Rule no. 5: Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.
—Geoff Dyer

When I read Geoff Dyer's rule number 5 in ‘10 rules for writing fiction’, my immediate reaction was that few students in primary school would share his regret. After all every Monday morning many dutifully write in their journals—carrying out an ‘authentic’ writing task—and teachers duly read and respond, offering encouragement and modeling correct grammar and spelling as they try to keep the writing process alive and flourishing for their young students.

In some classrooms writing a weekly journal is a joyful and productive activity where students express and record their thoughts and feelings in meaningful ways, but all too often it is a tedious chore where they churn out pieces with the standard opening On the weekend I … They don’t want to write in their journals and it shows. As I read Dyer’s rule, I began to think about my own journal writing experiences and how journals might best prosper in the classroom.

I often regret that I have not regularly kept a journal. When other writers advise me to keep a journal, I vow that I will change my ways. Journals are where writers collect the thoughts and observations that fuel their writing. Sadly, after the first few pages (if any words are written at all) I get caught up in the rush of life and all the other things I have to write and the journal gathers nothing but dust.

Once, on a family holiday in New Zealand, I bought postcards at every opportunity, stuck them in a journal, and recorded what we did, including observations from other family members as well as my thoughts and feelings. It didn’t take long to record in my journal every night and, in fact, it was fun. Today, I see much in the journal that I could use in my writing. Some entries make me smile.

On one page, where I had pasted an entrance sticker featuring a volcano from a museum in Rotorua, I had written:
     I got the volcano because I erupt.

My 12-year-old daughter had added her response: And how!

I could use this exchange in my own writing, perhaps to show the affectionate but feisty relationship between a mother and a daughter. Flicking through the journal, I see pictures of bubbling mud pools and remembering how bad they smelled, I think about how I could use them as a setting for a story.
At worst the journal is a nice record of a great family holiday, at best it is a goldmine to help me write better.

Another time I kept a journal was for a poetry writing class at university. Not fancying myself as a poet I needed all the help I could get; I carried a small book with me at all times and jotted down any line or a phrase that came to me. When I visited Yosemite National Park and saw endless expanses of fir trees, I jotted down

     I have seen Yosemite,
     where the Christmas trees run wild and free.

It wasn’t great poetry, but it was the start of a poem. Keeping a journal in this way was very useful as many of the poems I wrote for the class were born in this little book.

So what about students writing journals? Teachers need to let them in on the secret of journals – journals should be interesting to write and useful. And, above all else, a journal is for the writer, not the teacher. Teachers can help students realize this by challenging them to write in their journals in different ways. They can write about:

  • Something funny or scary or amazing or boring that happened. I was sooo bored last night. Dad said we all had to go to the Grand Prix. I thought watching my toenails grow would be more fun.

  • A conversation they heard that made them smile or cringe or yawn – why did they respond this way? My mum hit the curb when she drove around the corner last week. Dad said, ‘Mum’s driving by Braille.’ This made me laugh.

  • Something that they wish would happen or not happen at school, at home, in ballet class. Why? Ballet used to be fun, but now I have to be a clock! How can I dance and be a clock? It’s ridiculous.

  • An idea for a story, play or a poem. What if my feet started to grow really, really fast and got really really big? Where would I buy shoes? They’d call me ‘big foot’.

  • The look, smell and sound of a place and how it made them feel.

Finally, when teachers respond to students’ journal writing, they suggest how students might use a journal entry in other writing. That smelly old fish you saw in the river is really interesting. Could you use it in your story/report?

The article ‘10 rules of writing’ can be read here