habit of journaling

Journaling is a technique used by writers, particularly feature writers, to include personal impressions in the prose. This technique should be used with care; otherwise, the remarks that you mean to be candid quips fall flat and sound amateurish. Nonetheless, good writers can follow the lead of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night and others from the Gonzo School, where the writer deliberately inserts opinion into the article. This approach must be cleared in advanced by an editor and should be used judiciously. Most readers aren’t concerned with what the writer thinks unless the comments are dry, novel, cogent, and insightful.

This style of writing, also known as the new journalism, became fashionable in the 1960s. “Earlier work by Lillian Ross–and much earlier by George Orwell–is clearly situated under the creative-nonfiction umbrella,” wrote Lee Gutkind, professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. Gutkind commended creative writing and said, “Creative nonfiction–writing techniques like scene, dialogue, description, while allowing the personal point of view and voice (reflection) rather than maintaining the sham of objectivity–is hardly a new idea. For new writers, however, the personal approach should be reserved for articles that require the treatment. Be judicious and discerning about the goal of your prose. Failing that course, check with your editor!”

To prepare for this kind of writing, keep a journal, a diary. A journal is the place for your personal reflections. Avoid reminding yourself of your meals and other routine activities. Instead, use your journal to capture that emotion that ebbs and flows with each sunset.

One writer captured this kind of introspection when he wrote, “I entered a period of listlessness, spurred neither by love of self nor love of God. During this journey through the desert, I drifted from one diversion to another, committing the worst deeds of my life along the way. Looking back, I think it would have taken just one Christian friend to have spared me all those barren years, a friend who could have explained to me that although religious feeling had gone, the reality had not; that the Christian life depends not on the Christian, but on Christ; and that our inability to lead a perfect life does not condemn us to lead a bad one. I started out well, but had stumbled and fallen. I hadn’t known that the point of the race was not to win, but to finish.”

Can you hear the emotion in those honest words? Those are the kind of deeply personal thoughts that can be recorded in a journal, but hard to locate when pressed to write them on demand. The journal works much like a photograph album. It can be used to jumpstart a memory that links to other memories. The chaining may help you develop a series of thoughts that advance the article. Clearly, this technique works best for the personal narrative, but the Gonzo gang used it liberally to castigate a source for sloppy thinking, criticize someone mentioned in the article for a fashion faux pax, and, in general, tee off at someone else’s expense. Clearly, this technique should be reserved for those rare times when your intellectual antennae are wiggling beyond control and you feel compelled to weigh in.


  1. Do you keep a journal? What are the benefits? Are there any disadvantages?
  2. Examine your journal, if you keep one. What passages are the strongest? Which ones would speak to others? Explain.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Michael Ray Smith‘s book FeatureWriting.net. Used with permission.

Download the entire book for free from our MTI Online resource center.

Photo by Finde Zukunft on Unsplash

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