A Writer’s Net for Catching Ideas: Keeping a Writer’s Journal (What, How, and Why)

Today I’m here to talk about keeping a writer’s journal: what it is, why I do, and why — if you’re a writer — you should too. πŸ˜‰

Nearly nine years ago, on November 17, 2008, I pulled out one of my many hoarded empty journals, and started my first volume of what I called “A Forest of Thought: An Author’s Journal”.

I call it my writer’s notebook/journal these days, but each year since finishing that first journal on December 31, 2010, I’ve started a new Writer’s Journal on January 1st of each year, which means I’m currently on my 8th volume. (I may actually stick with this current one for another year since it has room, but we’ll see.)

So, your question: what is a writer’s journal, and why have one?

Firstly, it is not what I call my writing log (which is where I keep a list of all the writing I do each week, throughout the year) and it’s not a place for journaling in diary-form about what it’s like to be a writer (though occasionally such thoughts will creep in).

For me, at least, it’s my catch-all go-to place for keeping writerly notes.

  • New story idea? Goes in the journal.
  • Cool name I want to save for later? In the journal.
  • Pages of frustration about how I’m stuck in my writing? Journal.
  • Snatches of dialog at 2 a.m. because my characters were talking in my head when I wanted to be asleep? Ditto.(Though these I often type in on my phone and transfer them to my journal in the morning.)
  • Random fact or cool thing I saw that day, or description I jotted down about a building I went by, or an overheard conversation? That goes in the journal too.
  • Writerly to-do lists? Yep, that too.
  • Lists and lists and lists of WIPs? Lots of those.
  • Snatches of poetry? In it goes.
  • Hit an exciting place in my writing (like finishing a story)? That goes in there too.
  • Interesting dreams? Jot ’em down. (Never underestimate the power of dreams for ideas.)
  • And, probably the most common one (besides random ideas), are new plot point flashes of inspiration for any of my dozen or so WIPs. So many breakthroughs.

Basically, this is where I write down all those things that I think “Oh! That’s cool! So cool that I’ll remember it.” Because… I don’t. How many awesome ideas have I had, only to lose them to the mists of mysterious brain fog of forgetfulness, and kicked myself over losing… I’ll tell you, it’s been a LOT.

Which is why I decided to start keeping one journal, specifically for all my writerly thoughts. I’ve had lots of other journals, for writerly or non-writerly purposes, and I still sometimes use other ones for writing-related stuff, but mostly, I stick with these, which makes it handy and easy for me to know where to find my ideas.

The first page of my first Forest of Thought journal. (Please excuse the dubious punctuation. *cough* Also, disclaimer: my handwriting is rarely this neat because I’m usually in a hurry. XD)

Because let me tell you, these journals are a gold mine of ideas. You may not know what to do with an idea when you first have it, but believe me, when you’re about to start a random novel the next day for NaNoWriMo and you’ve never done it before, these notes scribbled down over time are going to be a lifesaver.

I give this example because it’s what I did my first NaNo — I spur-of-the-moment decided to write a book the next month, and I had a vague idea, but flipping through my very first Forest of Thought notebook was when I gathered all the ideas I needed to turn it into more of a book.

The final lines of The Owl of Kedran’s Wood were originally more or less a random snippet I wrote in there one day and had no idea who said it — imagine my surprise when it found its way into the lives of Tare and the Chess Club and formed the perfect ending to book one.

The snatch of song that became so central to my novella The Rose and the Raven was originally jotted down much earlier at random.

The idea for countless of my WIPs began with a few hastily scribbled lines in my Forest of Thought journals.

So many characters have gotten names at the right moment when I needed them because I flipped back through and found the right one I had saved.

If I’m stuck or discouraged, I go to the pages of my notebook and scribble down my thoughts and usually find my way out of the woods, or at least I know what my problem is and feel better.

And there’s no greater way to get re-inspired to go back to working on a project than to be perusing my old notes and find how excited I was about a plot-twist I had scribbled down and semi-forgotten.

But even aside from all the usefulness, it’s just a wonderfully secure feeling to know that even if you don’t actually USE your idea, or won’t for years, that at least you didn’t lose it forever, like if you said you’d remember it and then the next morning — gone. Having that security and peace of mind is fantastic.

It’s also a handy way to keep an eye on the chronicles of your writing career, as for-fun or serious as you want it to be. Each volume of my Forest of Thought journals (I call them FT: Volume 1, Vol 2, etc. and am currently on FT8) has a different flavor, both because they’re all different shapes/sizes/”feels”/looks, and because I go through different books I’m working on or focusing on, and I remember that and associate the different years with those books.

Sometimes if I’m trying to remember when I started a story, I can say “Oh, well I wrote about it in my green journal, which was in 2013, so that must be when I started”. It’s chronicling my journey as a writer, and all while saving great ideas that I periodically go back and glean from the many pages I’ve filled.

The hardest thing? Getting into the habit of writing in your writer’s journal.

It took me years to find the balance and get so that when I had an idea I would be sure to write it down.

2008 and 2009, I hardly did any writing in my journal — just every few months, if I had a really interesting idea and remembered to write it down, I would sometimes remember. Later in 2010 was when I got more active with it, and by the end of the year I was chronicling my NaNo adventures most days, and managed to fill the last page on December 31st. The opportunity to start a new journal on January 1 was too much to resist, and I’ve done it every year since. I often fill the whole journal and write on the last page on the last day of the year, but sometimes I don’t fill it and end up leaving the final pages blank so I can start a new one, but it’s a tradition of mine that I look forward to the most about the new year: starting my new writing journal the first day of the year. πŸ™‚

It’s hard to turn it into a habit to remember to write in your journal all the time, especially without thinking you need to write something even when you have nothing to scribble, but I think I finally have it down. So far this year and last year, I’ve written something (even if it’s just a single note/jot/name) in my writing notebooks every week except one. (Yes, I keep track of my writing each week in a writing log on my computer, and I noticed this trend and have kept it up.) It hasn’t really been on purpose, but even if it’s just a note to say that I’m stuck on something, it really has become a habit to dip into my journal at least once a week with whatever writerly ideas are on my mind.

But remember, I started this process nearly a decade ago, and it’s only in the last year or two that I’ve gotten better about remembering most of the time — and I still sometimes think of something and don’t jot it down, so the process isn’t perfect. πŸ˜‰ So if you’d like to do something like this, don’t feel discouraged if it doesn’t work out for awhile. Just keep at it and save those ideas!

If you’re not an oldschool journal hoarder like me, try keeping your notes on your phone or in a file on your computer — sometimes I wish I did that because they’d be searchable. XD And at times I do opt for typing my ideas when I have a LOT of them, and so they don’t go into the journal because it’s more efficient. But I do enjoy having a physical place to keep notes with a physical pen — it’s soothing for me, and also handy if I don’t have my laptop with me. But if it’s likely to make you procrastinate keeping notes, then don’t let the idea that it has to be a physical notebook keep you from doing something like this–just do it on your computer, like I said! Just try to make it a habit to keep those ideas, somewhere you can go to save your thoughts.

Later this week, on Friday, I’ll be celebrating 9 years of A Forest of Thought: An Author/Writer’s Journal, and starting (hopefully) on my tenth year keeping a writing journal. My FT volumes have been some of my best friends through my writing years, something in which I can confide my story ideas and struggles. (They of course can’t outdo real, actual writer friends, who are the absolute BEST. ;))

I’m very glad I started back in 2008, and I look forward to much more scribbling. πŸ™‚ I know I wouldn’t be the same writer without them.

I will leave you with the last words from my first volume, penned December 31, 2010:

Onward to new horizons! Horizons never seen, horizons merely dreamt of, horizons that have but been glimpsed — onward!

How about you? How do you save all those little ideas/tidbits/plotbunnies? Thanks for reading! ^_^

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15 thoughts on “A Writer’s Net for Catching Ideas: Keeping a Writer’s Journal (What, How, and Why)

  1. I actually have sketchbooks in which I do this. I made myself some sketchbooks and inside are both drawings and ideas and all those little writing tidbits. I think it’s easier for me to have one for both because sometimes my ideas come out in drawings and I get ideas from my drawings so I like having them all together. In the bag I take around everywhere with me, I also have a little red notebook for on-the-go ideas and things which has been very useful when I’ve thought of using it πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s awesome! I’m a much more word-oriented person, but I do occasionally make diagrams or maps or such jots in my notebooks if my ideas are more visual. That’s awesome you do both! πŸ™‚ And hurray for little notebooks to keep notes–those are great! πŸ™‚ Thanks for reading and for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. So in some ways, this is a lot what I do in Evernote on my phone. I have one document full of story ideas, and another that holds names I think I might use someday. I hadn’t thought about writing down when I finish and end stories, but that is an interesting thought.

    I like the idea of a writing journal, and I love that you’re able to do it and keep up with it. That said, I think that carrying around ANOTHER physical notebook all the time would be difficult . . . I’m running out of room in my backpack. My phone does for now, though.

    Thanks for doing this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awesome! I’ve heard of Evernote and sometimes wonder about trying it out… Is there a free version and is it just for phones/online? I don’t remember what all I’ve heard about it and should look it up again… I like that you have things organized like that — I often have a problem with figuring out how to organize my ideas, since they’re mostly just by date at this point…

      Ah, yes, the multiple-notebook-acquisition-syndrome. πŸ˜‰ It sounds like what you have going for you is working, so I say run with it!

      You’re welcome! Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts! πŸ™‚

      Like

  3. These journals looked well-loved.
    I’m not a journaler nor would I consider myself a writer. I’ve heard other people mention how much they enjoy it. It looks like something I might enjoy too.
    Right now I”m just blogging. I know that’s writing, but I’m not sure where I’m headed yet. I find just collecting thought is fun and sometimes there is some kind of impetus that causes me to post them (like a knee that goes out)
    My question: what about doing this note catching with a digital method like Evernote which I am currently using to journal life goal ideas? Is one of the benefits the randomness of dipping into these physical books and coming up with something? Would the magic of this be lost if you could actually search for something in particular?
    Just learning here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, yep, I have definitely used them a lot over the years! πŸ˜‰

      Blogging is awesome, and yes, definitely a kind of writing! Wherever you’re headed, I wish you the best of luck. πŸ™‚

      I’ve heard good things about Evernote, and I’d say that if that’s something that works for you, keeping digital notes is just as well, and if you’re more likely to keep up with that, then it’s better in your case. I personally enjoy writing by hand sometimes, but the convenience of having everything digital tugs at me at times as well… And you can always scroll down through a digital file which can have the same “discovery” feeling. πŸ™‚ I’d say both methods are good and it’s all about finding what works for us in particular.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

    • I think if I had started more recently, I wouldn’t have been able to keep it up because of perfectionism too, but I’m hooked now. πŸ˜› Hopefully you keep track of ideas on the computer though! And thanks so much! πŸ™‚

      Like

  4. I. LOVED. THIS. SO. MUCH.
    It was so inspiring! I know I’ve told you a million times through the years, but you ALWAYS inspire me with your writing journals and dedication to them. It’s so special how you have notebook after notebook filled with creative thoughts and ideas and journal entries about your writing life. They’re treasures!

    The idea of them being like a butterfly net for ideas is PERFECT! I love that so much!!! And your first ever entry was the besssst. I loved that!

    It was so fun hearing how important parts of your books were random ideas jotted in your journals, such as the final lines for KW! THAT IS THE COOLEST. AAAAHHHHH!!!!

    I so, SO wish I would actually USE my journal. I started one…what? 4? 5? years ago or something absurd like that??? And I only over used the first few pages. I DO, like a bunch of others said, use Evernote on my phone to keep up notes. And I’ve found myself using it more and more lately. This year especially I’ve gotten in the habit of throwing my ideas in it. So at least I am keeping most of my ideas and not letting them get lost in the void of my mind. xD I may just have to accept the sad fact that I’m more of a digital person than a pen and paper person these days, as much as I adore gorgeous, shiny new notebooks and the feel of a pen or pencil in my hand. I’m just never motivated to actually USE them. Lol.

    ANYWAYS. This was such a motivating and inspiring post, and it was so, SO great getting an inside look at your writing journal journey. I was soaking up every word. I just loved this! ❀ ❀ ❀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love this idea!!! I do have an idea notebook where I (inconsistently) scribble down book ideas, plus several places on my phone and computer for name ideas, musical inspiration, etc. I’ve been wanting to figure out a way to efficiently put it ALL in one place. This journal idea just might work for me… Although I think I would want to periodically digitize parts of it to make it searchable, like you said. I’ve got a gorgeous leather journal from a past Christmas that I’ve been hoarding for some special purpose–maybe it will be my 2018 writers journal! πŸ˜€

    Anyway, I love how faithfully you’ve kept up with this! What a precious record to be able to revisit! ❀

    Liked by 1 person

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