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Robert's Rules of Writing #1: Burn Your Journal

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Masello's first rule of writing is one that I'm sure will generate a lot of controversy, so in a way, it's an excellent place to start.

Masello dismisses the advice he has found in many other writing books, which say that if you're stuck on something, or don't know what to write, you should start keeping a random journal. He feels that this is "a way to tell yourself that you're working when you're not." His suggestion is that if you want to write something that someone might buy and publish, you need to skip the journaling in favor of the "grunt work that real writing requires."

Now, on the one hand, I think he's being a little harsh. Most writing books I've read suggest journals for specific reasons, such as developing a character's voice or keeping a book of ideas for stories. There's also other types of journaling; for many years, I kept a paper diary, a record of my life, and I now do the same thing electronically.

On the other hand, though, it's not hard to see where he's coming from. I'm guessing that in his years of teaching, Masello has met a lot of people who want to be professional writers and who spend their time scribbling down pages and pages of reflections but never once concentrate on the type of writing that will help them achieve their goals.

So as much as I hate to say it, he's right. Keeping a private journal doesn't get you published. And keeping a public journal, such as this blog, does have the benefit of keeping you in touch with your readers, but it's not going to be your primary source of income. (If it were, I'd know, as I'd have more people going to my home page and clicking my PayPal donations button.)

In short, if you want to be a writer who gets paid for what you do, a writer who makes a living, you need to focus your writing in that direction. And that might very well mean abandoning the journal, or at least relegating it to a smaller portion of your writing life. Because every minute you're writing in a journal, you're not writing pay copy. Which, if you want to be a professional writer, has to be your final goal.


Hmmm... I'm finding the public journal to be helpful to my writing, as my writing-group is largely online. But that's /different/. I'm putting snippets of the novel up (a paragraph here, a page there) in the roughest form I can, and asking for critique.

I find that for this one, when I'm stuck on something, I can do sketches of people (in words; I draw someone less well than you do, MAB) or jump to a differrnt scene or go write some of the fun to write bits that I might throw out later but at least they're in this world. SO much better than the in-between stuff I was writing five years ago (and the novel that didn't go anywhere, since I was writing it longhand.)

Journaling for its own sake is useful though too. I feel like this is an extreme way of saying "don't pretend you're working when you're not."
as my writing-group is largely online

i was just wondering what online writing group you are part of.
I agree with the sentiment of not using a journal as a writing tool to break writer's block, mostly because I think writer's block is an excuse when the writer doesn't want to perform whatever they consider the "less fun" functions of writing and it allows them to justify doing things they like better.

On the other hand, keeping a regular personal journal is a habit that can help develop other habits. Such as, "I will not write in my LJ until I have written X amount of fiction."

BTW, I like the idea of discussing these "rules."
It differs for me. When I'm at a point where my work life is demanding so much from me that I can't think and I haven't started a story in months, journaling provides more space for my brain to stretch out again, and usually gets me writing again quickly. But I do agree that when you're in the middle of a project and get blocked, you can switch to another project, but switching to journaling is running away.
I agree with this rule, unless you broaden the definition of journal to include all of your sketchy first drafts. A public journal can be great for camaraderie and marketing, and any journal can be great for your soul and happiness. But not so much with the getting you published.

I used to journal regularly on paper and on my computer. In recent years, I've written relatively few journal entries as such, even if you account for starting to journal online. I still think journaling is a wonderful idea in general, but not really as a piece of writing advice.
My dad died a couple months back. If I didn't have a journal to express myself in, I wouldn't have gotten anything written. Those emotions needed to come out somewhere, and they were entirely inappropriate for the material I was working on. In fact, that's still true. I don't like reading whiny characters who go around complaining that life's not fair, and I assume the same is true for most people. So I believe that a journal is a necessary adjunct to my writing if I want to produce something that's publishable.
I'm sorry for your loss and hope you're doing fairly okay. Having written many journal entries in my day, I definitely agree with how vital a journal can be for dealing with our emotions. The sadness and the happiness alike.
Thank you. I'm doing as well as I can. Some days are rougher than others. Some days go by where it doesn't cross my mind because I live on the other side of the country from my parents. Other days it hits me. Journaling helps.

Which isn't to say that it replaces my writing. It's a tool that allows me to focus my writing. And I think that was the point of the rule -- the tool shouldn't replace what it's supposed to help.
Wow. I like the no-holds-barred kinda thing he's got started here.

As a whole, I have to agree. I know my own bad habits; for me, keeping a journal is 1: onerous (too much gradeschool claptrap baggage--enforced journals, diaries, and other ecchiness) and 2: an excellent excuse to kickstart the procrastination and write ANYTHING but what needs to be written, or pore over paegs of gathered stuff.

There ARE times when a journal is useful, but I find that I have to budget time, schedule it, to keep it from becoming a procrastinatory (whee!) crutch. And I have to seriously be insipired to keep a journal. The best I can muster is a notebook with scribbled ideas.

I think his real intent is to prevent a tool from becoming a crutch.
i keep a private journal, regularly but not daily, and it has never (that i've observed) taken away from what would have been my "writing time" for real projects...if anything, it helps get all that monkeymind stuff out of my head so i can focus.
Yep, I'm gonna have to disagree with rule 1. I actually find that I write much more when I'm journaling than when I'm not. There's something about jabbering away longhand about story stuff that really gets my creative juices flowing and inspires me to sit down at the keyboard and get cracking. Which reminds me, I've cut back on both journaling and writing lately, so it's time to get back to both.
I get the point of the rule. Journaling does NOT equal writing. Don't use it as a crutch.

Still, I have to disagree. For me, journaling clears my head space so that I can actually focus on writing.
[very late to this party -- this may never get seen, in fact -- but here goes:]

I wonder what Mr. Marsello would say about John Steinbeck's use of journaling. He did his novels by hand in a bound notebook. The right side page was for actual copy; the left side page was for his on-going journal about the project itself. If he got stuck someplace (blocked, needed to sketch something out, whatever) he would switch to the left side, writing there until he was back on the right side.

It's actually Masello, not Marsello.

I suspect he'd probably approve, because he wouldn't consider such a journal just random, but part of the process of creating the final work.

December 2016

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