Journals: Practice Without Pressure

When you write a piece you intend to show other people–a paper for a class, or a story you want to publish, for example–you are subtly aware of the criticisms and judgments that your readers may have. This is not a bad thing, as being conscious of writing for an audience will encourage you to produce your best work.  However, those who wish to improve their skills without the stress of writing for an audience might gain valuable experience by keeping a journal.

The Private

One of the most attractive parts of writing in a journal is that you can write about anything you please:  there are no assigned topics or length requirements.  If you can write about whatever you want, and decide exactly how much time you want to devote to it, you are going to get a feel for how to construct a piece of writing around a particular topic, and you are going to learn to enjoy it.  You don’t need to adhere to restrictive length requirements like you might in an academic paper. Keeping a journal will help you discover how much time and space you need to devote to a topic without the artificial deadlines of an academic assignment, as well as develop writing techniques that you – beyond the influence of any audience – believe will improve your writing.

The Public

Keeping a journal will also help you develop your own voice as a writer.  When you write with the intention of sharing what you produce with others, you will probably curtail your more creative inclinations.  In many cases, this is a good thing, because when you write for an audience, it is best to make the experience of reading your paper as smooth and informative as possible.  Keeping a journal, however, lets you experiment without the critical view of others and decide for yourself whether certain writing techniques are worth pursuing.  For example, a creative writer might experiment with the different opportunities provided by first-person and third-person writing, while an essayist might contrast the elegance of brevity with the detail of lengthier sentences and paragraphs.

In my first year at college, I began keeping a journal and made sure to write in it every day.  It was not a very serious undertaking; it mostly helped me organize my thoughts and record things I would otherwise forget.  But although my journal was almost an afterthought, it was rewarding.

One of the main uses I found for my journal was to collect quotes that I would otherwise forget.  Sometimes it would be a clever lyric from a song or a line from a book; sometimes I would write down a funny remark a friend made.  These quotes were not immediately useful.  However, a month or two would pass, and I would find myself looking for some sort of writing prompt or insight.  Occasionally my journal entries would be the basis of a short story; once, I turned a journal entry about dreams into a psychology paper.  When I return to the quotes in my journal, more often than not I puzzle out something to base my writing on.

Obviously, journaling will not improve all aspects of your writing.  If you want to write something polished, you will probably benefit from sharing your writing with others, because the knowledge that others will read your work consciously or subconsciously affects its clarity and precision.  However, keeping a journal lets you record things that are important to you, gives you a space to experiment, and, most importantly, encourages you to write as much as possible.  Practice might not make perfect, but it will help you start down the path of becoming a better writer.

-By Victor Pesola ’12

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