What Writing An Offline Journal Taught Me About Writing My Thesis

I started writing a pen-and-paper journal for three reasons.First, because I spent months as a reasonably well-paid blogger and worked around the corner from a store with a wide range of notebooks. Then people started giving me notebooks as presents. And now my flat is overrun with blank Moleskins and Leuchtturm’s and Decomposition notebooks, and I’m working my way through them as quickly as I can (mostly, so I can buy new notebooks without guilt).

Second, because I need a place to process things and make notes about what’s going on in my life in way that is not blogging, Facebook, or Twitter. The years I spent writing on Livejournal, and the early days of this site, have been incredibly valuable when looking back and figuring out yearly patterns, and occasionally I need a black-box which reminds me why I made certain decisions that look considerably worse in hindsight.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I’d hit a point where various research into why things like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works had convinced me that starting a gratitude journal was probably useful for my overall mental health, but I am severely adverse to the idea of gratitude journals and never maintained one for more than three or four days before getting irritated and pitching it aside.

The goal of gratitude journals – hacking your brain so it gets used to scanning the landscape of your life and registering opportunity and positive events – made a lot of sense to me. The process usually attached to that just felt heavy-handed and twee. So I ditched the process and kept the goal, incorporating it into a general journal practice, and hit upon something that I could stick with.

After four months of doing this, I’ve stumbled across a fairly important realisation about writing in general:

I DO NOT WRITE WITHOUT AN AUDIENCE IN MIND

My first attempts at writing a journal were sporadic and loaded with resentment. I disliked the process and wanted it to be over with, because the feeling of self-indulgence got to me really fast. Journaling felt like wasted time, given all the other things I’m meant to be writing that people are actually paying me to write.

What turned me around on the process – and got me working on it regularly – as the advice to write it as a letter to yourself. Start with Dear Peter, end it with a sign off. Create a sense of distance between yourself-as-writer, and yourself-as-reader, and make it clear that you’re writing for an audience of one.

Writing seems like a solitary activity, but it has more in common with acting than you’d think. In some ways, writers are constantly playing to an audience, figuring out how to make the best use of their space to generate effect. Except our space isn’t a stage or a set, our stage is a series of reader expectations based on genre, language, and place of publication.

Writers work to understand those expectations and find ways of using those expectations to surprise and delight the reader. It’s one of the reasons new writers are urged to read widely and read often, so they can develop an understanding of what those expectations are and how other people have used them.

Writing is at its hardest when that audience, or their expectations, aren’t clear in your mind. It’s like walking out on stage and forgetting your lines, or walking into a party where you know no-one and aren’t sure how to behave. The audience is there, but you don’t know how to play to them anymore.

This week, I’m working on my thesis prospectus. Four thousand words where I sum up the first four months of research and outline where I expect my project to go.

And I’ll be honest – it’s damnably unpleasant compared to writing other things. I don’t know the audience I’m playing too, and I don’t know how to surprise them. Or, to put it another way, I’m not yet certain I even have all my lines down yet, but there’s people coming in to see the early play rehearsals where the cast is still learning the script.

It helps to remember I felt this way about writing in a journal four months ago, and I felt this way about writing fiction a decade ago, and about writing poetry, and RPG books, and theatre, in all the years I wrote things before that.

The nice thing about this is that you can get to know an audience and their expectations, once you know that’s what you’re looking for. You read enough, and you pick up enough advice, and somewhere along the way, you figure out who you’re writing for. You build a picture of the audience in your head and you figure out what they’re after.

Everything gets a little easier after that. Not a lot, just a little, but it’s usually the line between I am going to get working on this and oh, wow, there’s cool things on Netflix right now.

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