Every writer should keep a journal.
Normally, I wouldn’t make such a blanket statement, and I’m sure there are thousands upon thousands of great writers who have never journaled a day in their lives, but if I had to boil down all of the good writing advice I’ve ever heard into one tip, it would be exactly this:
Keep a journal.
I say this primarily because this is what works for me. I have dozens on dozens of composition notebooks–the cheaper the better, if you ask me–scattered throughout my apartment, and I write, almost daily, about anything and everything on my mind: what girl I’m dating or hope to date, relationships with friends, what I had for lunch, what the person sitting across from me in this coffee shop looks like (short, red cap, unnervingly beautiful), scenes for whatever story I’m working on, or streams of consciousness brought on by whatever book I’ve been reading.
But, of course, what you want to know is why you should keep a journal. You want to know exactly how it’s going to help you develop as a writer, and you want to know whether it’s a good use of your time and energy. And you’re right to ask. So let me offer a short and not-in-any-way-comprehensive list of reasons.
The first is the simplest: In general, you get better at what you practice. Sure, if all you write about is your bunions, you might not produce the best literary fiction (though, as with anything re: lit fic, this is of course easily debatable), but at the end of the day, the more you write, the better you’ll write.
Second, it’s low-pressure. Nothing you journal about has to be published immediately on your blog, so you’re free to experiment and fail. And as a writer, or even just as a human being, you won’t go anywhere if you don’t know how to fail.
Third, it keeps you warm. Inertia is one of your greatest allies. It’s why so many writers set a daily word minimum for themselves. If you’ve run into a brick wall in your novel and just don’t know where to go next, journaling is a great way to take a step back, regroup, and still meet that minimum.
Fourth, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, it helps you to understand yourself. Everything you put on that page comes from, or at least filters through, that mind of yours, and the more you know about how you think, the more effectively you’ll be able to say what it is you want to say.
So give it a shot. Worst case is you’ve lost a few bucks and an hour or so; best case is you discover something that helps you grow.