Bullet Journals for Writers

There’s a high probability that you already know what a Bullet Journal is, in which case you can skip ahead. If you think a bullet journal is for gun enthusiasts, read on.

What’s A Bullet Journal?

Image credit: Mike Rohde

As originally designed, the Bullet Journal is a minimalist system relying on a notebook and numbered pages. You use short codes to tag kinds of data and tasks. You create your own pages to suit your personal needs and style. A bullet journal (BuJo for short) is an efficient way to track your time and goals, and other data that you use for short-range and long-range planning.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with the concept, a place to start is the original bullet journal video Bullet Journal – YouTube by Ryder Carroll. I’ve also linked to some useful pieces about how to create, customize and use a bullet journal in the Resources section below.

Bullet Journals for Writers: The Basics

Because a bullet journal is so very flexible, many writers use a BuJo just for managing their writing time and tasks. I find a bullet journal especially useful in terms of tracking multiple projects and deadlines.

The Index

The first thing to do when you start using a bullet journal is to number the pages. (Some notebooks have pre-numbered pages, like the Leuchtturm1917 notebook, but it takes mere minutes to do it by hand).

The second thing to do is reserve the first three or four pages of your notebook for your Index. The Index is a list of pages and what’s on them; it makes finding your information very quick.

Tobias Bucknell, SF/F author, has written a helpful post about his experience creating, using, and customizing a BuJo for use by a writer This is how I Bullet Journal | Tobias Buckell. Bucknell says that for him the Index was a key point in making a Bullet Journal personally useful:

But creating an index, that was interesting. Because now I suddenly, like a light bulb going off, realized I could create not only daily to-dos, but project to-dos, and flip back and forth. Even better, while I used a variety of to-dos via digital software, some projects of mine were getting so complex that I needed a way to glance at the 30,000 foot view quickly.

Bucknell’s post provides a wealth of information about customizing the basic concepts and practices behind bullet journals with lots of specific suggestions about how writers might want to use a bullet journal.

There are lots of writers of every sort using bullet journals; some of your peers are likely using bullet journals, and may very well have some specific tips. In the meantime, here are some suggestions about ways to use bullet journaling as a writer.

The Key

Image credit: Mario Valdez

One of the primary techniques behind bullet journaling is what Ryder Carroll calls “rapid logging.” It means making brief notes about tasks, events and ideas, marked with identifying symbols to make it possible to tell what kind of a note you’ve made, and whether it’s a completed task or event or re-scheduled, at a glance. There’s an “official” Bullet Journal key; it looks like the image to the right. People customize the symbols they use all the time.

Collections are Powerful
A bullet journal Collection is a collection of data; that data can be lists or images or mind-maps or sketches, or trackers (more about trackers later). These are some possible Collections for a writer

  • Backstory and plot notes
  • Character notes (and sketches)
  • Setting notes (and sketches!)
  • Scene or Chapter breakdowns
  • Brainstorming—ask yourself questions about your WIP (why does Whitney go to the barn? What does Simon need? What does Simon want?)
  • Inspirational Quotes (See Tobias Bucknell’s post on starting with a motivational quotation)
  • A list of those words, you know, the ones you can’t spell without having to look them up.
  • List special character and place names, or special spellings of standard words, archaic words, idioms or invented words that you’ll want to submit to your editor so they won’t get changed.
  • Your personal style sheet; leading and trailing spaces before and after em-dashes, or not; spaces before and after ellipses, or not; preferred spellings of words that have options. Sure your editor and publisher may have different opinions, but if you standardize the way you do it, they’ll be much easier to change later, if it’s necessary.
  • Patricia Wrede has some great questions for fantasy world building that are useful to answer in a bullet journal as part of your backstory.

Trackers

Trackers are a visual method of tracking repeated events or habits. They’re often used for things like tracking sleep or miles walked, or water imbibed, or pages read, or words written. Technically, trackers are a subset of Collections in official Bullet Journal terms, but they’re endlessly flexible.

  1. Trackers can be as simple as M T W Th F S S to represent a week.Draw a line through the letter to mark the days on which you met your daily goals.
  2. Use a row of boxes with numbers for tracking monthly goals. Cross off or fill in the boxes on the days you met your goal.
  3. If you want to track multiple daily habits for a month, create a simple graph; habits or tasks across the top of a two-page spread, and numbers for the days of the month down the side of the left-hand leaf. Use a filled- in square or dot or X to mark the task (or habit) you completed under the column across the top. (Here’s a tracker example from Heather Haft).

You can get colorful of course, and there’s lots of advice and models about using trackers in your bullet journal. See for instance Bullet Journal Habit Trackers from Productive & Pretty. Lots of people use trackers to track good habits and health.

Migration

Migration in bullet journal terms refers to an event or task that wasn’t completed when you planned, so you migrate it to another day. In other words, you move it from Tuesday the 6th to Friday the 9th (or whenever). The official Bullet Journal Symbol for migrating something is >; lots of people use other symbols. Part of the point of migration is that you have to write the thing down again every time you migrate; if you find yourself doing this repeatedly, it’s an indication that you really don’t want to do the thing, or, that maybe, it doesn’t really need doing. As Ryder Carroll, the inventor of the Bullet Journal says:

You can reduce the amount of things you have to do by transferring things by hand. If a task isn’t worth the time to rewrite it, it’s probably not important. Spend time with things that are important and be mindful of how you spend your time.

Plan to Write

As writers, we all struggle with time management; with finding time to write. One way that a bullet journal habit can help with that is that you can plan not only the time but what you’re actually going to write.

By reducing the time we spend in non-writing activity in our writing time, we can actually get writing done. Those collections with questions, and character notes, and plot points can be springboards, specific starting points for your daily, nightly or weekly writing time.

Tip: A particularly useful technique in terms of tracking your narrative and writing progress, is to make a note when you end a session about where to start the next session

Bullet Journals are Analog

We’ve got Google Calendar, and iCal and all sorts of ways to sync data between our phones, our computers and our tablets. I’m still using them. But there are some advantages to writing by hand on paper.

  1. Handwriting aids retention.
  2. Handwriting allows us to use the parts of our brain that we don’t when we keyboard; there’s a thing that happens when we’re doodling or brainstorming with a pen in our hand where we solve problems, whether of plot, narration or character motivation, or planning. Some of it is perhaps not conscious, but as we write, we formulate a solution.
  3. Because of the way we concentrate on what we are doing and because it is slower than a keyboard, writing by hand gives us time to think.
  4. There’s something to be said for having a single place to track our time and ideas, especially when we write on a digital screen. Think of the journal as a portable extra screen, one that doesn’t require switching windows or apps.

A Note On Aesthetics

Lots of people spend a great deal of effort on prettifying their bullet journal; if you’ve got the time and skill that’s great. There are some incredibly beautiful BuJo’s out there. Me, I have neither time nor talent. I started my bullet journal in stumbled-upon blank page notebook, using a mechanical pencil and my travel fountain pen.

Bullet Journal Resources

Getting Started
There’s the video that Ryder Carroll made, of course, but these are some particularly useful guides to getting started using and customizing a bullet journal to suit you.

For a quick intro see Buzzfeed’s WTF Is A Bullet Journal And Why Should You Start One? An Explainer

It’s worth signing up to the once-a-month newsletter at Ryder Carroll’s  official bulletjournal.com site to download a copy of the free .pdf starter guide. It’s a cheat sheet for getting started with a bullet journal.

The best starter guide (full of practical suggestions for customizing) is How To Bullet Journal: The Absolute Ultimate Guide from the Lazy Genius Collective. Lots of useful pictures, and down-to-Earth advice.

Kim at Tinyrayofsunshine.com has an excellent Thorough Guide to the Bullet Journal System. Her pictures are very helpful and there are some excellig ideas about simplifying and customizing.

Bullet Journals for Writers

Writer’s Edit’s The Complete Guide to Bullet Journaling for Writers has some excellent suggestions about getting started, tracking submissions and using a bullet journal to plan and to manage NanoWriMo.

Victoria of Something Delicious has more specific tips for writers using bullet journals in Bullet Journaling for Fiction Writers. (Scroll down past the introduction to bullet journaling to see specific tips for writers).

Belle Cooper has some great practical suggestions for using a bullet journal to track freelance writing.

Supplies

There’s a section in the Absolute Write Amazon Store for Bullet Journal supplies; but you might want to try bullet journaling first before making an investment in pens and notebooks.

According to Bullet Journal inventor Ryder Carroll “All you need is a notebook and a pen . . . ” Consider using something you already have to start with (I did!). If you don’t have a blank page notebook (notebook paper isn’t really suitable) consider something like this Amazon Basics Classic Notebook, in either blank or “squared” (graph paper lines).

If you’re sure you’re game, consider using a notebook that has either a square grid (like graph paper) or a dot grid; they’re easier to use for charts, and they make it easier to write legibly.

If you already use a BuJo, let us know how you use it. What tips do you have for those just starting out? What do you suggest in terms of bullet journaling for writers?

Limiting Computer Time

By Katherine Huether

Most of my day is spent on the computer. I check e-mail, write queries, and use my word processing programs to complete the bulk of my assignments. Recently, I spent a day without my computer. I spent some time feeling lost and unhappy without my laptop and Internet access. Then, I dusted off my journal and started writing longhand for a change.

The end result of my time away from the computer was that I experienced more creativity and motivation than I have in a while. I’ve made it a goal to limit my computer use and spend at least one day a week away from the computer. I find that I need this weekly rest away from my writing and my “work.” Here are all the benefits I’ve experienced from this weekly ritual.

More Balance

When I first began my writing career, I felt that I needed to spend every free minute I had working. My kitchen was a mess, my house became disorganized, and my exercise and grooming routines both fell apart. My life was out of balance.

Even though I currently spend less time writing and developing my business, I am more productive. That day off recharges my mind and helps me use my time more efficiently. I exercise more, I eat well, and I spend time with my family.

Make a list of all the aspects of your life that feel disorganized and out of balance and make sure you give yourself ample time during your week to work on them.

Living Life

As a writer, I get most of my ideas from my life. When I spend all my time working, it is easy to run out of ideas. Since I take time away from technology and my business, I am experiencing life and giving myself a chance to develop new ideas.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of taking a whole day off, you can still schedule time each day to turn off your computer and ignore all telephone calls. Do something for yourself. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Plant some flowers. Go out for dinner. Make sure you bring your journal along so you can write down any ideas that may come to you.

Journaling

A journal is a powerful tool. There’s something about writing longhand that can spark creativity. Use unlined paper; this opens you up even more because you aren’t constrained by the lines provided. Do writing exercises. Observe the world around you. Jot down any ideas or thoughts. Write a poem. Keeping a journal on the computer doesn’t have the same effect. Turn off your computer at least once a day and find an inspiring place to write. Let yourself write whatever comes to mind. Then, go back through it later to extract all those little bits that can be turned into an article or story.

Stress

Although helpful, technology can also be stressful. Yes, computers, laptops, e-mail, cell phones, and our personal electronic organizers do make our jobs easier. But what happens when the phone rings all day and you check your e-mail on an almost minute-by-minute basis? This can promote stress. It isn’t necessary to respond to every call and e-mail you get as soon as you get it. In fact, it can cause stress.

Checking e-mail only a few times a day and letting voice mail pick up your calls can help you relax. Stress hurts creativity. When you are relaxed you can be more productive with your writing time and it is easier to come up with new ideas.

Greater Productivity

Yes, spending time away from your computer and from e-mail every now and then does enhance productivity. I know it seems hard to believe. I mean, it seems like you need to actually be at your computer in order to get things done.

I don’t know about you, but when I sit at my computer all day, I start to zone. I play a game or two of solitaire. Then I check my e-mail. I finally start writing but I can only write one sentence before I feel stuck.

At that point, I know I should switch off the computer and do something else. It’s time to take a break and at the very least do some housework. But when I take a REAL break away from the computer and take out my journal or get some exercise, that is when my mind starts to organize my thoughts and ideas and I am better able to return to my work refreshed and more productive.

Small Steps

Intrigued? You may want to start with small steps. Try taking a few ten minute breaks throughout your work day. Build up to taking an entire day off. You will be more creative and productive and have a lot more things to write about because you will be experiencing life

Katherine Huether is a freelance writer who takes care of the majority of her business with her computer. Her work has appeared in Herbs for Health and Herb Quarterly. Katherine Huether has a website.

Keeping a Journal in Tumultuous Times

By Barbara Stahura

Memory is a tricky thing even in the best of times. But in times of great stress and chaos, you might as well kiss it goodbye, for all the good it will do you in accurately recalling events. When your world explodes, memory, too, falls into fragments around your feet — disjointed pieces that later shape-shift, ooze into old recollections or couple with imagination to create new patterns, or disappear altogether. So when I entered the most agonizing, confusing time of my life, I took my journal along and wrote pages in it nearly every day. As a wife and an individual in the midst of turmoil, and also as a writer, I’m grateful that I did.

At the end of 2003, my husband, Ken, sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as the result of a hit-and-run. For a short time, the accident shattered my life into chaos. Later, I settled into a weird rhythm so disconnected from my familiar life that it often left me breathless (and once sent me to the ER with chest pains). I had to maintain any stability I could for Ken’s sake, and for mine. Beginning the morning after the accident, I wrote in my journal nearly every day. At the time my reasons for journaling weren’t necessarily defined. I simply felt a driving need to record my thoughts. Now, though, I’ve had time to sort out and reflect on those reasons.

First, in the exhausting, agonizing weeks that followed the accident, I felt as if I had been cast into the deepest ocean without a life jacket. Visible land — the life to which I hoped to return with my recovered husband — was only a hazy strip in the far distance. Journaling provided a way to ground myself, at least for little snatches of time. It was a safe, private haven where I poured out my confusion, anger, and sorrow.

This had a positive result since I was less likely to express these emotions in the wrong place, as in the ICU, for instance, when Ken’s neurologist saw no need to speak with me. Furthermore, though any medical emergency is confusing, the addition of a TBI complicates the situation even more. The brain controls everything we do, directing not only our mental functions like memory and cognition, but also our personality, emotions, and all the other functions that blend together to create a self. And when the self of someone you love more than your own heart is diminished and damaged the way Ken’s was, you clutch whatever you can to keep yourself afloat. I clutched my journal as if our lives depended on it.

Second, Ken’s memory was damaged by the TBI (fortunately, it has returned, with only slight deficits). He remembers nothing of the earliest weeks after the accident and not much of his time in the rehab facility and the second acute care hospital where he was taken after developing a pulmonary embolism. Early on, I figured he might one day like to know what happened to him, to me, and to us during this lost time. I wrote in my journal for him, too. After he came home and was well enough to comprehend it (and, I’ll admit, decipher my handwriting), he read the entire journal and was grateful I had written so extensively.

Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries.

And, finally, I kept the journal because I am a writer. I knew I would eventually want to write my truth about this watershed event in our lives, and how could I do that without a record? To be enveloped by crisis and wanting to record it so I could later write about it, and even profit from it, can sound self-serving. Perhaps it is. But other writers understand. Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries. In the past eight months, I’ve read half a dozen memoirs from TBI survivors and their families, all of which used journal entries as memory aids and even as direct sources of narrative. And all of them have given me a clearer understanding of the devastation, struggle, and hope that surround this injury that is unlike any other a human being can sustain.

Like prehistoric pollen captured in cores of ancient ice, little nuggets of information glisten in a journal long after an event. Just as scientists use that pollen to infer a great deal about climate and plant life in centuries past, we writers can use our journal nuggets to illuminate much larger portions of our stories. Until I re-read my journal after Ken came home, I’d forgotten a bizarre, significant dream from two weeks after the accident. Now incorporated into the memoir I’m writing, this dream reminds me that I occasionally felt hopeful during the days when my husband sometimes couldn’t remember my name and when exhaustion and despair whitewashed my other emotions. I’ve also referred to my journal when writing several personal essays about Ken and brain injury. Each time, I’ve unearthed something vanished from my conscious memory that allowed me to present a clearer picture.

It can be wrenching to read my journal entries and relive those horrible, frantic weeks after Ken’s accident. But my journal now provides me something precious that was not available then: the luxury of remembering, at a distance and in great detail. Instead of feeling frustrated because that time has evaporated from my memory, I can turn to my journal. I didn’t record everything, of course, but I preserved enough to allow me to reconstruct events, feelings, and situations that otherwise would have been lost forever. As Ken’s wife, I’m gratified he also found value in my journal. And as a writer, I hope that what I scribbled all those months ago may someday have value to others who love TBI survivors.

Barbara Stahura is a freelance writer in Tucson, Arizona, who has written for a number of print and online publications, including Science & SpiritThe ProgressiveSpirituality & Health, and MSNBC.com. Barbara Stahura has a website.

The Healing Journey of Journaling: Madness, Rapture and Angst

By Julia Rosien

Women in conflict with the law have taught me more about my own journals than any book or motivational speaker ever will. I teach journal writing at a federal prison for women. They write to heal. And their writing reflects a path filled with heartache, shame, courage, and for some, hope.

We gathered for the first time on a snowy afternoon in November. The wind pushed against the institutional windows as I wrapped my hands around my steaming coffee. I had just handed each woman a journal. Some leafed through the pages to read the quotes, while others nervously twirled a pen or munched on a bag of chips.

I pointed to a prompt I had written on the board and asked each woman to write it on the first page of their journal.

I am hopeful.
Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes,
knowing that from those remains comes
A new beginning.

Then I asked them to write a poem using that as a model. They could use a list of things to describe themselves and every sixth line had to begin with I am. I sat back as they began to write. When we shared what we’d written, their descriptions of themselves surprised and delighted me. These women were bruised, but not broken.

Here are some of their words:

I am summer,
still as a steamy afternoon,
alive with promise,
the sky is mellow, like an vanilla cookie,
comforting, like my grandmother’s hug, my daughter’s warm hand.

I am a diamond,
a complicated pattern of emotions,
joy, grief, anger and love,
compressed into a perfect, admired jewel,
sparkling and priceless.

I am navigating solo through my life,
the space between sinner and saved,
so much like my other
of a lifetime ago.
similar on the surface, changed inside,
learning the ropes, getting burned, but holding on…

I am hopeful.

Permission to Enter, Please

Each woman stood at a doorway. Some walked through, eager to begin their journey of self-discovery. Others hovered, waiting for guidance. One woman locked her emotional door and left the class. She thought the demons behind that door were just too huge and too powerful to conquer.

My doors differ from a fellow teacher’s doors and from our students’ doors, but they exist. Some people swear they don’t harbor “emotional baggage”; they bury it in a place no one can touch. Instead of the ground though, they’ve buried it behind that door. Each time something terrible happens it gets shoved “in there.” And another padlock is added to that door, until its weight bears the soul down.

I began journaling again during a severe depression. I retreated to my journals to heal, to find a way to live my life with happiness and purpose. Writing created a bridge between my past and the future, between my fear and courage. I soon realized I possessed everything all writers have—paper, pen, language, my mind. I required no special talent, skills or experience—only a willingness to explore my despair and my ecstasy.

Looking back through the journals I’ve kept throughout my life, I wonder about that girl who wrote of her life in melodramatic prose. Her first journal entry is at twelve years old and her letters sit like fat little balls of dough on the lines. At sixteen her free-spirited strokes glide across the page like sails on a boat. Sometimes though, her writing resembles a soul searching desperately for a body as her words trail down the sides and across the bottom. It’s as if she’s afraid she’ll run out of time and forget what it was that was so important. Nothing is written in passive tones; it’s all emotion and angst and tears.

Journal writing is not second nature though, and there have been times in my life that I’ve reduced it to a luxury, something I only do when I have time. But I’ve learned self-care is anything but luxury. Self-nurturing provides the foundation for a fulfilling life. Journaling can be a vital component of that journey.

Moving Beyond

Each of us has unique stories to tell, yet we shy away. When we write to express our feelings, we often censor our true thoughts. When the raw truth puckers our taste buds, we deny the specifics rather than confronting them head-on. Perhaps telling it like it is, rather than how we wish it to be, is not so easy. Editing our words, or sugar-coating the truth, makes swallowing easier.

journal writing isn’t about writing a masterpiece with grammatically correct sentences and stunning phrases. It’s about telling the truth, your truth.

Perhaps you’ve thought of writing, but the time didn’t feel right. Or maybe you thought you didn’t have anything to say, or felt that you couldn’t put pen to paper (or fingers to a keyboard). But journal writing isn’t about writing a masterpiece with grammatically correct sentences and stunning phrases. It’s about telling the truth, your truth. Your words, the color of ink, the slant of your handwriting, and the doodling (or lack of it) makes these stories uniquely your own. There are no deadlines, grades or judgments. Only you determine the start and finish.

Your stories, like fingerprints, memories, emotions and way of processing information make you unique. Dressed up truth is like donning gardening gloves when you’d really rather just stick your hands in the cool, dark earth.

If you can’t delve into the garden with both hands, try using a shovel first, working on the border. Instead of stepping into the middle with a shovel, sit on the edge and examine each event in your life as you would examine a weed or a flower. Write about what you saw one day, what you felt the next. Take baby steps. Remind yourself that expressing your story without censorship is necessary and beneficial.

When you’re ready, take off your gloves. Give yourself permission to bleed and then heal.

We are not who we present to the world, but a complicated tapestry of emotions, experiences and beauty that can’t be realized with a cursory glance. Like the underside of a tapestry, our journals reveal the loose threads of life, the knots and lumps. Looking below helps us understand, even years later. Maybe our journals are more of a guide than anything else. They help us navigate our lives, and maybe they’ll help others understand us after death.

They’ll be our defense and our alibi. They’ll be our secrets, our lies and our truths.

Write it by yourself, for yourself.
Write for your loved ones, your children, your parents, and your significant other.
Write for someone not born yet.

Here are a few suggestions for rediscovering you within your journal:

1. Make Sense of Pain

Write down your traumatic experience using your five senses and your feelings. Keep writing until it becomes less painful and loses its power to hurt you. If you have a chronic or life-threatening illness, for example, a journal can be the perfect place for you to discover your inner strength.

2. Take Control of Your Life

Instead of worrying, turn to your journal. Draw a line down the center of the page. On the left side list what worries you and on the right side list what steps will help you resolve the issue.

3. Stay Focused and Motivated

Whether you are trying to reach a weight loss goal, a financial dream, a spiritual plateau, or an educational aspiration, use your journal to log your progress.

4. Use Your Journal to Practice Positive Thinking

Taking time to list at least one thing you give thanks for. Finding and focusing on at least one positive thing in your life makes it hard to paint your whole world black.

5. Make Scribbling in Your Journal A Happy Habit

Pick a comfortable spot with minimal distractions and try to write for at least 15–20 minutes a day, depending on the subject. A log-type journal requires daily entries while major life issues are best dealt with if you write for a few days in a row.

Julia Rosien wields her pen for newspapers, international magazines and various on-line venues. She teaches creative writing at a women’s penitentiary, and at community college. Words she tries to live by: “Happiness is a way of life, not a destination.” You can find Julia Rosien at her website