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Keeping A Writing Journal


Anna Furtado

I started an experiment awhile back using a new writing tool-and I found it so helpful, that I would like to share it with you. It's a writing journal-not just any writing journal, but one that is specific to a particular manuscript. (Working on two manuscripts would yield two separate journals. I keep mine as a separate file in a folder that also contains the manuscript associated with the journal, opening them side-by-side for each writing session.)

I've always been a journal-keeper, journaling everything from dreams, personal thoughts, and spirituality to general writing ideas-you name it, I've probably journaled it. But when I read about this particular idea in a national writer's magazine recently, I had to admit that I had never thought of journaling in quite this way and the idea seemed appealing.

I gave a lot of thought to this journal before I began. The magazine article showed examples of the author's handwritten journal, but I decided an electronic journal would be more useful. To locate information, I'd be able to use my word processing program's Find feature, which would save me both time and frustration. Notes would be clear and readable, even weeks or months later. (I don't know about you, but since I entered the computer age, my handwriting has suffered.)

The magazine article also demonstrated the use of colored highlighters to make important information noticeable. This can also be done electronically. My word processing program's Highlight feature contains 15 different colors, although only about half of them are practical when using a black font on a white background. In practice, I keep it simple, using only four colors.

My color-coding scheme is as follows:

Questions in Yellow: Simple questions, like "What color is Natalie's car?" are highlighted in yellow. Maybe I'd like a more exotic, descriptive color for the car than red. Writing down the question in the journal, allows me to continue writing the scene without dwelling on the color of the car. However, I usually don't bother to highlight until I'm done with my writing session. Then, I go back and review all my journal notes and highlight appropriately. Another advantage of keeping the journal as a separate file is that my manuscript stays clean and only contains the story text itself.

My question may be a more complicated "What's Natalie's real motive for acting the way that she does?" I may not have an answer until I near the end of the story, but the journal keeps the question in front of me throughout the process.

An advantage to using electronic highlighting is that the highlighting can be removed when the question has been answered, impossible in a handwritten journal.

Notes in Pink: Notes like "Remove the little boy from Chapter 7 and introduce him in a later chapter" are highlighted in pink. Since the "later" chapter may not be written yet, this note will be a reminder until the boy is written into the appropriate chapter.

Reference Material in Green: This information might pertain to an excerpt from an article I've come across for use later. The specifications for the Porsche that Natalie drives might come in handy at some point. I'll highlight parts of it to keep it readily available for reference.

Next Actions or Scenes in Blue: I always try to end my writing sessions with some knowledge of where I'm headed next-even if it means stopping my current writing session a little early. This tactic is very helpful in combating writer's block. If I've just ended my scene with Natalie crashing her grenadine-colored Porsche into a long line of grocery carts in the parking lot of a grocery store, I'll note (and highlight) that the next scene involves the arrival of the security force—in the person of Sheila Ericsson, a tall beauty of Norse ancestry.

Before resuming my writing, I check the previous session's journal entries, looking for questions that need answers, notes that should be handy, and reference materials to keep in mind. Finally, I'll take my cue of where to begin the writing session from the next actions or scenes entries. (Next actions might be simply the page number on which I stopped editing when in re-write mode. Another next action might be to go back and re-edit the previous three chapters before continuing with any new scenes.) The journal is also a good place to note where you've ended an edit session. Using the Go To feature in a word processing program enables the writer to easily find the page where she left off.

Additional tracking information may include total words in the story, how many words have been added in a writing session, and how many words are proposed for the next writing session. Word counts along with jotting a sentence or two about what was accomplished during this writing session will help to keep track of progress. This is also a handy place to record what's been sent to beta readers.

When highlighted information gets too spread out in the journal, I move it to my most recent entry for easy reference. I don't delete it from the original entry. Instead, I copy it to the new session, then go back and remove the highlighting and strike through the original entry. That way, I have an interesting historical perspective on how the novel progressed while I'm still able to put the important information where it's easily accessible.

To Wrap Up—Suggested Journal Entries

Reference Material
Next Actions or Scenes
Including the following information may also be helpful:
Track total number of words for the work
Track number of words written in a session
Note the page on which you ended an editing session
Include any other any other insights, thoughts, or remarks that may be interesting to you about the development of your work from a historical perspective
My experience with a dedicated manuscript journal has been a positive one. It's helped keep me focused and organized. If you choose to devote a journal to your manuscript, you may find it a valuable tool to help you remember details that will enhance your writing.

Next time: The Dreaded Synopsis
2005 Anna Furtado — Author of The Heart's Desire
Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles

Finalist—Golden Crown Literary Society "Goldie" Awards 2005
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