Language Journals: a Writer’s Toolbox

Language Journals

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of what it means to be a writer. To me, a writer is first and foremost an artist. An artist is someone who can create something utilizing a particular medium, often turning an abstract idea into a tangible object. A writer’s medium is language: words, sentences, sounds. The wonderful thing about language is that it is nearly infinite. The composition of words in the English language through the use of the 26 letter alphabet lends itself to thousands upon thousands of combinations, which can then be strung together in any number of ways to convey a thought or idea. Language is always changing, always mutable, and persists through and within any individual who dares speak a word or write a sentence. A writer is somebody who can collect those words, arrange them, and create something concrete and understandable from all the confusion of language.

In the fall of 2011, I was fortunate enough to be able to take a creative writing class at a local university before state budget cuts rendered it all but impossible for a community member to take classes if he or she is not enrolled full time. Among the many wonderful things I learned about creative writing, one of the most valuable habits I was taught to develop was the keeping of a Language Journal. At first I was concerned, as keeping a diary was always something that I’ve never been particularly good at, but I quickly came to find that a Language Journal is so much easier than writing a diary. As I develop my writer’s brain and habits, I am constantly keeping an ear (or two) out for interesting words or turns of phrase. Anything can inspire a story, from a fragment overheard in a conversation at Starbucks to the way ingredients are listed on a bottle of ketchup. What does one do with all these interesting ideas? Collect them and keep them in a Language Journal, of course. A Language Journal can be anything you want it to be; it can be structured or unstructured, organized or disorganized, whatever helps you create your art. No matter how your journal is kept, it ultimately becomes your toolbox. A painter has her tools, her paintbrushes, paint, canvases and palettes, and she stores them in a particular fashion suited to her needs. Likewise, a writer should keep her tools together, ready and waiting for when inspiration takes hold.

Fortunately, I’ve been gifted with a handful of journals and notebooks through the years, which I have been able to utilize nicely for my writing projects. Initially, most of the language that I collect is stored in notes on my iPhone, which I then transfer to the particular journal to which I think it belongs. I keep a Language Journal for general things and separate journals for the different stories I am working on, with an eye to things that are related to those projects. I like to keep things organized and use a different ink color for different categories. The following are the general categories I use, but the list is certainly not exhaustive:

Names – character names, place names, etc
Quotes – excerpts from books, poetry, interviews, anything printed and attributable to a certain person
Phrases – short, interesting phrases picked up here and there, everywhere
Words – neat words that I like, words I want to look up
Ideas – larger concepts, themes I want to explore
Titles – book titles, chapter titles, etc

If language is your medium, I highly encourage you to start a Language Journal. Even when you’re not writing, you’re probably thinking of writing and by keeping this journal, you’re still actively working on your craft. Happy writing!


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1 Comment

  • Reply January 4, 2013


    This is such a great idea! I just opened a fresh moleskine that I’m declaring my Language Journal! Thanks for the adivce.