Publishing barriers have collapsed, and most of the stigma of self-publishing has been erased. Even the act of writing has become easier. The personal computer, which helped launch the Information Age, allows for the accelerated gathering and storing of information. A writer can compose a book for publication in months or even weeks.
I shuddered when a bestselling author in the mid-twentieth century described penciling-in changes on typewritten pages and then retyping each page for the publisher whenever necessary. Moreover, the initial draft was probably written in longhand. The time and labor involved in composing a book had once taken years, but the finished product was undeniably a solid manuscript. Today, the wonderful tools that help a writer to type, revise, and copyedit a manuscript in a fraction of the time have produced the most rushed prose known to human history.
Hardly anyone wants to write an entire draft in longhand or return to the typewriter days, but how can the thoughtfulness of the past be recaptured in a modern manuscript? For books and feature-length articles, it helps to keep a written journal that contains both research and narrative fragments at the very least. While there are many approaches to journaling, let’s take a look at few at its benefits.
A journal is a file cabinet for research. As information is gathered, even for works of fiction, it is difficult to know what will be used in the final manuscript, but it is certain that most of it will not. A journal guarantees that the right information will be saved.
The writer’s notebook holds ideas for the outline, narrative, or plot. During the initial draft, it is difficult to know the correct direct of a longer work. Even if a faulty path is taken, better options might be saved within a journal for subsequent revisions.
A journal provides time for burning off emotional energy in a place separate from the first draft. Emotions are not logic, and even works of fiction require sound construction. While emotional prose resonates on the page, false narratives compromise the entire book. Giving emotions time to settle in a journal allows the writer to cull authenticity from the feelings.
The mere act of writing adds a physical dimension, which extends back to the collapse of the Third Ming Dynasty when the first writers were born from unemployed scribes. This is our legacy and should never be forgotten. It takes much longer to write on paper than banging words into a computer. As a result, computer drafts are often flabby and wandering, but when committing potential words to paper (words that are not so easily deleted), writers pause to consider the correct language and exact word choices. (If you are doubting the increased care and consideration that attends the act of writing, consider typing a birthday greeting for a friend inside an e-mail and then consider writing it inside a card to be mailed.)
Author Robert McPhee says it takes him three years to compose a book: one for research, another for organizing, and another for writing. Obviously a lot of thinking goes into each of his books, and it shows. He is an award-winning writer and multiple Pulitzer finalist. It clearly pays to consider thinking about your words more carefully by using a journal.
Christopher Klim is the senior editor of the US Review and the author of several books including True Surrealism and Idiot!. During a plane flight, he used a journal to outline and annotate this article.