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How to Keep a Writing Journal You Won’t Neglect

Woman writing in a journal

Quick! Name something that can make you feel happier and more productive and inspires creativity. Your first thought might have been “a hot cup of coffee” – and okay, that’s valid. But did you know that keeping a writing journal has the same benefits and they last long after the caffeine buzz has worn off?

Why Keep a Writing Journal

A writing journal can be an essential part of a fiction writer’s toolkit. (Journaling also has surprising emotional and physical health benefits.) Whether you use an app on your phone, a battered notebook you picked up at the dollar store, or a handmade bespoke leather-bound diary, your journal is a safe place to store, develop, and play with writing ideas. The type of journal you use is far less important than how often you use it.

Keeping a journal can help you:

  • Store ideas
  • Generate inspiration
  • Record your thoughts and feelings
  • Play with different forms, tones, and styles in your writing
  • Forge a sense of identity: ‘I am a writer. See, I have a journal!’

Don’t underestimate the power of that last point. If you see yourself as an amateur writer, telling yourself that what you write doesn’t really matter and by default isn’t good, then the writing you produce might not speak to your potential. But if you see yourself as an author, then gifting yourself a tool like a journal reminds you daily that your ideas are worth looking after.

What to Put in a Writing Journal

Journals are, by nature, a very personal resource—use one in whatever way works best for you. Here are the most common things a writer might put down in their journal.

  • Revelations. It’s 3 a.m. and you just thought of the most amazing plot twist for your novel-in-progress. No, you won’t remember it in the morning. Write it down!
  • Brainstorming. Choose a topic and just down as many ideas as you can within a brief, set time limit. Go!
  • Your deepest thoughts and feelings. Emotion is the cornerstone of good fiction writing. Recording your own feelings will help you when you’re trying to build relatable characters and themes.
  • Character development. When your characters speak, listen! And record what they say.
  • Descriptions. Sketch locations and settings, characters, and important objects.
  • Storyboards. Map out ideas you can visualize but haven’t found words for yet.
  • Half-formed and outlandish ideas. Capture everything! And remind yourself that although only some ideas are worth acting on, all ideas come from a place of inspiration . . . and that’s good.

How to Keep a Writing Journal

You don’t need any complicated rules to follow, you only need to write. Of course, a little structure could help you feel more motivated. Here are a few pointers to consider.

  1. Aim to write by hand whenever possible. There are a number of studied benefits of writing by hand (as opposed to typing). The practice could even help you produce better quality writing.
  2. Write for twenty minutes every day. Yes, journals are great for recording quick thoughts or ideas, but regular journaling will keep your mental writing muscles limber. Make a habit of grabbing twenty minutes per day to write in your journal.
  3. Write about things that challenge you. What scares you? What makes you laugh or cry? Ask yourself tough questions and then follow them. That’s where the energy is!
  4. Time yourself. Try freewriting. Choose a subject, set a time limit (say, the aforementioned 20 minutes), and write without stopping to think or edit. Tell yourself before you even begin that whatever you write is going to be nonsense, and then let the nonsense flow. Within, you’re sure to find golden nuggets of wisdom you never knew you had. Use those nuggets in your fiction writing.
  5. Try a little up-front organization. You could separate your journal with tabs for Ideas (anything that pops into your head), Observations (things you note when you’re out and about or people-watching), and Scribbles (your imaginative playground where anything goes.)
  6. Be free. Honestly, there are no rules. Do what you want. Write a bucket list, daydream in text, doodle a picture, keep track of your daily activities and feelings, record interesting snippets of conversation. Nothing’s off the table, and none of it has to make sense. That’s the beauty of it!


Commit to your writing . . . daily.

Consistency and persistence are two essential qualities for a successful writer. That’s why daily writing is so important. A journal helps facilitate that, even when you don’t have a project in the works. In fact, your journal just might provide the inspiration and momentum for your next fiction writing challenge!

PRO TIP: If you forget to write, set a calendar reminder on your smartphone. Keep the reminder active until you’ve made daily writing a habit.

Journaling exercises your brain and gets you used to thinking about words, imagining characters, and considering the shape of stories. Most importantly, it makes writing a habit that becomes a central part of who you are.

A strong writer is one who writes something every day.

Where to Get Writing Journal Ideas

A blank page! Oh no! Once you get into the routine of writing in your journal each day, this fear will go away. But if you ever get stuck, here are a few ideas to get you moving again.

  • Where are you? Describe the location as if you’ve never seen it before. Find interesting details. Use your senses.
  • Make lists. Your favorite words. Your favorite foods. Your favorite dog breeds. Your favorite wines. Anything goes!
  • What books do you wish you’d written? Why?
  • Write in the first person as one of your characters. What would they think if they were looking around your location right now?
  • Try a poem – writing haiku is a nice challenge to get you thinking about syllables and the rhythm of words.
  • Write a story in exactly 50 words. Choose one of these prompts: Fire. Magpie. Broken. Red. Mist.
  • Write a logline (one-sentence summary) for a story you’ve written.
  • What will your author’s biography be inside of your novel’s back cover? Write a current one. Now imagine a future you who has become a huge publishing success. What does that bio look like?
  • Describe the house you lived in when you were ten in third person POV. Get both the physical and the emotional details down.
  • Try any one of a zillion writing prompts available online, like these from Poets & Writers, or this Instagram writing prompt feed.

Is journaling part of your writing life? If not, are you thinking about starting a journal? Talk about journaling, and your methods for getting your daily writing dose, in the comments below!


Join the Discussion on “How to Keep a Writing Journal You Won’t Neglect”

  1. Just shared a link to this post in my Writing Resistance forum. It’s gold.

    I don’t journal like I should. I love writing by hand. Just haven’t made it a part of my schedule the way I need to.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Glad you found the post helpful, Joel! It’s funny how we often forget to work something as beneficial as regular journaling into our busy schedules.

  2. Jennifer Cornell says:

    I’m going to start doing this. I think it will help me finish my book.

  3. Keli Worthy says:

    Daily journal writing was one of my major New Year’s resolutions, and I sucked at it! Start and stop, start and stop … sputter, sputter, sputter. What was the problem? I was treating it as a diary. There were days when nothing had happened that sparked a need to write, or days where I was just too busy to even think about my journal.

    So, recently I ditched the diary box I had imprisoned myself into and decided to use it as a writer’s journal. Anything goes, just like this article described. I write about character ideas, scene and dialog snippets, setting sketches, even jot down any good writing craft notes I want to remember. The result? I write in it everyday and take it with me everywhere I go. It has become like my phone. I would be lost without it!

    1. AutoCrit says:

      It’s so cool that the “anything goes” writer’s journal technique worked for you, Keli!

  4. Neva Bodin says:

    Like the suggestions of what you can put in a journal. I’ve been stymied by wondering how to be a journalist!

    1. Kristen says:

      We’re so glad we could help!

  5. Tabitha Beattie says:

    I only write about how I feel, that’s not being a real writer is it!? There are literally no original or creative ideas, I just journal about myself and my thoughts and feelings just about my life.

  6. Miari says:

    I feel like you are very much a writer though, for converting your own internal state of mind into words, it’s an art- to construct your feelings into a written description and put it on paper. It is creative and I think it’ll help you, if you ever were to consider creative writing, in gaining an understanding of how a character feels the feelings you feel when you associate their fictional sadness with a moment in time of your own sadness. X

  7. Paul Eade says:

    Already I write a daily journal, which contains thoughts and comments on mine, and my wife’s day. It is about 80 words per page, I try not to use more than one page a day. I do not include things like we had bagels and cream cheese for lunch. Now using a small notebook, one that I can carry easily,I want to start a writing journal, Does the guidance offered here really work?

  8. Marlene says:

    I really appreciate that there are people trying to help others to fulfill their wishes and dreams. I’ve always wanted to write but I don’t trust my capacity to do so. I have a lot of life experience, imagination and fantasy but I find it difficult to put on paper. This year I decided I would write whatever comes into my mind and I am doing so. I have never read all what I’ve been writing since january. Let’s see how far it goes. thanks for tips. kind regards

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