JOURNAL WRITING: A GUIDE
Nowadays, many instructors ask you to keep an informal journal, in addition to undertaking more formal writing assignments. The idea is to give you a mixture of formal and informal writing practice. Informal writing gives you the chance to experiment with your ideas and expressions, and to develop fluency in your writing. But there are other good reasons for keeping a journal, which we can now explore.
(1) Why Is A Journal Required?
- Reading is only the beginning of the learning process. We learn more and remember more when we are asked to express our thoughts in writing. Writing about an issue makes us actively engaged in our own learning and enables us to reflect upon the material covered, to clarify our own thoughts and to ask questions. If we merely read a text, we will forget most of what we have read; but writing will reinforce and consolidate our learning.
- It is a good idea to write your journal entry before coming to class. When you have attempted to understand a text, and have worked out your ideas about it through writing, then you can benefit from class discussion. You can see the limitations of your views, you will be exposed to other perspectives, and you will be in a position to ask questions about anything you did not understand. If you come unprepared, you will not benefit from what goes on in class. You will thereby increase your workload because you will have to think through all the issues for yourself. You should not merely repeat in your journal what was said in class discussion. You need to express your own views, supporting these with detailed reference to the text.
- If your instructor requires you to write on most of the texts you study, by the time you finish the course, you’ll have a journal of considerable length, full of your own writings. This will be a considerable achievement, and a concrete manifestation of your learning throughout the year.Nowadays, many institutions ask their students to prepare an electronic portfolio of their best work by the time they graduate. This will be something you can show to a prospective employer; and a good journal will help you achieve this goal.
(2) What Exactly is Required in the Journal?
This will vary according to your instructor and the level of your class. Some instructors may require a one-page journal entry for each text; in graduate courses, you may have to write 2-4 pages. But this is your chance to show the instructor that you have read the text carefully and have thought about it. You should refer to various parts of the text and use page numbers to document your citations. Even if you don’t understand the text, this is a good place for your to write about what you don’t grasp and to ask some questions.
(3) What Should I Write About?
First, let us stipulate what you should not write about:
- Do not write a summary of the text.
- Do not write an entry based on class discussion.
- Do not include a lot of biographical information about the author; focus on the text.
Here is what you should write about:
- Your journal entry should be based primarily on the text, and should conduct a close analysis of it, citing page numbers, to demonstrate that you have read it carefully.
- You don’t need to use long quotations but you should ensure that you refer to several parts of the text.
- This is not a formal essay, but neither is it a mere “response” journal. The following guidelines will give you some idea of how to go about this.
(4) Some Ideas for Journal Entries:
- Essentially, you need to identify a central theme of the text and to write about that.There is a distinction between theme and subject-matter , or what the text is about. For example, we might say that James Joyce’s story The Dead is about Irish middle-class life or a middle-class man and his wife. But the theme will be something like “death” or “love” or “the inauthenticity of middle-class life.” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is about a voyage up the river Congo; but its theme might be something like “race” or “imperialism” or “the breakdown of European values.”
- Regarding this theme, you can such questions as: How is this theme developed? Is it a logical argument or appearance thereof? Is it an emotional progression? A catalogue? Or an analysis of external objects?
- When you write about any literary text, you can approach it in terms of both its content or what it says , and its form or how it says something . Here are some questions you can ask about poetry and fiction:
(i) Paraphrase a poem to elucidate its content.
(ii) Consider the central oppositions/contrasts which structure a poem.
(iii) What is the basic theme of the poem? How is this theme developed?
(iv) What are the formal devices used in the poem?
(v) Are there any central symbols/metaphors/images on which the progress of the poem depends?
(vi) Does the poem appeal primarily to the intellect or emotion?
(i) Does the story have a central aim or purpose? What is the basic theme?
(ii) How is this theme/purpose developed through the plot?
(iii) Describe the central characters in the story and their attributes?
(iv) Show how various details contribute to the portrayal of a given character.
(v) Is there a central conflict in the story, between characters/perspectives?
(vi) Describe the basic structure of the story.
(vii) What kind of narrator tells the story? Who is the intended audience?
In one journal entry, you will not be able to write about all these issues. You can simply choose one theme, or one character, or other element of the text that interests you and write about that. The important thing is to demonstrate your close engagement with the text and that you have thought about the text for yourself. If you find a particular text difficult or even impossible to understand, you can write down a series of questions relating to various passages, and you can your instructor to address your queries in class.