I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was a kid. My journals are full of poetry, drawings, story ideas, and random thoughts. I’ve always wanted to keep a reading journal, but I usually inhale books, leaving little time between chapters to jot down my thoughts. I like to read at night, and by the time I’m done, I’m often tired and ready for sleep, which means I’m too exhausted to write in a reading journal.
But lately I’ve been trying to capture my reading experiences by taking notes about what I’ve read, and it’s been incredibly helpful.
The Benefits of a Reading Journal
Keeping a reading journal:
- Increases retention.
- Forces you to contemplate the material you’ve read and then articulate your thoughts about it.
- Allows you to study and analyze the material from a writer’s perspective.
- Provides a time and space for writing practice.
- Provides a list of books you’ve read for future reference.
I move through books so fast that I often forget details about the plot and characters within a few months, if not days. The bright side is that I can reread books and they often feel fresh, but I rarely do that. I’m always looking for a new read. Yet I want to remember the details of some of these stories—often these details include techniques or ideas that I want to use in my own work; other times they are things I want to avoid. For example, I recently read a novel and felt that the story used a couple of shortcuts, using exposition and deus ex machina rather than action to the move the story forward at two major plot points. I want to remember not to do that in my own work.
A reading journal also forces you to pause and contemplate what you’ve read, which is a good critical thinking exercise for writers. By putting your observations and reactions into writing, you’re also forced to clarify your thoughts and feelings about it.
This allows you to analyze written works in a way that can inform and improve your own writing. For example, if you struggle to craft vivid characters, you might conduct character analyses in your reading journal to study the strengths and weaknesses of characterization in various stories, which you can then apply to your own work. If you write poetry, you might note interesting ways to create images with words when you journal about the poetry you’ve read.
What to Include in Your Reading Journal
Here are some details you might want to include in your reading journal:
Be sure to include the title and author as well as the publisher. As an aspiring author, you should start familiarizing yourself with publishing houses. Note the year of publication, which might be relevant for understanding the book’s context.
Track the dates you started and finished the book and note the page count. This information can be useful if you ever want to assess how fast (or slowly) you read. It can also help with future goal-setting: if you know how much you normally read, you can set goals to push yourself to read a little more each year.
Write a short summary or description of the book, including the genre. You don’t need to get into a lot of detail — just enough to jog your memory of what the book was about if you need it for reference later. This is also good practice if you ever intend to write a book of your own, as you will almost certainly need to summarize it at some point.
Elements of Form
Every form of writing has its core elements. In fiction, it’s character, plot, setting, and theme. In poetry, it’s language, imagery, structure, and flow. Write at least a sentence or two about each of these elements.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Write about the book’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. Try to keep your personal opinion out of it and focus instead on being objective. Was the narrative beautifully crafted, but the substance lacking? Was the language rich but the flow disjointed? Examining strengths and weaknesses is one of the best ways to study and analyze written works.
There might be some aspects of the work that appealed to your personal taste in literature—and there might be some aspects that weren’t objectively bad but didn’t appeal to you. It’s useful to learn how to differentiate between objective strengths and weaknesses versus your personal preferences.
If the book gave you any ideas that you might want to use in your own work, jot them down. Make notes about anything else that you feel is relevant or useful, even if it’s just your general response to what you’ve read, such as what it made you think about or how it made you feel.
Keeping a Reading Journal
I’m a one-journal person. Like I said, my journal is filled with all kinds of writings. But you might prefer to pick up a special notebook to use solely as a reading journal. You could also use a Word document, launch a book blog, or start a Scrivener project to record your thoughts about what you’ve read.
You could set a goal to write in your reading journal every time you finish a book, or you might choose to only journal about certain works. For example, I tend to take a lot of notes when I read books on the craft of writing, and I like journaling about sci-fi and fantasy novels, because that’s what I write.
You can keep notes about all your reading, not just books. Jot down your thoughts after reading a magazine article, news story, or blog post. All of these are sources of inspiration.
Have you ever kept a reading journal? Is there another type of journal that you prefer? Share your experiences by leaving a comment.