Does journaling help? I don't think so

If you've spent any time online--or anywhere else--reading advice for writers, or tips for writers, or anything else, you've probably at some point or another come across the "Keep a journal" tip. It's pretty common, actually.

I see the reasoning behind the advice, I do. Keeping a journal gets you into the habit of daily writing, which is terrifically important. It can expand your vocabulary; it can make you familiar with the process of writing itself. It can help you find a voice.

But here's my problem with it. Writing a journal is not at all like writing fiction. Not remotely like it, actually. Trust me on this; I blog, and I write fiction. The processes are completely different; the feel of it is different. Even the voice is largely different.

Now, I don't claim in any way to have mastered either the art of the novel or the art of the entertaining blog post. What I can tell you is that I've written some of both of which I'm quite proud, and here are the major differences as I see them (and some of these are versions of the same thing, you'll notice; that illustrates points 1, 6, and 8) :

1. Good fiction writing is precise and focused. Good blog writing is all about digression.

In fiction every word has to count. In blogging, not so much. While I do have a tendency toward digression--ah, my beloved emdashes--in fiction, I really do it in blogging. It's okay in blogging to bring random weird examples into play. It's okay to repeat yourself a dozen times.

2. Exclamation points are frowned on in fiction. I've had this one drummed into me so hard that I feel weird using exclamation points in my books even when it's appropriate. In blog posts? Not so much. A quick look back at some of my blog posts shows considerably more exclamation points than you'd ever find in one of my novels.

3. The use of cliches. You want to avoid cliches in fiction, of course. Cliches are bad in fiction. Dumb as a post; white as a marshmallow (or ghost, or sheet); hard as a rock; shaking like a leaf; etc. etc. etc. (Another phrase you cannot use in fiction.) Dialogue is of course a different matter; cliches can advance characterization there. Having a character speak largely in cliches or platitudes shows the reader something about them (of course, you want to be careful you don't overdo it, but it is an occasionally useful tool.)

But in a blog post you can use cliches, or rather, you don't need to be as vigilant about them. In fact, in a blog post it can be irritating if you work too hard to avoid cliche. Going out of your way to be clever often sounds forced.

4. Digression. A story has to go somewhere. Your reader wants to know what happens next. They do not want you to lose topic and wander off into an interesting anecdote about The Time You Accidentally Ate A Bug. Stories like those are delightful in blog posts. Not so much in fiction. Not to mention, parentheses are great fun in blog posts but tend to be jarring in fiction.

5. Italics and boldface. Both are great fun in blog posts and can be used liberally. Both are to be used sparingly in fiction if at all.

6. Targets and points. See, in a novel or short story, every word, every sentence, every scene, has to advance the story. In a blog post there is no story; or rather there might be, but not one with great complexity. Not often, anyway. It is perfectly okay to blog about three unrelated things in one post. It is not okay in a novel to introduce characters who have no purpose in the story, or to throw a recipe in somewhere, or whatever.

7. Blogging is telling, not showing. Fiction is the opposite. A good blog post is snappy. A good blog post often tells rather than shows the action; it can be a mix of both, but as good blog posts are often short, telling is usually necessary.

8. Lazy writing. Yes, this is sort of covered already; it all really boils down to this point and the next. But seriously. When I blog I don't worry so much about word choices or points or repeated words. I don't worry about emdashing and parenthesesing myself into a glorious stupor.

9. Journals are all about YOU. A novel is not about you at all. This is the biggest one. A novel is about your characters. It's their story. Your blog is about you; what you're thinking, what you're feeling.

In other words, blogging encourages you to focus on yourself. It encourages you--the Writer--to examine every bit of your psyche, to turn yourself and your opinions, thoughts, and feelings into The Star Of The Show.

Whereas you don't belong anywhere in your novel. Oh sure, parts of you might. But I firmly elieve this is where a lot of writers fall on their swords. By thinking that blogging/journaling and fiction writing are essentially the same thing; by thinking the hip, fun voice that readers enjoy in their blog translates to fiction. It doesn't. What's fun and amusing in a blog is irritating and intrusive in a novel. I don't buy novels to read what the author thinks of political or social issues. I buy them to read a story, and most readers do the same.

But blogging encourages you to turn inward. To view all your writing through the lens of your cuddly, fun, enticing self. When you write fiction there is no self. There is only the character and their story.

Blogging encourages you to insert yourself into your work, and that's not a good thing. Blogging encourages you to be lazy, to be loose, to be imprecise. And that's deadly in fiction.


This isn't to say that there aren't ways in which blogging can help you. Like I said, as a vocabulary builder or a tool to get you into the habit of putting your fingers on the keys, it's fine. This also isn't to say that great bloggers can't be great fiction writers.

What I am trying to say is that the two are different skills, and being good at one does not necessarily translate into being good at the other. They're different mindsets, with different focuses.

It's not that I think blogging is a bad thing, or that it will hurt you. What I do think is that encouraging writers to keep a journal is not necessarily great advice.


Because the number one most important thing to do to improve your fiction is keep practicing.

And if you're writing in your journal, you're not working on your novel. Period.


A blog is a timesuck, and you'd use your time much better if you kept practicing your fiction.

What do you think?

Comments

-Kelly Meding said…
Great post, Stacia. I agree with the majority of your points about the differences between blogging and writing. Definitely different animals.

However...

What I do think is that encouraging writers to keep a journal is not necessarily great advice.

Whenever I see "keep a journal" given as advice, I don't take it to mean keep a livejournal or a blog. Because those are very public things. Not what I consider journaling at all.

For me, that advice means keep a private journal. In a notebook, binder, or one of those fancy, leather-covered ones they sell at Borders. It means writing down your thoughts, feelings, things you did that day, hopes, poetry, sketch in it if you want.

I journaled a lot when I was younger, but stopped in college. And there were lots of things I used to put into those journals I'd never put out in public on my blog.

So no, blogging probably won't help you become a better fiction writer. But I do think journaling can, because it gives you a place to focus your emotions and thoughts and to understand your private self better.

My nickel's worth, anyway.
Jackie said…
I can honestly say that none of my Lust demons have ever uttered the cliche "Hard as a rock." Hard as OTHER things, certainly. Rocks? Nope.

Excellent post, Stacia.

Me, I can't keep a journal -- and no, I don't count my blogs as journals, and hush up about how a blog is a web log/journal. It's not journaling.

(I just saw that Kelly commented in the same vein. Great minds, Kelly. Great minds.)

I can't journal to save my life. Okay, well, to save my life, I'm sure I'd make an exception. I don't enjoy journaling. I don't have the discipline or the attention span for it.

As for blogging...I'm learning. When I remember to blog, I do. I'm trying to blog every day. But for me, it's not to be creative. Frankly, it's to tell people who either like me (because I've bribed them) or like my writing (because their copies came with a $20 tucked in the pages) or actually enjoy my electronic musings (anyone?) what's happening with me -- usually, business/writing related, but sometimes more personal things.

Being an author is this weird mix of working in isolation and shouting to the world. I think that authors can make excellent bloggers because (A) we work with words, and (B) we're so damn eager to reach out to others and TELL THEM THINGS. That's what we do when we write: we tell people things. Stories, news, jokes, what have you. We throw our words out there and hope they're read.

The cool thing about blogs is that when you have people commenting on your posts, then you know you've been reaching people. It's the ultimate validation for authors.

And when no one comments...well, I tell myself that in their minds, readers have commented. :)
Heather Harper said…
I think any medium that helps you explore emotions, gain insights about the human experience, and that requires you to write helps improve your skills in all areas.

Can blogging or journaling be a time suck? Sure.

But writing requires filling your well, walking away from the pages when you must, and learning to tame the negative voices, etc.

If you are focused, blogging or journaling can be a blessing, IMO.
Anonymous said…
You make some excellent points, Stacia. But like Kelly and Jackie, I don't consider blogging to be journaling. Journaling for me is a mind-opener, and it helps me expand on things I wouldn't otherwise realize or see. I use it for stress management and for writing purposes, and I have books I use for inspiration (they have little stories or questions and such, which are incredibly helpful when I feel closed off). Nothing I write for those purposes would ever see the light of day, and they're in hidden, password protected areas of my hard drive. Hidden as they are, I consider them to be as important as daily exercise or flossing my teeth.

--Libby
Hagelrat said…
Great post, blogging is of course always a good way to give your fans access to you. :)
tom-gallier said…
"Who said my blog posts aren't fiction?" I said, aghast and sneering superiorly. "I is an writer!"

I smirk at my own juvenile humor.

Why can't I fictionalize my wild yammering? Why can't I pretend to be…great? Why am I "saying" this in my mind like Captain Kirk? KHAN!

Oh, medicine. Gotta go.
December/Stacia said…
Yes, sorry, I should have made myself clearer. I believe both blogging and keeping a personal journal are not good practice for cition writing and take time away from the actual work of fiction writing. I don't think either of them help and while I see ways where they could not harm, I don't understand why "keep a journal" is considered good advice.

So while my post focused on blogs, I feel the same way regarding personal journals. Good for some, maybe, but if it's not fiction writing, it's not helping you learn to write fiction. JMO.
Thom said…
What Kelly said.

My blog is just the usual Live Journal type of bloginess.

My actual sporadic journal (technically, "morning pages" that I started when I did The Artist's Way) is more personal, since it's my eyes only, but it will also contain things like plot ideas, charaters, scenes, or pieces of dialog that might be incorporated into the work, that kind of thing.

That being said, I don't keep up with either one every day because I would rather be putting that energy towards the actual Work In Progress.
Thom said…
"Character", not "charater". You're right, keeping a journal hasn't made me a better writer at all, LOL

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