Is Journaling a Waste of Writing Time?

Image: a woman alone at a table, writing in a journal.
Photo by Los Muertos Crew from Pexels

Today’s post is by writer and creativity coach A M Carley (@amcarley).

Lately, I’ve noticed several working writers whom I respect—authors of multiple published books, a healthy reputation, generous with the community—quietly dissing journaling. You may know people like this as well. For me, after the initial defensiveness passed, I looked more closely at the question they raise: Is journaling a waste of time that would be better applied to writing? You know, actual writing, not diddling around in a notebook.

What follows is an attempt to argue both sides. And, as a longtime journaler, I don’t intend to treat them equally. Disclosure: Although I was never in Debate Club, I did go to law school.

Yes. Journaling is a waste of time.

There are only so many hours in the day. Life’s demands only intensify. Why would you intentionally devote even a fraction of one hour to a journal? It’s better to use the time you have for writing—and write. Work on the thing you’re focused on, not some stray thoughts.

You’re robbing yourself. Let’s say you allocate an hour a day to writing. (Of course, you’ll take more, whenever it’s available, but your firm commitment to yourself is one hour, every day. Butt in chair.) How many pages are you good for in an hour? Take that number and multiply by 365. That’s your pages per year. Take that annual number and throw out half of it. Or three quarters of it. There, in simple arithmetic, is the quantity of work you won’t do, if you devote 50 or 75 percent of your writing hour to journaling. Why would you want to do that to yourself?

No one will ever see your journal. You’re a writer. The way to make it as a writer is to publish. You do the math.

Think qi. If you take your journal seriously, investing yourself in explorations and ideas, you’re diverting your creative energies from your main project into a side project that’s destined to go nowhere.

No. It’s not a waste of time.

It’s a false choice. Journaling and creative writing are qualitatively different enterprises. There’s no zero-sum calculation involved. Putting time into journaling doesn’t need to deduct from the pages you produce on your main writing project. If it’s a priority, make the time.

Warm-ups help you write better. It’s like singing scales before you practice the aria. It’s like going to the gym so you are ready to climb the rockface. It’s like practicing your speech in front of a mirror before you deliver it to a thousand people.

Side note: Part of me is moved to speak up about that last paragraph. Journaling can be a lot more than just warming-up exercises for the main event. Although it’s a fair argument to include, I don’t believe in casual dismissal of journaling as mere preparation for something else.

Think again about qi. That whole qi argument (above) is insidious and superficial. Remember the part about qualitative differences between journaling and other writing? It’s not a diversion from “real” writing to maintain your journal as well. On the contrary, the two activities are complementary and can be mutually supportive.

An audience changes things. For better and for worse, the awareness that there will be an eventual reader has an effect on the way we write. A private journal welcomes unselfconscious writing. In your journal, you are free to fire the editor. Knowing there’s no audience changes how we approach the page.

There are no mistakes. The essence of journaling is the permission to form letters and words (and images and sounds) undirected by your conscious brain. Journaling offers tons more flexibility than does focused purposeful writing for an audience. Journaling welcomes surprises.

Your journal makes the problem-solvers and quiet inner voices feel welcome. Over time, your journal can become the place to address those questions that are not readily answered. Your journal is a creative laboratory where you can amaze yourself and then apply your discoveries elsewhere.

A journaling practice can sustain and inspire your writing projects. Your journal can be a member of your creative team. And a commitment to your journal can inform and improve your entire life. Waste of writing time? Not even a little bit.

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