What I Learned from Keeping a Writing Journal


After I wrote a blog post on the value of keeping a writing journal, I decided to keep one while I undertook a month of intensive novel writing. In addition to the 30,000 plus words I wrote for my novel, I also wrote 10,000 plus words for the writing journal. Although I posted the journal in its entirety on my blog during October (and although I think it’s a pretty interesting read, especially considering what happened to me in the final days of the month I was keeping it), I thought I would take pity on those readers who don’t have the time to read it all and distil a few things I learned along the way.

Jobs get in the way of writing.
“So why am I being Deputy Downer before I’ve even started? I suppose because I spent all day yesterday meeting with recruiters, then most of today revising my CV and doing a writing task for a potential employer, and I have to call the recruiter tomorrow morning to listen to his feedback on my revised CV and writing task. Fun. Yes, I’m looking for full-time work again and I can already tell that going back to work is going to interfere horribly with the amount of writing I’m able to do. I’m resenting a job I don’t even have yet. That bodes well.” From Day -1 (the day before I started the intensive writing month)

Writing goals need to be realistic.
“I’m aiming for between 500 and 1,000 words per day over the course of the month. Sometimes having a range feels like an escape clause for working harder but I know there are going to be days when I might not even get to write because there are a lot of family events going on this month including one tomorrow and another the next day. But if I can dash off 500 words before I have to dash off to birthdays and weddings, it will feel like I’ve achieved something instead of nothing.” From Day -1

Just keep writing, just keep writing…
“I think the best idea is simply to push through, get words – any words – down on paper and then move on to the next chapter. It’s only a first draft. I know when I started writing Trine that I decided I wasn’t going to rush the writing, I was going to do it in a leisurely fashion and edit as I went, not moving on until I was happy with each chapter. Sometimes if I move on when I’m not happy with a chapter, I head off in completely the wrong direction. But if I’m not going anywhere, then what’s the point of doing Project October?” From Day 1

Writing doesn’t always need preparation.
“So much of this book has been written through simply sitting down and writing without much idea of what was going to come out on the page. It’s such a pleasant way to create. It feels less like hard work. Even though I love to research and learn new things, sometimes when I do research for a book, it makes me feel like there are jigsaw puzzle pieces all on the floor and I have to figure out how they fit together. When I just write without researching anything, often the puzzle pieces just slide into place without any effort and it’s only afterwards I realise how perfectly it all works together even though I wasn’t really trying.” From Day 3

There’s a difference between writing your own projects and writing for someone else’s.
“I did a writing exercise last week for a potential employer to assess my writing skills and the recruiter who arranged it asked me, “Did you have fun doing it?” I suppose what that recruiter didn’t understand is that any writing that isn’t my writing (my novels, my blog posts, my articles) generally isn’t fun. That’s why I’m aiming to be paid for the writing I want to do. In the meantime, I still have to earn an income. I don’t have to find it fun to be able to do it well.” From Day 4

Exercising the writing muscles can be a great warm up for a writing session.
“Every day before I start writing (on the days I do write), I open up this writing journal and type out a few words, words that I don’t have to think about all that much. It’s like warming up the muscles before exercise. Sometimes when I try to write cold, I just sit there like my fingers won’t work. But I’m finding that one of the benefits of this writing journal exercise is that I’m releasing all the blah, blah, blah that can sometimes work its way into my novels and then I’m ready to get down to business with words of quality when I move onto the novel. Just goes to show I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss the usefulness of a writing journal.” From Day 6

Write early, write often.
“I wrote nearly 1,200 words this afternoon and then went to make dinner, thinking I might have another day like yesterday and come back to write well into the evening. I don’t know where the evening went but it’s nearly ten o’clock now. I suppose the lesson is to write early and write often and if I can’t write often, then writing early might get me to the target before I lose focus or motivation or whatever it is that went haywire tonight.” From Day 7

Store up all your life experiences so you can use them in your writing.
“I heard a church advertisement on the radio which I had on while I was working. I normally can’t write with the radio on. But for some reason I can listen to the football without being distracted. Anyway, the advertisement was talking about Captain Sullenberger, the Miracle on the Hudson pilot. Apparently he said that he thought of all his education and experience as deposits and when the plane went down, he was able to make a big withdrawal from his life bank to get that good result. Writing can be thought of in the same way, I think. We learn and write and observe and write and work and write and play and write and then one day, everything comes together and we’ve written something worthwhile.” From Day 10

Writing doesn’t need to be perfect in the first draft – that’s what rewrites are for.
“I’m really happy with how much writing I’m getting done and I think the bones are good but I know I’m going to need to add some flesh during the rewrite. In part two, anyway. I’m pretty confident that part one is of a pretty good standard because I wrote most of it outside of a Project October intensive writing month, meaning I was less concerned about word count and more interested in getting it right then and there.” From Day 11

“I recognise now that the quality of part three isn’t anywhere close to parts one and two. It is going to require a lot more reworking and rewriting than the others. I don’t think I mind though. Even the wrong words are so much easier to deal with than no words at all. The blank page is daunting in an all-consuming way, although less so than it used to be. Once a writer realises that it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, as long as the writer is prepared to go over it again and again and again, then writing can be easier, less stressful, less painful.” From Day 27

Writing different characters requires different mindsets.
“Yesterday I finished writing part two and today I started writing part three. I already had the first paragraph because I wrote it ages ago, at least a year ago I think. But I’m not sure I’m ready to move into the mindset of this other character yet. I haven’t given him enough thought – or actually any thought at all. So now when I sit down to write him, I don’t know what to write. I also need to be very careful writing part three because the character from whose viewpoint this section is told interacts with only one other character and often he is stalking her, watching her from a distance, not talking at all. If I’m not careful, this section could end up being very prose heavy and thus very difficult to both read and write.” From Day 13

“I am really struggling with the transition to the new character’s perspective. I didn’t think I would. But he’s been completely one dimensional in his appearances in the novel up until now and I don’t know him as well as I thought I did. At least, I thought his focus was so narrow that he only had one dimension but nobody is like that. Or if they are, they’re not very good characters.” From Day 14

“I’ve scrapped everything I wrote on Day 13 but luckily it was only 198 words so I don’t resent it as much as I would if I had written the full daily target. I think I’m finally in this new character’s mindset so the words are coming again. It’s not perfect but that’s not the point of Project October. I just have to keep thinking first draft, first draft, first draft. And that the second draft will be closer to perfect. And the third draft will be closer to perfect again. But I can’t get to the second and third drafts if I never finish the first. So write, dammit, write! And write I did.” From Day 15

Figure out the best writing environment for you.
“I’m a person of routines but my routines change frequently. My latest one is to write while listening to the football on the radio. I used to write in complete silence. Then I wrote with classical music playing in the background. Even though I fall into habits, those habits change because I get bored easily so I need to change it up. The key is that I can’t be distracted. I can’t write with the television on. I’m an observer so watching, or even just having the option of watching, something would mean little writing gets done. I also can’t write if there is music on that I want to sing along to. Way too distracting.” From Day 16

Thinking about writing can be just as important as doing it.
“I didn’t write today. Instead I had some thinking time (often just as important as the writing itself but not all conducive to Project October). I wrote the first chapter of the third part over the last few days and although I’m happy with the plot and the writing, I think I’ve revealed too much in that first chapter. I’m going to go back through it and take some parts out. But I’m not going to discard them, I’m just going to find a place in later chapters to put them.” From Day 18

Writers need to be able to write all sorts of things.
“I’ve written half of the second chapter of the third part now and it’s starting to work. The narrator is recapping how he stalks my main character while she goes to church, so I’ve written the priest delivering a homily in order to have some dialogue. It’s the second homily I’ve written into this book and I’m actually not too bad at them. A lot more interesting than the homilies I’ve listened to in churches over the years.” From Day 19

Characters can’t just be fictional versions of the writer – they need their own, individual personalities.
“Even though I’m well into the third part now, I know I need to work harder at developing a unique voice for this new narrator. Prudence, the narrator of the first part, has a very innocent, naïve and literal perspective and voice. Jock, the narrator of the second part, has a kind of weariness and frustration at the same time as he is content in his little part of the world. Daniel, the narrator in the third part, is much younger than both of them and I want him to be not quite as smart or sophisticated, a product of his broken home and life in neglectful foster care. I need to work very hard at achieving this because I’ve been accused before of using ‘Louise’ words when my characters wouldn’t and I know he isn’t sounding like himself yet. He’s sounding too much like me. I almost need to dumb it down. He isn’t dumb but he doesn’t have a love of language like I do, so it doesn’t make any sense for him to be narrating in a flowery or descriptive way.” From Day 21

Writing has the potential to be the solution to a mid-life work crisis.
“I am starting to understand why the age I am at is when people think about starting their own businesses. There is only so much people can take of being told what to do, what to wear, how to speak, how to think, where to stand, when to speak, when to stay quiet. I am an educated woman and I know more about writing, editing and crafting a message than anyone who is interviewing me for a job ever will.” From Day 22

Celebrate every writing achievement – they don’t come around all that often.
“Because I’m ahead of where I intended to be in the word count, it made me lazy today. I knew I could get away with not writing, I didn’t really want to write and so I didn’t (not until half past nine at night). I ended up writing a little because where I left off yesterday I was very close to finishing the last chapter of part two and tonight I finished it. It’s a massive accomplishment, I think, because I’ve been stuck in part two of this novel for nearly a year.” From Day 12

“Today something unusual happened. My phone began ringing and I didn’t recognise the number. It was a woman named Ally, who told me she worked at Text Publishing. She was calling to let me know that Black Spot, which I’d entered in the 2016 Text Prize – a competition for unpublished young adult manuscripts – had been shortlisted. And to invite me to the announcement of the winner in just under two weeks’ time. Wowsers! I wasn’t expecting that. Sometimes writing can feel like a lot of work for nothing. Yes, there’s the immense pride and satisfaction I get from the actual pieces of writing themselves. But when it doesn’t go any further than that, I wonder if maybe I’m wasting my time. But days like today make it all worthwhile. Especially because it feels like another step in a very long process. Last year I caught the attention of an Ampersand Prize judge but didn’t make it onto the shortlist. So I’m one step ahead of where I was then. I’m not even thinking about winning, first because it’s unlikely and second because I want to enjoy this moment in and of itself. This is an achievement. This is amazing. This is bliss.” From Day 28

Sometimes life is more important than writing.
“Today would have been my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday if she had lived to see it but she passed away nearly two months ago now. The family all headed to my grandfather’s house anyway to mark the occasion. I went early and then stayed for dinner so my grandfather wasn’t alone… When I finally left, it was nearly midnight and the window for any writing today had gone.” From Day 2

“Watching my sister get married is a pretty good excuse for not getting any writing done today. In fact, I’d call it a reason, not an excuse. How often do you get to watch your sister getting married? Well, since I have five of them, it feels like I’ve done it a few times now (and there will be another next year, I’ve just been informed) but it’s still special.” From Day 23

There’s only so much writing a writer can do.
“I’m at that point where I’m so close to the end that I’m desperate to get there and not close enough to actually taste it, particularly because I know that even if I meet the daily target every day for the rest of this Project October, I still won’t finish the novel. I’m thinking I might extend this Project October in order to complete the first draft. It’s an extra two weeks of writing but it might be worth it if I can keep going. That would be six weeks of intensive writing though. Might be just a little more than I can handle. And I’d worry about whether the quality was suffering in my haste to get to the end. Hmmm. Something to consider anyway.” From Day 20

“All I really want to do is read. Someone else’s books, not my own. I said previously that I’m a creature of habit but that my habits change frequently. It’s time for that change. Writing out, reading in, at least for a little while.” From Day 30


3 thoughts on “What I Learned from Keeping a Writing Journal

  1. Writing has been my lifelong passion! It’s as if you’re talking to me….I guess every writer can relate one way or another with all the things you said. I did! 🙂 Just started blogging, too. My blog is only a month-old today and I feel I still have a LOT to write about. Yeah, I need to write more often so I need to write early, haha. I will keep that in mind! Thanks for sharing! I love this post! 🙂


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