The Bullet Journal: A Tool for Writers

Maybe you’ve got a calendar on your computer and/or phone, and maybe your desk or wall or refrigerator. You might have a bunch of lists–shopping, packing, tasks. There are slips of paper where you write story ideas scattered around your home or on your bedside table. Your desk has stacks of research notes. You may even keep an exercise log, a gratitude journal, or a meal planner.

You can have them all–in a bullet journal.

I first learned about bullet journals from a post by middle-grade author Kate Messner in early 2015. Here’s the way she describes it:

“One thing you’ll notice here is the serendipitous nature of the whole thing – story ideas live side by side with phone call notes, brainstorming charts, grocery lists, and jobs I need to do in my role as a skating club parent volunteer. . . I am a particularly task-oriented person, so this system makes me more productive and less likely to fritter away time on social media, which is great, but it also forces me to own what’s important to me each day. If it goes in the bullet journal, it matters, and I’ve found that I’m more likely to honor my exercise plans and small writing goals when I write them down here. I’ve always kept paper to-do lists, but this is different, somehow, in its permanence. Today’s list doesn’t get tossed in the trash tomorrow, and for some reason, that adds to my motivation to keep those commitments.”

I won’t go into the details of the bullet journal here. The basic premise is described on the originator’s website, but that’s just a jumping-off point. The great thing about a bullet journal is that it can be whatever you want it to be. Every BuJo is unique. You can even change the way you use it from day to day, week to week, or month to month.

This one is very fancy, and not mine. (http://studytildawn.tumblr.com/)

Some people use separate journals for work and home and writing. As a freelancer, I have to organize one or more freelance gigs, my personal life, family obligations, and my Zumba teaching along with my creative writing. These tasks flow into each other during a given day.  I do keep a separate journal for conferences, so that all those notes are together.

I use a simple composition book with a 4 square per inch grid. No need for fancy, expensive books, unless you’re into that kind of thing.  I write the dates on the cover, also noting on the cover if this journal contains important things that I might look for later, like tax information or research notes you took on a visit to a museum.

These are mine. I attended a lot of meetings about college and financial aid between May and September 2016.

Some people purchase a journal with numbered pages or number the pages themselves, then list those page numbers in an index. I don’t bother; I color the edges to help me find things, like this.  I use paper clips instead of fancy ribbons to make it easy to flip to today’s page. There are lots of other ways to keep track of pages.

Each daily page in my own BuJo includes the date, appointments, and Zumba classes I’m teaching right at the top. If I have an upcoming deadline, I’ll note how many days are left here.

At the top right, I list who will be home for dinner (it gets complicated) and what will be on the table. Down the right side I list people I need to contact by phone or email. Bottom right is errands.  I used to put exercise below the dinner plan, but since I’ve been teaching Zumba, there isn’t really a lot of need to log that.

The main part of the page I divide into sections based on the writing projects I’m working on (freelance assignments, blog posts, manuscripts, talks, etc.), Zumba tasks, and home stuff.

This one is very neat. Also not mine. (PenPaperSoul Instagram)

 

Sure, I can do most of this on a computer or smartphone, but writing stuff down has some cognitive, creative and meditative advantages, some of which are listed here and here. I like to sit with my journal just before bed and go over what I need to get done tomorrow. Sort of like downloading my brain onto paper so those thoughts won’t be floating around keeping me awake.

The BuJo can be as basic or complicated as you want. There are Facebook groups for those that want to keep it simple and for those that take it to the extreme, with art, calligraphy, stickers, stencils, and washi tape

There is also a Facebook group for writers, who have lately been sharing how they use their BuJos for NaNoWriMo. Bullet journals are a natural for writers, many of whom already keep journals.

In addition to keeping track of daily tasks, there are some writing-specific spreads you can add to your BuJo. You can add inspiration, motivation and organization. You can track word counts and map productivity. You can list books you want to read and check them off as you finish them, perhaps adding notes or reviews or ratings. You can set short-term and long-term goals. You can keep track of submissions (and rejections). You can build worlds and diagram plots. You can list writing prompts and do a daily free-write. You can brainstorm titles and character names. You can plan revisions and track edits.

This is not my book list, although I have read some of these books. (currently studying Tumblr)

Megan Rutell has compiled lists you can use to “supercharge” your writing and offers some great tips and hacks.  Several writers have written about the ways they use bullet journals in their writing, including Laura Shovan, Amanda Hackwith, Victoria Fry, Lyndsay Knowles, and Claire Bradshaw.

Here is a spread used by Kara Benz to prepare for NaNoWriMo.

If you are looking for videos of writers giving tours of their bullet journals, you can start here and here and here and here. Keep looking until  you find what you think can work for you.

There are more ideas than I can list here, but I encourage you to give it a try. Start simple. Explore the ways other writers have used their BuJos. Add features that you think might help you. Feel free to delete features that aren’t as useful as you thought they’d be.

Do you use a bullet journal? Do you have any special spreads, trackers, or techniques that you find especially useful? Share in the comments.

Jacqueline Houtman on FacebookJacqueline Houtman on Twitter
Jacqueline Houtman

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers, BAYARD RUSTIN: THE INVISIBLE ACTIVIST (Quaker Press 2014). Find her at www.jhoutman.com


3 responses to “The Bullet Journal: A Tool for Writers

  1. I’ve used the Uncalendar for years which is a combination calendar and journal and has many of the bullet journals features built in. Very handy for the artistically challenged. I use it to track my daily to dos, business milage, travel information for my family, workout plans, important passwords, conference notes, to read lists, phone notes from my agent, year long goals, etc. It’s not pretty but it does the job for me.

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  2. I use a composition book, too – but I LOVE the colored page edge tip. I use colored flags and label them, but this is better – because all I need is my pen and my book – no extra tools. If there are no extra tools, I’m more likely to actively use this system. I, too, was inspired to start by Kate Messner’s posts about her use of a BuJo. I love washi tape and stamps. But not in my journal. Just saying – I’d never make the task lists if I was always making the pretty… Thanks for sharing an informative post.

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  3. I have a LT1917 that is my “writer’s bible.” Notes on structure, plots, archetypes, etc are in there, along with research notes for particular projects. I love having it all in one location! No particular spreads, just pages of collections really.

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