On Keeping a Writer’s Diary

I am thrilled to present to you today guest blogger Sylvi Shayl. (Medusawink as some might know her online.) Before I invited her to write a post, she and I spoke several times on Reddit, and I was impressed by her knowledge and writing talent. She is a fantastic creative writing teacher who has agreed to share with us some of her expertise about a writing tool I will begin using today.


By Sylvi Shayl

Dear diary, today I wrote 1500 words. I must do better – I have only written 3000 words this week. It’s hopeless.


Unless you are an absolute masochist who specialises in crushing their own spirit then this is not the sort of writer’s diary I’m talking about. A writer’s diary is a place to collect inspiration and ideas, a space where you work through issues that affect your writing, and somewhere to experiment with words and concepts like a mad scientist hopped up on dictionary. What I’m talking about is a Commonplace Book on steroids.

For the record the Commonplace Book is no recent invention, indeed it has its roots in history where the famous and the not so famous collected ideas, made observations on life and repeated those made by others, related anecdotes, collated fascinating information, and added miscellaneous items such as poems, letters, quotes, prayers, formulas, recipes, conversion tables – all with the purpose of making use of them at some later date. They were in effect scrapbooks for the mind.

So, let’s look at some of the things that you can put into your writer’s diary (the best way for me to illustrate this is to include examples from the many writer’s diaries I have kept and continue to keep – they are evolving works of art).

Lists: lists of words you like, words that evoke a particular feeling, or describe a time of day that fascinates you; words that describe colours, flavours, scents; words that describe emotions and facial expressions. Lists of titles – book titles, movie titles, song titles, story titles… sometimes when they are collected together they form a poem which describes a time or place that only you can understand, and sometimes they put you in a frame of mind to perfectly describe that thing that you are grappling with in your story. My own writers diary includes lists of the most unlikely things – the names of magical oils and incenses, the name of all the original Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, the titles of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, a collection of names of surf shops, a collection of titles of fantasy novels, romance novels, detective novels, titles of albums, the names of perfumes,  titles of films noir, the names of streets in old Singapore, a collection of really cool character names, and a long list of times, places and eras which fascinate me.

Mind maps: whether you dash them off or carefully and laboriously work them out as a piece of art, a mind map is a great way to trace the evolution of an idea for your stories. It’s a way of creating a visual representation for your stories – I have used them to create cities – from suburbs to street names, and relevant venues and sites which will be used in a story. Mind maps are great for detailing the relationships between characters. And they are wonderful for working out outlines for stories – from the initial idea to key events and pertinent details a mind map can encompass the foundations of a great story or novel.

Free writing: free writing is an excellent way to loosen up your imagination. Whether you are in search of inspiration, or in preparation for writing, free writing is a wonderful way to overcome blocks to your creativity. The essence of free writing is to simply grab a pen and start writing without thinking, without stopping, without punctuation, without reflection, without fear, without prejudice – just write everything that springs into your mind. You may find that eventually your thoughts become more organised and lucid, or that your imagination takes you into unsuspected and amazing places, that your pen writes as though possessed by a muse who operates independently of your own constricted thinking.

Quotes: memorable quotes from famous thinkers, crazy quotes overheard on the bus, insightful quotes from philosophers, famous quotes from statesman, politicians and leaders, words of wisdom from teachers and friends.

Extracts: a verse from a poem, a lyric, a paragraph of writing that you consider perfect, a description of a place or time, a reference from a history book, a recipe book, an Encyclopaedia. Extracts in my WD include paragraphs culled from biographies, fantasy novels, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, Tanith Lee’s novels, travel guides, history books, and children’s novels.

These are not only facts and ideas that can be incorporated into your stories, but examples of writing which inspires you, and a writer’s voice whose echoes can find their way into your own unique writing style.

Plot synopses: outline the books that you want to write, outline stories that you want to tell… Even if you never write them, collect them – you never know when you may wish to mash-up ideas from several stories and come up with a workable outline.

 Descriptions: descriptions of people, places, events, things that you see. Write down descriptions of things that you imagine, descriptions of art, beautiful things, ugly things, frightening things, inspiring things, descriptions of unlikely things, ephemeral things which are so hard to describe but necessary to your story such as music, an atmosphere of a place, a vibe. A description of a fascinating or memorable scene from a TV show or stage play.

In my writer’s diary, I have descriptions of weather and seasons, which through repetition become refined and detailed, and hopefully, eventually perfected. I have other descriptions too, of times (and, yes, places) that I experienced, particularly in my childhood, which have long since vanished, which are worth holding on to for their exoticism, and potential in stories.

Ephemera: postcards, tickets, advertisements, fliers, tear-outs from newspapers, phonebooks and magazines, menus, calendar, a page from an address book or appointment diary, a photo, sketch, doodle, playing card, business card… stick them in, glue them down, tape them, staple or paperclip them together – if they inspire you, keep them in your writer’s diary.

Sometimes inspiration strikes and an idea or scene that you have been grappling with suddenly works itself out and the words are ready to flow, write it down immediately in your writer’s diary. Don’t presume that you will remember it later, life interferes and great words are forgotten so get them on the page the moment they are ready to flow. Your writer’s diary is the place to save up these words, paragraphs, and pages – you can work them into your story when you sit down in front of your computer or at your desk later on.

If you have writers block or a particularly vengeful inner censor or critic you may wish to address the it in a written dialogue in your writer’s diary. The New Diary by Tristine Rainer addresses this issue in detail, and I highly recommend this book for any aspiring, or indeed successful writer, as it offers so many ideas and skills for keeping a journal or diary for a multitude of purposes.

This is just a starting point for you as a writer because the writer’s diary that you keep will be as unique as you are. It will be non-linear and it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you; it will be a jumble of fascinating ideas, facts, and inspirations which put you in the frame of mind to write. Hopefully your writer’s diary will go beyond these suggestions and ideas, you will be able to expand it into a work of art in its own right because it reflects your imagination, your passions, your fascinations.

Sylvi Shayl


Sylvi Shayl currently works as a creative writing teacher and harried parent. A tarot aficionado, she writes reviews of tarot decks and related issues for Aeclectic Tarot (http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/)  under the pseudonym Medusawink. She is also an avid reader of a broad range both fiction and non-fiction, and previously wrote book reviews for the Australian Big Issue for more than a decade.


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