Journaling to Become a Better Writer – Recognizing a Story Worth Telling

Welcome to the Indie Plot Twist clinic “Journaling to Become a Better Writer.” This clinic will run every Wednesday in April. On Saturdays this month, Carrie is running a separate clinic on time management techniques. So join the fun! And we hope you pick up some useful information.

Good Writers Keep Journals

I’ve been keeping a journal since I was five. Yep. Five. FYI, I’m still trying to figure out what a camel tower is. One of my first journal entries states I built one on July 22nd. If you can tell me what a camel tower is, please let me know.

Some years ago, I heard that keeping a journal was a good way to improve your writing. At the time, I wasn’t sure how jotting down boring events from my life could possibly affect my ability to pen a novel. But since I was already keeping a journal anyway, I filed the tidbit away in the back of my mind and waited to see if journaling would really help me as a writer.

Several years and more than a million words later, I now credit my journal as one of the primary tools that helped me become a better writer. (My penmanship has also improve drastically since I was five.) If you’re already keeping a journal, or if you’ve considered starting one, this class will give you some ideas how to maximize your journal’s potential.

Recognizing a Story Worth Telling

I don’t write in my journal every day. (Although there’s nothing wrong with that method.) I only sit down with my journal when I have something to say. That fact in and of itself alerted me to the first lesson you can learn from keeping a journal: Recognizing a story worth telling.

Without exception, the events I choose to journal about share one or more of these themes:

  • A significant change in my life
  • A problem I’m trying to figure out
  • Something that drastically affects my mood–good or bad

Interestingly, those three criteria should also be present when choosing a good story idea to turn into a novel.

A Change

Every story is built around the concept of change. Your protagonist starts at some status quo, then something happens to upset the balance. That change usually brings about …

A Problem

We don’t like change. We get comfy in our established world. Even if the change is for the better, you can rarely gain something without losing something else. Every change usually brings its own set of problems. In story terminology, we call this the conflict. Just like most of my journal entries are about me trying to work my way through some kind of problem, every story is about the protagonist trying to overcome a conflict.

An Emotional Toll

Life is brimming with changes and challenges. I don’t journal about every one. For instance, I’m currently trying to decide how to re-arrange my furniture to make room for a new couch. (Change = new couch; problem = where to put it.) But I don’t plan on journaling about that problem. Why not? Because there’s not a lot of emotional turmoil tied up in this particular problem. (Emotional toll = zero.)

What makes a story important? What makes an event worth writing about? How deeply it affects us on an emotional level. If a life event doesn’t affect you deeply on an emotional level, there is no story. Similarly, if a fictional event doesn’t affect your protagonist deeply on an emotional level, there is no story.


Tada! Look at that. Merely keeping a journal–and observing what you choose to write about–can set you on the road to understanding what makes a story meaningful in the first place.

And don’t fall into the lie that just because something is interesting to you, it won’t be interesting to somebody else. By nature, we are all interested in each other’s human experience, because we’re all looking for insight into how to live our own lives.

Homework Assignment

This is a class after all, right? But you’re gonna love this: homework is optional. (Score!) Here is your mission, should you choose to accept it:

  • If you are already keeping a journal, think back to a memorable event you wrote about. Identify the change that took place, the conflict it caused, and the emotional toll it put you through.
  • If you aren’t keeping a journal, I still want you to think of a memorable event and identify the three elements that make that event story-worthy: The change, the conflict, and the emotional toll. Now go write the event down. (If you’re going to start a journal, may as well start today, right?)

Since we’re talking about highly personal experiences, no one is going to be required to post their homework results in the comments section. (Like I could make you do it, anyway.) But if you have any comments or questions or anything you do feel like sharing, please leave a note! Or if you want to ask me anything in private, feel free to send me an email.

Next Wednesday, April 9th, we’ll talk about how keeping a journal can help you hone your observation skills, and thus add dimension to your writing. Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out on class!

Clinics in This Series:

Check out the Journaling Book!

Journaling to Become a Better Writer by Danielle Hanna

If you like this blog post series, you might like the book, too. What do your novel-in-progress and your journal have in common? Maybe more than you think. Your life, after all, is a story. The tools you need to take your craft to the next level may be hiding right under your nose.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Kobo | Blio | Smashwords





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