There is only one trait that marks the writer.

He is always watching.

It’s a kind of trick of mind and he is born with it.”

--Morley Callaghan

Perhaps the number one tool for writers is the journal – not the type where you record what you did for the day and how you felt about it, though that kind can be helpful. No, I’m talking about writing journals. Notebooks if you prefer. They can be spiral bound, composition style, loose sheets gathered in a three-prong folder, leather bound, lined, graphed, blank, whatever. Find the ones you love. My favorite are the environmentally friendly, cardboard, spiral bound, 8” x 11” ones I buy at Stables that cost less than $3. I like them because I don’t feel that I my writing has to be remarkable or exquisite, the way I do when writing in journals that are hard covered and cost a pretty penny.

Whichever you choose, the point is to use them to advance your writing. Here are some of my favorite ways to use journals:

Word journal. I collect active verbs and concrete nouns that I just love. I also have sections for words and pictures of different shades of color, types of plants, kinds of birds, furniture, and architectural features of houses, to name a few. When I’m writing description and get stuck, I just pull that book out, and before you know it, I’m describing “a large dobbing of green-winged teals, perhaps as many as twenty-five or thirty, that skirt about the water into a small cove, where they seem to be more interested in keeping away from a pair of white ibis huddled across on the other side, minding their own business, poking around in the golden club and water lilies.”

Idea journal

This is a small notebook I keep with me at all times. Actually, I have several of them – one in my car, one in my purse, one in my briefcase, and one beside my bed. They are for the moment when inspiration strikes – and idea for a story, something one of my characters reminds me she needs to deal with, a quick description of garden in a yard I just drove pass, or a snippet of conversation I overheard.

The next two journals and they have come in very handy for me.

Analysis journal

I took this idea Rosemary Daniells, author of The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself. I use it to analyze my own writing habits and those of others. For my own writing, I set my personal criteria for good writing and then review my work based on that. I also ask myself where my writing is strong and weak so I can determine what areas I need to devote more study to. But I also analyze other writers. What did they do well that I want to remember? What did they do that distracted from the story or made me not like it? I also copy wonderful passages from prose and poetry I really love. Writing it out by hand makes it more real to me and allows me to really examine it in more depth.

Learning curve journal

I keep notes from books, articles, conferences, and interviews with authors that give me insight into writing better. For instance, Sunday, I heard poet Jane Hirshfield interviewed on New Dimensions as she explained her philosophy of writing that new writers should heed: “Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.” That goes into my journal.

Exercise journal

While I think a number of the books out there that offer writing exercises should be exorcised from our shelves, there are good reasons to try specific exercises to help hone your writing skills, work out problems with your writing, analyze what keeps you from writing, or inspire your desire to write. Just don’t use them as an excuse not to do your own projects. Keeping them in one notebook gives you easy access to what you’ve learned or sloshed through.

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