Do you keep a journal? Lots of writers do. They’re a great way to capture all the ideas you have with no pressure to make anything of them. Whenever you think of something potentially interesting or worth developing, just open up that notebook, and write it down. Is that so bad?
Well, if you’re writing part-time after you do your main job, journaling can take away time from making progress on your main project, essentially becoming a way to procrastinate while feeling productive. Is writing in a journal actually a worthwhile writing endeavor, or is it the literary equivalent of everyone with a phone and an Instagram account suddenly becoming a photographer? And besides, is every little idea you have worth recording?
Let’s figure this out by taking it apart into pros and cons.
Why You Should Keep a Journal
The obvious benefit of keeping a journal is that you always have something handy where you can write down ideas. If you’re the kind of person who gets inspired to write by seeing an interestingly-shaped rock, a journal can be a major outlet for you. And if you’re not that type of person, get a journal and watch yourself become that. You might feel like sitting down to write something is an effort that must result in some sort of concrete work, but with a journal, all that pressure is off.
If you get writers block, having a journal handy might cure you of it. The reason for the block might well be that you’ve got a perfectionist streak, and can’t force yourself to write anything if you know it’s not going to be your best. Freewriting in a journal is absolutely zero pressure, and you’ll get a sense of fun from writing with no end goal or burden to make it great.
Lastly, once you have even a modest amount of the journal filled, you can dip back into it for inspiration and ideas for what to write next.
Why You Shouldn’t Keep a Journal
You’re walking down the street, you suddenly get an idea that could be used in an essay, you jot it down in your journal, and… that’s it. That’s the end of that line of thought. There’s no brooding on the topic to see how you can develop it further, no thinking of a broader issue that this point can be fit into, nothing. You write it down and forget it, with your journal functioning basically like a garbage disposal for thoughts.
And do you even need to write down good ideas? Isn’t the measure of a good idea that it excites you enough that you carry it with you for awhile? An idea that gets lost with the other ideas in your journal that you write down without discerning quality is basically hopeless. When you dip into your notes from a month ago when looking for a topic, is it going to excite you even to the fraction of the degree that it used to when you originally had it? It’s likely that the answer is going to be ‘no’ for most of them. So what was the point in writing them down in the first place?
If you write down ideas in a journal frequently, the lesson you’re going to learn is that ideas aren’t worth very much. They have a measure of exciting-ness, but that’s not the same thing as value. What’s worth something isn’t an idea, but the expression of that idea. So in this sense, keeping a journal is like carrying around a trash compactor.
This question has no definitive answer, and whether keeping a journal will help or hinder your development as a writer will depend on what kind of writer you are. Your mileage may vary and will be contingent on your process of writing.
Are you overflowing with ideas, constantly getting excited by a new one and abandoning the previous? A journal might help you in developing something to its conclusion. Do you brood on a topic for long times with the intention of writing it all down, but think things through so thoroughly that when you sit down to write it out, you feel like you’re doing the same work twice? A journal might become the space where you create the first draft.
Don’t knock it till you try it. Get any old notebook, and keep it next to you. It might be where your next great idea first sees the world.