How Journaling Helps Your Writing

by Samantha Hoffman

I have been journaling most of my life. I have journals going back to the 70s, called them diaries as a teenager. Back before I was cool. When I was 14 or 15 my mother found one of my diaries and read that I hated her. Like, what teenage girl doesn't write that in her diary? My mom told my dad, who told me. I raged about privacy.

But I digress. 

Let's talk journaling and some of the questions I've been asked:

  • Is journaling worth the effort?

  • If you only have so many hours of writing time per day and you spend some of that time journaling, isn't that a waste of time?

  • Maybe if you're writing a memoir, journaling is worthwhile but what if you write fiction or nonfiction?

  • Why spend time on writing that no one's ever going to see?

You can find lots of other opinions but here are mine:

Is journaling worth the time and effort? A resounding yes. All writing is worth the effort; journaling, letter writing, blogging, business writing,'s all writing, it all counts. It's all good practice. Journaling teaches you how to put sentences together, how to carry through with thoughts, how to tell a story.
You can journal about anything; what happened that day; things going on in the news; you can rant about injustice; you can make to-do lists or lists of story ideas, great titles, etc. Your journal is personal, and whatever you want it to be.

Is journaling a waste of time? See above. Look at it as training. If you were going to run a marathon would you think training was a waste of time? If you're going to write a book you need to train for that too. Think of journaling as stretching, warming up your muscles, getting the experience of running a couple of miles, then five, then ten. Doing all of that prepares you to run 26.2 miles. Journaling prepares you to write a book. Call that book your literary marathon. 

If you're not working on a memoir, why bother? Sometimes when I'm stuck on my WIP I read through my journals to see how I felt at a particular time, about a particular experience. As fiction writers, emotion can be hard to capture creatively. It's hard not to resort to clichés. In your uncensored journals, however, you'll find the raw emotion that can bring your work alive. The best part of journaling is that it's honest; you aren't trying to impress anyone, you're just telling the truth. Plagiarize yourself for your WIP.

Why spend time on something no one's going to see? Well, you will, and you are a different person from who you were when you wrote that, even if it was just last year. If you have children or grandchildren they might read it and gain insight into the person you are. Because, how much do we know about our parents or grandparents? We rarely think to ask them while they're still with us.
A journal is a wonderful history to leave behind, a legacy. Even if it embarrasses you. Actually, from my lofty perch at my lofty age, mine embarrass me much less than they used to. Now I see my young self as more honest than embarrassing; not as big of a dork as I felt back then; smarter than I realized; too sensitive but insightful. 
The closest thing I have to a journal from my father is a scrapbook his sister kept of the letters he wrote home when he was in the Army in the 40s. I cherish his words and his feelings. Your family will also cherish yours.


Pictured here, some of my journals. The notebook begins in 1975, obviously before I thought journals should be pretty. You can see I crossed out something at the top of the page, and the page number is 46. I started this particular journal in the promiscuous days after my first divorce and as I recall I recounted a number of experiences with men who I thought would make me feel better about myself. They didn't, of course. 
At some time in my 30s I feared that something would happen to me and my dad would find this journal and he would be ashamed of me and disappointed, even while he mourned, so I ripped up those first 45 pages.
I wish I still had them. I'm not very good at writing sex scenes. I bet I was good at it back then.

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