How to Journal for Writing Success

When I left my office job I thought I would have loads of free time to just, you know, contemplate stuff (read that as: ‘watch Netflix’), but that hasn’t happened. In fact, I’m busier than ever. There are so many tasks required of me as I work towards becoming a published novelist. I categorise them under the following headings:

  1. Learning: reading, research, study
  2. Platform-building: social media, connecting, networking, reviewing, attending to my blog, building my list of subscribers, research, entering competitions
  3. Writing: blog, writing daily word-count, tweeting etc.
  4. Business: querying agents, research– this will evolve into something more when the book is eventually published
  5. Writing-related self-care: walking, meditation, mindfulness practice

I am not a naturally organised person, so I sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the stuff I have to do and all of the hats that I’m required to wear in a day on top of trying to just live life. It is that sense of being overwhelmed that causes me to stand still, frozen with panic and get nothing done. But I know as a writer that without building habits and sticking to them I’ll get nowhere.

Building habits is key to success in anything, but if you don’t track your progress you (a) you may not realise how much you have achieved in a given day and that may lead you feeling demoralised (b) you may feel overwhelmed by all that you still have to do, rather than seeing where you have come from and learning from it (c) you may lose focus on where you’re trying to get to.

I believe the answer to moving forward is bullet journaling. I became aware of bulleting about a year ago but I was put off by the videos. There were all these young girls with gorgeous nails, creating journals so intricate and ornate that the Book of Kells look would look boring beside them. The usefulness of the bulleting method was overshadowed by the work that went into making the thing look fabulous. But I returned to the idea after having a bit of a meltdown one day after feeling overwhelmed by the myriad of things on my to-do list and feeling like I was getting nowhere. I stripped away all the frills, and what I found that underneath was a really simple method of keeping track of my progress and keeping my goals in sight at all times. I started bulleting and I absolutely fell in love with it. I found it to be a really effective and satisfying way to track the small steps taken each day towards my writing and publishing goals. It gives me an instant visual on whether I’ve had a good or a bad week/month.

So here are my top tips:

1. Handwrite it:

I don’t handwrite very much these days, but I do handwrite my bullet journal. It means that every week I’m forced to carefully assess what I want to achieve as I prepare my task-list and tracking grid. If I make a mistake it isn’t as easy as deleting a column or line from a grid in Word or Excel on my laptop. Preparing your task list for the week is effort and if you mess it up you’ll have to start from scratch. So it focuses the mind.

2. Leave the journal where it can be seen:

A physical journal sitting beside your keyboard is impossible to ignore. This is another benefit to having a physical journal over a virtual one. Virtual journals are easily forgotten, and once you fall out of the practice of completing your journal it is just one more habit that has fallen by the wayside, which is another knock to your confidence and morale.

3. Keep the design simple:

Most videos for bullet-journals involve unicorn stickers, rose-gold card, buckets of multicoloured pens, a steady hand and the artistic talents of Picasso. I mean, you’re free to beautify your journal any way you want, but the whole point of the journal is to achieve your writing goals so YOU SHOULD BE WRITING instead of designing your own fonts. The fancy-pants videos for these journals are what distracted me from the usefulness of the bullet journal initially, so don’t be distracted by the faff and glitter. To start your journal, all you need are the following:

  1. A notebook/diary with lined pages
  2. A ruler
  3. Two pens of different colours. You can be as boring as blue and red if you wish.

4. Don’t put too much detail into the weekly tracking grid:

The bullet journals you see in most YouTube videos contain all kinds of information. They track eating habits, fitness goals, spiritual goals etc. All of this stuff is important for life outside of writing but when it comes to your writing goals it is best to keep the content simple. It is important that the tracking system is easy to replicate each week and takes very little time to fill out each day. If the system is too complicated it just becomes another mammoth task to add to the mountain of things on your to-do list. A simple task-list with a space for entering a tick or a cross for each day of the week works really well. The task list works as a prompt and the grid is for tracking frequency of completion/non-completion. You can create a grid to enter a tick or a cross beside the daily task, or to keep it even simpler you can use a series of dots to strike through beside your tasks.

5. Prepare separate grids for weeks, months and years:

It is useful to start your bullet journal by preparing a grid containing your annual/ long-term goals, then a grid which breaks those longer-term goals down into monthly goals, and then figure out how you get there through completing daily/weekly tasks. Your weekly grid is the key to achieving all of your goals, and so it is the most important of all, but it is useless without having thoroughly examined what it is that you want. All successful businesses set and track their progress regularly in terms of meeting their goals weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual basis, and as you are trying to make money with your writing, you must treat it as a business. Keep regular tabs on where you are and where you’re going, set deadlines, and reassess your priorities and progress regularly.

6. Ensure the goals are achievable:

Don’t work against yourself. When assigning weekly time/frequency to each task, think realistically about how much you can afford to give and how much of a priority that task is. Setting unrealistic goals is the fastest route to losing motivation and feeling utterly shite about yourself. My blog is important but my novel must always come first. So reaching my word-count for my novel is a daily task, and working on the blog would be a twice-weekly task to complete one post per week, and so I write ‘Blog x 2’ into the task box. So I expect to see two ticks in that row come Saturday.

7. Bullet first thing and last thing:

Make reviewing your journal the first thing you do every day when you sit at your desk to write. Review what you have to do for the day, plan, and make ticking off your task grid the last thing you do before you get up from your desk, so that you can give yourself that well-deserved pat on the back.




My Favourite Podcasts on the Business of Writing

I had this image of what a ‘writer’ was before I decided to become one. He (yes, always a ‘he’– annoying when that shit is internalized, but I digress) is dignified, solitary and mysterious. He is white-haired, smokes woodbines and has badly-fitting reading glasses that slide down his nose so that he has to push them back up just before they fall off his face altogether. He has an ironic smile and when he’s not writing, he likes to gaze into the distance as ideas ignite and flicker in his head.

This writer-man doesn’t have to sell a thing. Selling isn’t his job. His job is writing novels. His books sell in the hundreds of thousands. People know his books are worth reading because the publisher tells them so and the publisher has someone that does that work, an expert. A charming, confident, gregarious marketing-mogul. Someone very different to the writer–man.

I wanted to become a version of this man. I mean, obviously, I couldn’t be him anatomically, and I wasn’t going to take up smoking woodbines, it took long enough to get off the smokes. But I thought I could manage the dignified, solitary, mysterious, does-nothing-but-writing bit. But I know that isn’t how it works anymore.

Whether we like it in the current publishing environment ALL writers are expected to build an audience. Most writers consider these things a distraction from their work, but we have to accept that this is now part and parcel of our work. Here are the most popular podcasts that deal with the business of writing, and here are my favourite episodes from each:

1. The Creative Penn- Joanna Penn

Yes. Her name is Penn and she is a writer. Coincidence? I think not! Purely on the basis of this evidence, I’m changing my name to Catherine E Bestseller by deed poll.

As well as having a great name, it just so happens that Joanne gives really great advice on the craft and business-side of writing.

Listen to this: Social Media Tips For Writers with Frances Caballo. In this episode, Penn talks social media with Social Media expert Frances Caballo. This is a fascinating discussion around what kinds of social media you should use depending on what you write. Social media is a necessary evil when it comes to growing your audience, but it’s clear from this podcast episode some platforms are better than others.

2. Create If Writing- Kirsten Oliphant

When I heard that I had to ‘sell’ my book I had nightmarish visions of myself going door-to-door with copies of my novel in a battered briefcase, my hair inexplicably slicked back with engine oil trying various nefarious tricks to flog my novel. Thank goodness for Kirsten Oliphant! Her podcast is absolutely bursting with information and advice on:

‘how to build an online platform without being smarmy’.

In her tagline, she hits on the biggest fear that writers have when they try and build their audience.  That we will be seen primarily as desperate, dishonest and smarmy salespeople. Kirsten is acutely aware that building an audience in today’s publishing climate is absolutely essential to ALL writers. Her podcasts are really practical and she has done her homework in terms of how to use the tools of social media, data and software to get your book out there.

Listen to this: I found it really hard to pick one episode, Episode 51: How to Turn Readers into Raving Fans.

3. The Self-Publishing Podcast

These guys are fun, and they like to swear. I like to swear too, so I felt like I was sitting in my office with my brethren as I listened. They offer great advice on progressing the business side of your writing career.

Listen to this: I didn’t really get the importance of data until Cambridge Analytics happened. I thought it was all about finding out whether I preferred chocolate over crisps (it’s crisps, if you’re wondering). But I never thought about using the data that I gather on my website or social media profiles to benefit myself. I was happy to just hand it all over to massive data-sucking tech companies. Writers can use their data in a number of ways and in this episode Chris Fox explains how  Sell More Books by Using Better Data with Chris Fox.

4. The Portfolio Life- Jeff Goins

Let’s forget about the romantic image of the starving artist. The fact is, that unless you make money from writing, you won’t be able to sustain yourself on it. You won’t be able to write. Jeff Goins is the king of real talk around the business of writing. He knows what it takes to make a living at writing, because he’s doing it. His advice is practical and sensible, and his attitude is that if you want to keep doing what you love, you have to make a living income from doing it. So if you want to be a writer, you have to find a market for what you do and you have to sell books. I recommend his podcasts, but he also does great webinars too, so tune in.

Listen to this: On Becoming a Perennial Seller as an Artist: Interview with Ryan Holiday