Ever have a parent or teacher ask you why you’re not using a journal to help you improve your writing? And have you ever wondered what the fuss is all about, especially when you don’t like to write in the first place? When I was in middle school, I had all sorts of strange thoughts flying around in my head–a real scramble of ideas and stuff that I couldn’t unscramble. I did want to understand how I felt about this or that and was surprised when a friend told me to try writing in a journal. It took me about one second to say, “I don’t like writing, and even if I did that’s not going to help, so forget it.”
My friend came back with, “Hey, don’t think of it as writing. Think of it as a private place where you can unload all your thoughts and feelings where no one else can see them. You can string words together, can’t you? Well, that’s all you have to do, and don’t worry about getting it right. Just jot stuff down, like how you feel about deciding not to try out for Shakespeare Club, or for the band, or what you think about being a homeschooler, or how to get parents to let you pick your own writing prompts. If it doesn’t work for you, stop. Simple as that, but I’ll bet you end up learning a lot about what’s going on inside your head.” She was right; I did learn things.
Today, I carry my journal around and, whenever something important pops into my head, I write a few sentences about it. Later, when I look at what I wrote, something weird happens: it’s like I’ve “trapped” my thoughts on my computer screen. They’re just sitting there, looking back at me. Funny, but that’s the real difference, isn’t it? When I just sit and think, my thoughts go flying by in my mind so fast I can’t pin them down. But when I capture them on a screen or on a page, I can change, delete, add, and move words around until my sentences make better sense. Before, I didn’t know what was going on inside my scarecrow brain. Now, a journal helps me see what I’m thinking, and that helps me improve the way I express my thoughts. I went back to my friend because I wanted to know how writing in a journal could actually improve my writing. She looked at me and grinned. “I bet you didn’t know it, but you were writing all along.”
Okay, if a journal is something you think might help you learn to write, you might be wondering how to start. How about making a list of things that interest you? If you’ve got a pet, put Fido or Whiskers on the list. Pets make good subjects, but don’t forget some of the abstract topics you’ve been thinking about, like your feelings about bullying, or your interest in becoming a doctor, a CEO, or a nurse, or a police officer. You’re bound to come up with ideas of your own—and that’s the best way to start—but if you’d rather start with a list, try this one:
- If I were president of the United States, I would:
- If I had a magic wand, I would:
- What our family pet would say if he/she could talk:
- If I had 3 wishes, I would wish for:
- A pretend letter to your parents on whatever:
- If you could change anything about your life, what would it be and why?
- If you had three special powers, what would they be?
- What I’d like to tell my parents about my writing prompts:
Finally, give it a try and see if you agree with author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): “Writing for your eyes only can be relaxing, therapeutic, even fun.”
After watching movie stars, politicians, and a lot of TV celebrities apologize for their poor choice of words or for some other goof they made while trying to write an email or an Internet post, I vowed never to let the English language trip me up while I was growing up. Although I was committed to learning what I could about writing, I didn’t know how to start. Then I asked my teacher, and you’ll never guess what she said. “Why don’t you try writing in a journal…Great exercise. Helps ward off writer’s block and gets you into a kind of writing rhythm, especially if you do a little bit every day. Even five minutes is good.” I still messed up now and then, of course, but I kept trying. I wasn’t sure my efforts would pay off, but then it happened. Years later, a supervisor called me into his office and asked me if I could help an engineer write something for a sales proposal she was working on. “She’s a terrific engineer,” he said, “but a terrible writer. Can you coach her a little? It’s got to be quick, though. This proposal ships next week, and if she can’t cut it she’s off the team.” I knew immediately that we couldn’t turn the engineer into an acceptable writer in only seven days. Learning a skill like writing takes time, but it sure is worth it. Ask that engineer.