Setting up your writing journal

Working deeply is a skill, and it’s most likely going to be hit and miss for you to start.  The important thing is that you keep trying, and that you build some kind of record of your attempts, so that you can figure out, over time, how you work best.  In order to work deeply, you have to get to know yourself deeply.  With that in mind…

What should you track?

I recommend recording the things that will help you to find your optimal patterns of work and clue you into what you tend to enjoy writing, especially if you’re looking for something new to write, or wondering what drives you.  For me, that meant I wrote down the time of day I wrote, for how long, and what I produced.

Often, you can measure what you produce by word count.  One of the benefits of word count is that it’s pretty damn tangible—it shows you in an obvious way what you accomplished.

But everything else about word count is dangerous.  It can be both addictive and disheartening.  It can become the end all and be all of your writing time.  It fails to show you progress you made on editing, on research notes, on handwritten pages.  So, be sure to record all produced work, not just words.

Here’s a page from my writing journal, with entries that use both word count and other metrics:

journal page

Also be wary of setting word count goals, at least at first, unless they are reasonable and definitely attainable.  The goal here is to build your confidence and self-accountability, not to burn out before you really get started.  Even aside from that, you won’t know until you’re at least a few months into your journal what kind of average word count constitutes a good day for you.

What counts as progress?

 When you’re keeping your writing journal, literally any progress counts, no matter how small.

That means, on the days when you feel too heavy to pick up a pen and go deep, you can dash off a few lines in an email, take a few notes on something you’re reading, or add a few lines to your “to do” list (I use a bullet journal.)

On the days you feel stronger but unfocused, I highly recommend writing a bit about why you can’t write.  Not only does that count as work produced, you’re also likely to find out some fascinating/terrifying stuff about the inner workings of your mind, the problems you need to solve, either as a writer or as a person, or the things that are holding you back.  Sometimes, you’ll even segue into writing the stuff you were planning to write before you got all freaked out and convinced yourself you couldn’t….

And if you can’t do either of those things.  If all you’ve got for the day is that you turned on your light, or climbed out of bed, or showered, or heated up leftovers, that is so OK.  On those days, just write one word in your journal—“Tomorrow.”  It’s a word, and it counts, and you’ll get there.

How long should you keep it?

I kept my writing journal for about a year, at which point I felt I had enough varied data to generate trends.  You can keep yours for longer, if you feel that it’s also become your system of accountability, but I think you will find that, analytically, once you’ve produced a year’s worth of work, you can map your patterns and fine-tune your writing process.

What can you expect to learn?

Your writing journal will help you learn all sorts of things, but perhaps most importantly it will teach you about yourself.  Over the next three posts, I’ll talk about self-analysis and how your writing journal will help you a) grow as a person, b) develop your writing voice, and c) build your characters.

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Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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