writing and submitting the writing journal I didn’t want to write. Sort of.

It looked like a journal. It sounded like a journal. But it had more in common with a piece of fiction. Because although in the journal I said that I’d been writing it as a back-up all along in case my other ideas for the major assessment piece didn’t come off, that was a lie. I hadn’t. Instead, as the due date of the project drew closer and I realised my alternative ideas weren’t working, I hastily did some research on the previous three months, trying to remember what I’d been doing, what we’d been talking about in class and what had been happening in my non-writing life and wrote it so it sounded like a journal.

I got a High Distinction, the highest mark you could get.

But apart from allowing me to end my postgraduate studies on a high note, was there any genuine value in that writing journal? Reading it back all these years later, it certainly sounds familiar. I might have fudged the fact that it was a proper journal but the concerns and doubts I had as a writer back then are pretty much the same concerns and doubts I have as a writer now.

I worried about motivation, about not having the deadlines of school work to keep me writing when I might otherwise lose focus.

I worried about not being intellectual enough, because I liked reading and writing commercial fiction.

I worried about the isolation of being a writer, and how hard I had to work at being my own “critical reader”.

I worried about not having enough time to devote to writing, working a full-time job that drained the hours from my day, the energy from my body, and sometimes the will to live from my mind.

And I worried about whether I was actually good enough, whether perhaps I was just fantasising my life away on a pipe dream, whether perhaps I should throw it all in and become an English teacher.

It’s interesting to read it now. But it isn’t anything more than interesting. There weren’t any answers, just questions, questions I still struggle with as a writer.

But the potential value of a writing journal must be investigated by each individual writer. Just because I don’t see the point doesn’t mean that other writers might not get something extremely important out of keeping one. There are two reasons I can see a writing journal being useful:

1. A writing journal has the potential to become a terrific insight into and record of a piece of fiction if it is being kept at the same time as the writing of a book that goes on to be reasonably well known. Then the journal could eventually be published as a book in its own right and leverage off the success of the first piece. This is a long-term long shot though.

2. A writing journal, even a short one like the one I produced for my final master’s degree subject, has the potential to fill a blog schedule when a break is needed.

I undertook another Project October in July. I thought it might be as much of a disaster as it was last year but I gave it another go because I have to learn to be prolific in more than just one month of the year. So while I was trying to stick to a regimen of 1,000 words a day, you were reading my old writing journal in nine parts. I was attempting to complete the final 20,000 words of my debut novel, Enemies Closer, at the time so there were elements of both the above reasons contained in it, although perhaps not enough of the first.

If only I’d known at the time that it could have been a useful historical record. And potentially another book. The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing. Maybe my hindsight can be to your benefit. As long as you don’t think writing journals are a waste of time.

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