Doing it wrong (according to the ‘How to’ books) Part 1 – Keeping a Journal

OK so that’s a long title! As per my blog post “Writing books and the Writer” you’ll have seen that I read a lot of writing books. Of the “How To” variety, as well as ones on language and from writers on writing. I feel moved to write a series of “Doing it Wrong” because I can’t be the only one out there that has some success as a writer (for a given quality of success) that isn’t doing what they recommend.


I remember when I was first starting out and was at a writing workshop at Bristol Festival of Literature the workshop leader told us about under-writing (writing too little and adding detail on a second draft) and I realised that because I had only read “On Writing” by Steven King I had been thinking that I was doing writing wrong all along – because King is an overwriter (writes too much and cuts on a second draft). It wasn’t until someone articulated the underwriting thing that the penny dropped.

I’ve immediately got two “Doing it Wrong” burning topics and will no doubt come up with more. So this is a part one of a possible longer series or it may just possibly a two-parter. And to start off I’ll tackle the advice that most “How to” books start with – Keeping a Journal.

I understand that it can be a good idea for many writers. If you’re the kind of writer whose brain is fizzing with ideas and you can’t keep track of them without writing them down then obviously a journal is a good idea. Journaling could also be a good way to log observations – on people, conversations, journeys etc. However, the idea that you need to carry a journal with you everywhere you go can be counterproductive for some people. It was counterproductive for me.

I’m not a natural diarist, I’ve never kept a diary but I tried the whole keeping a journal thing because it is almost ubiquitous advice on how to be a ‘proper’ writer. I ended up schlepping blank books around for a while. I have a collection of notebooks that I either didn’t fill or filled with cryptic, useless bullet points that made no sense to me later if I even thought to check.

Because I’m not a very organised person I ended up with several different partly filled reporters notepads and if I did jot something down that I later remembered and wanted to use, trying to find it was annoying. I also did that classic thing of starting with best intentions and jotting down lots in the first few days then wrote less and less, and less and less often, as time passed. I ended up feeling guilty that I wasn’t journaling, generating and developing ideas on a daily basis. The empty notebooks became burdens.

So how do I do it instead? I chew over things in my headspace and my ideas need a fair while to ferment before they’re ready to be written down. Writing them down before they’re ready is like taking the top off a bottle of coke, if you don’t use it straight away it goes flat. In the process of writing it down it becomes a little fixed and it escapes the headspace. I stop thinking about it in those idle stare out the window moments. And if I’ve written it down, and not used it, coming across it later when the neural pathways have been re-routed means it no longer fizzes for me.

Maybe it’s simply a justification narrative for laziness but I do think that trying to keep a journal was counterproductive for me. My best stories, or at least what I think of as my best stories, lived inside my head for a long time before I attempted to write them down. That’s not to say that they fall out of my head fully formed (although that has happened) but more that they’re ready to be worked upon if they’ve been given some time to bubble away in the subroutines of my semi-consciousness.

So am I doing it wrong?




Published by suttope

Pete W Sutton is a writer and editor. His two short story collections – A Tiding of Magpies and The Museum for Forgetting – were shortlisted for Best Collection in the British Fantasy Awards in 2017 & 2022 respectively. His novel – Seven Deadly Swords – was published by Grimbold Books. He has edited several short story anthologies and is the editor for the British Fantasy Society Horizons fiction magazine.

3 thoughts on “Doing it wrong (according to the ‘How to’ books) Part 1 – Keeping a Journal

  1. Nope, I don’t think you’re doing it wrong – I do the same thing. When the story’s ready to be written down, it comes out smoothly and I can only concentrate on that one thing at the time. And like you, I just bang the story down in the first draft and my second balloons, requiring copious pruning later. From what I’ve read, there are two kinds of writer, the outliner and the exploration writer. I’m definitely and outliner, and I think that if you’re an outliner you probably mull things over until you’re ready, and build the story up in layers. It just seems the most logical way to do it, for me, but I’m sure that there are many ways of writing, and you just have to do whatever suits you.

    Liked by 1 person

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