pile of notebooks on a bed

I snapped this photo last summer, when I was trying to clean up some storage room in my closet. It’s probably not every notebook I’ve ever used for writing and journaling, but it’s pretty close. Along with my weakness for buying blank books and notebooks, I am also unable to dispose of any of them once I’m done using them.

Some of them are journals and diaries. Some of them are notes about various writing projects, and early drafts of stories and novels. A few are art journals. Almost all of them are at least half full of empty pages.

I might have a problem.


I’ve always wanted to be someone who kept a writing journal, but I’ve never been very good at doing it (despite the vast number of blank books at my fingertips). I journal sporadically, but my best efforts usually devolve into late night splats of ink on the page before long—useful in one respect, but not really the kind of reference I’ve imagined creating for myself. Something that lets me capture ideas on the fly, record inspiring quotes, make lists of frequently referred to information, write down my craziest dreams, etcetera. Something that keeps all those bits and pieces of creativity together in one place.

The closest I came to managing such a comprehensive tool was this ring binder, marketed specifically as a note keeper for writers.

I remember having a bit of a tantrum to acquire it, in a time when money for such things was not readily available. Of course, once I owned it, I immediately began to doubt its usefulness. Here I am, pondering this question in the very first dated journal entry…

I’m not sure how long I actually used this notebook before it got tossed in a drawer and forgotten, but t was probably not more than a year or two of sporadic use before it was. The first dated entry is December 1997 and the last is December 1999, but I’m not sure if that’s the actual final entry. Of course, looking back, I know how limiting this notebook actually is. Creativity can’t be compartmentalized into discrete units, characters here, settings over there.

But there are some good ideas in this book that are worth revisiting!*


Here are my most recent attempts at keeping a functional writer’s journal, inspired by the bullet journaling system. I’m not going to try to explain bullet journaling here, except to say that it’s at heart a minimalist task-and-info-tracking system that’s been creatively adapted by artistic into a distinct form of personal expression that also helps you stay organized.**

The books shown here are from Michaels: $5 each, with a choice of lined, graph, or dotted pages. I think I ended up with one of each without realizing it, but I haven’t it found it made too much difference to how I use them.

The green one has my notes on my current novel WIP. I set it up intending to include world building, plotting and character notes, along with progress notes as I worked on the first draft. The main bullet journal technique I used was the Index (which you update as you add pages), and I added some color labels and pens to jazz it up, to give it some of the visual interest of the artistic journals I’ve admired online.

In practice, the planning pages didn’t really help me out too much. I found myself erasing a lot as my plans evolved–maybe I change my mind too much?–and once I really got underway writing, it became easier to just keep my notes in Scrivener on the computer as I was working.

Pretty much the only thing I am using this for now is as a journal where I try to figure out solutions to various problems with the book. It’s a useful tool for my process, but not at all usual reference.

The blue book is my newly consecrated general writing journal. Along with the Index, I included a key in this one, to tag various sorts of information I thought I might be writing down in the pages.

The first spread in the book is my Writing Tracker, in which I intend to monitor my writing productivity, particularly on my novel since that’s my primary project right now. It’s not looking so good for January I’m afraid–the key is cut off, but yellow means “sort of worked on the novel” (wrote some notes, or maybe hacked at a few sentences in the ms.) and orange is “only wrote at my day job, didn’t work on novel at all.” I need to do better at making more purple boxes!

This is my first daily spread. Basically I just slap down a label to mark a new day, and write whatever writerly (or sometimes just life) notes I think are pertinent to record. The next spread is a plan for the blog posts I thought I ought to try and write this month (I give myself a sticker when it’s done). It’s colorful, which I like, but not particularly pretty. I don’t want to stop myself from using it because I’m afraid of marring pages, or making something that isn’t “Instagram worthy.” It’s a tool, and while the stickers and colored pens make it more fun to use, they’re not the point.

This whole thing is a work in process, and it will probably take some time and use to find the techniques that work best for me. My blog planning entry has already worked, because you are reading this post! Hopefully, in a month or two, I’ll have a system that really works for me, and be on my way to a lifetime of functional journal keeping.

On the other hand, I might end up with another half-empty book for the pile. Only time will tell!

*One precious tidbit in the notebook is the first incarnation of the setting that would eventually evolve into City of Bridges!
**For an introduction to bullet journaling, go here, and to see some amazing bullet journal artistry, search the #bujo hashtag on Instagram.

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