Tips for Writing a Diary (If You Can Be Bothered)

Are you keeping a diary for 2017? Luke Edley offers some tips to help writers get to grips with diary-keeping.

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Keeping a personal diary has historically held a special place in writers’ hearts. The likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf each found time to write down thoughts which delved far deeper than those found in their novels or short stories. However, though it’s still possible to buy leather-bound diaries in the shops for you to write in (if you wish), there’s still a risk this past-time will become extinct, no matter how much I extol its benefits.

In this age of always-on Twittering and with a glut of words forever floating in the blogosphere, the idea of keeping a diary or a journal no-one will ever read may seem quaint or old-fashioned (especially amongst the young), but there are definitely good reasons for doing so. For one thing, a diary occupies a space in one’s daily schedule which is purely between you and a pen (or an app): there is no-one you are trying to please except your own ability to express your feelings and reflect upon what you’ve done. No pressure, then. If you can be bothered, of course.

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To be honest, I’ve always had a difficult relationship with diary-keeping. The first introduction I had to them was discovering Sue Townsend’s fictional character Adrian Mole in my early teens. I had been given the book ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾’ and it immediately made me realise how one’s life could be recorded in such a way as to be entertaining and yet insightful. That’s not to say I felt my life was in any way like Adrian Mole, I must add, but it felt like I could render my ordinary day-to-day experiences with more weight than I otherwise thought they had.

However, the published diaries which made the biggest impact on me have been those written by Michael Palin, travel writer and comedian in the Monty Python team. His three published works The Python Years, Halfway to Hollywood and Travelling to Work are masterclasses in economy and have given me a genuine desire to follow Palin’s example, not because I ever expect to see my diaries published (no chance!) but because as an aide memoire I think it’s a really invaluable medium.

So without further ado then, based on what I feel are my learnings from being inspired by Michael Palin’s skill as a diarist, here are my top 3 tips for keeping a diary:

1. Keep it concise

Michael Palin never wrote too much—he limited himself to 30 minutes at most and the majority of his entries seemed to hover around the 200-word mark. There is no need to embellish on it and write an essay—you’re not trying to be a freelance journalist here, you’re just trying to contextualise your life simply and succinctly. Be punchy, to-the-point, and ensure your diary is a refreshing exercise in brevity. Less is most certainly more. If you can’t say it with ease and simplicity, then don’t say it at all. The future you who reads it over in years to come won’t be grateful if it’s a big steaming pile of waffle.

2. Don’t over-analyse things

It was Socrates who coined the dictum ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ That’s true, to an extent, but the self-examination required to write a diary does not require a degree in forensics. You are looking at surface impressions that the watermark of life leaves on your feelings, so you should only really focus on what happened, not why, and then share your thoughts on it. Look less at the causes, more at the effects. If you must express an emotion, do so sparingly—in my opinion, the key advantage of a diary is being able to look back and remember exactly what you did and when, and how it made you feel. What your accumulated thoughts lead up to over time is for you to formulate long after you’ve written the diary, upon deeper reflection.

3. Do it every day

This is the hard bit. Michael Palin tended to write his diary in the morning, which is not easy when you’re a slovenly bastard like me. I would rather write in the evening, but bear in mind, if you’re writing a novel or a short story, you’ll need to fit a diary into your schedule somewhere so it’ll be easy to regard it as a burden if you’re not careful. However, there’s nothing worse than a diary with missing days—if you’re going to commit, make sure you do so, but if you’re worried about lacking time, try shorthand entries. Nobody’s expecting you to thoroughly explore the ins and outs of your day. Just focus on the basics and omit the rest.


But remember, there’s a reason why many writers don’t bother keeping a diary—it’s a bloody bother, and a slog. I myself have a very bad track record with diary-keeping. I always start them very earnestly in January of each year, but as I have a tendency to write too much on any given day, I usually run out of steam and leave long gaps, at which point I abandon it, and keeping a diary loses its appeal. I’m not perfect, and even I will find it hard to follow my own advice. However, I am determined to change this for 2017—I love diaries, it’s about time I wrote one, and I think other writers can also benefit a great deal from writing one too. Are you ready to join me? Right then, let’s get started.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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