Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Holly Lisle's Vision

The Right Tool for the Right Job

On Keeping a Writer’s Journal

By Peggy Kurilla

© 2002, Peggy Kurilla

One piece of advice, given to writers so often it’s almost a cliché, is to keep a journal.  What is less often covered is what to write in those journals and how they can help your writing.  In this article, I’ll cover four common types of journals that can help you refine your writing.

Like many people, the first journal I began, more than fifteen years ago, was a smorgasbord.  Anything and everything went into that journal: newspaper clippings, sketches, details of my daily life, short story drafts, research notes, and whatever else struck my fancy.  The only organizing principle in this kind of journal is to date everything because it provides a context when you go back and review it.

When I became more serious about my writing, I read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.  In the book, she recommends doing “Morning Pages” each day as a way to get all the niggly bits of life out of our minds and onto paper.  Morning Pages, she says, clear the way for more creative work.  Though not as structured as her Morning Pages, my smorgasbord journal serves the same purpose.  A movie review might serve as a springboard for a better (at least to me) way of telling a story.  Working through emotions provides insight into how my characters might react to a similar circumstance.


Some writers index their smorgasbord journals, reserving a page or two at the end of each volume for that purpose.  This way, they can quickly look through their notebooks for particular topics.  Also, themes arise that may lead to more extended writing—an article, a series of essays, or even a memoir.  If you want to index your journals, it’s best to start as early as possible.  I currently have almost 30 volumes, and not one of them has an index.  Finding anything in them is difficult, unless I can recall a date or significant event surrounding the material I wish to find.

On the other hand, by not having an index, I have a terrific excuse to go back and read earlier journals and look for seeds of ideas and projects.  (And maybe when I re-read them, I’ll create an index as I go.  But I wouldn’t count on it.)

Once I’ve begun a specific project, I dedicate a separate notebook to it.  For a project notebook, I generally use a three-ring binder, with labeled tabs.  For a nonfiction work, I might list each chapter and a bibliography.  I file materials, ideas, or reference notes behind the appropriate chapter tab.  If I’m writing fiction, the tabs change to worldbuilding, development, and background or research material.

I still date development entries for my fiction work.  It’s fun to look back to see how the plot has developed from when I originally jotted down the idea.   And someday it may serve as the sourcebook for an encyclopedia or compendium related to the work.  At the very least, it will prevent me from losing track of what happened to each character in a series. 

Some writers keep journals dedicated to a specific area of writing.  The best example is a weather journal.  An inexpensive desk calendar or “birthday book” can be used for this.  Each day, jot notes about what the weather is like.  Then, when you’re in the middle of a scene that talks about snow and it’s 90 degrees outside (38 for those on the Celsius scale), you can flip to your December and January notes and write specific details about the bone-chilling cold.

The final type of journal that can help writers is an idea book, or compost journal.  This is where all those unrelated notes about possible projects go.  You can use a three-ring binder with no sections, a file folder, a spiral notebook, or even a big box.   Just make certain that your jotted notes are complete enough to trigger your memory later.  I once wrote (in my smorgasbord, which serves as general catch-all): “I have a great idea for a romantic suspense between a small-town sheriff and the big-city pagan who comes to live in his town.”

Hm.  Well, I’m sure it was a good idea.  I don’t remember a thing about it at this point, other than that note.  Knowing my themes and topics, there would probably have been some conflict between conservative Christian types and the pagan woman, but suspense?  I have no clue.  So I chalk this up to a lesson:  be specific in your idea notes.

An example of the level of specificity I mean from February of this year:

“Probably as a result of some funky judging in the pairs figure skating competition of the Olympics this past week, I woke up with an idea for Ghaira—probably set in the country where magic is freely available.  They have a sport that, like figure skating, is a combination of athleticism and performance.  In addition to the official judges, a few audience members are chosen at random to judge the competition as well.  The average score given by the fans is factored into the final score, and the total fan score determines the “Choice” award.  Frequently, the Choice does not go to the winner—it has even gone to a performance that was technically awful but a dynamite presentation.”

Now, I may never ever use this as the basis of an entire story or novel, but with what’s there, I can create an incident for a story if I need to. 

Which of these journals must you use?  None of them.  Which should you use? Any or all that caught your eye or interest.  These are tools, and to quote a famous engineer, you always want “the right tool for the right job.”