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.




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My name is Catherine Day. After practising law for many years, I've decided to take the leap, leave law temporarily, and write the novel I've always wanted to write.

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