Oh, I know you kept a diary when you were fourteen.

Your awful brother probably picked the lock and read steamy passages to his friends. But even so … a journal kept properly can help your writing in many ways.

A journal is a safe place to expose yourself, explore your own responses and to be vulnerable and honest. No-one will see it and no-one can judge you on it.

My mother once told me that I shouldn’t use my diary for teenage venting. “What happens if someone publishes it when you’re dead, like Anne Frank.”

But I believe that’s quite the wrong way of looking at a journal. Don’t imagine an audience – it makes you self-conscious. You can demand that all your journals be burnt upon your death. Or write as illegibly as I do – then no-one will ever decipher a word.

If you don’t learn to be vulnerable on the page, you’ll never be a great writer. Even if you never write about yourself or your life, writing is all about exposing something of your inner self. It’s about growing comfortable with seeing your own flaws and weaknesses printed out in front of you.

Anything can be used as a journal – but it should give you pleasure. Choose the most beautiful notebook you can afford, even if the price is sinful.

A journal is not quite a diary, which describes day to day events. A journal can have descriptions of events, but also reflects on them and your feelings about them.

Naturally, there aren’t any rules about journaling – if there were, I’d recommend breaking them anyway. But try to do what is sustainable for you and your lifestyle. It shouldn’t become a burden.

Some people whip out their notebook while waiting in a queue or in a doctor’s waiting room. Or to record an overheard conversation, or describe a place or an event. Other people find it comforting to have a routine – they write at a certain time, or a certain amount each day.

I believe that all writing should be a seeking to understand. As writers, we’re not trying to grab our audience by the throat and force them to understand what we think we already know. Most good writing is an exploration, an attempt to understand both the little things that make up our daily lives, and a way of tackling the great universal unanswered questions.

A journal can be used in this way too – to explore our own and the possible motivations of others. This is the basis of character formation and makes it easier for us to build believable, complex characters. Describing scenes gets us into the habit of bringing all the senses to bear, and finding words to describe them. If you’re in unfamiliar surroundings, try consciously to find the right language to bring them vividly to life.

Recording conversations begins the habit of listening – to the way people speak, to their colloquialisms and the little idiosyncracies that reflect their characters.

Anecdotes and narrative scenes recorded from your everyday life provide the detail that makes writing work. Many of our human issues – personal, national, and universal – are reflected in the little scenes and stories that you witness or that you are told. These are what make up the fabric of the way we live.

A novel doesn’t merely consist of characters doing things. Stories are made up of the detail, the telling aspects that describe the way we live more eloquently than we could ever explain it.

For example, you witness a fight between your neighbours. Don’t just explain it. You want to see and hear it, you want to smell their sweat. Record it as accurately as you can. Place us inside it. Record the dialogue, describe the scene – the smell and sound of the street – as the woman drags her husband’s suitcase outside her front gate.

Record his furious response and the way she flinches as he leans over her and yells. Only when you have recorded it as accurately as you can, should you look inside yourself and record your own response: perhaps the way your heart beat faster when you thought he might hit her

That’s the time to look at your fear when you thought you might be forced to intervene, and wondered whether you would have the courage to do so.

The act of writing down scenes like this will make it easier to imagine similar scenes and details to suit the story you choose to tell. And it helps you express the emotions and motivations of your characters.

<a href=”http://writingcourses.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/anais-nin.jpg”>
</a><a href=”http://writingcourses.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/anais-nin1.jpg”><img title=”anais nin” src=”http://writingcourses.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/anais-nin1.jpg” alt=”" width=”205″ height=”295″ /></a>Anais Nin wrote in her diary: “Every moment you can choose what you wish to see, observe, or record. It is your choice. So you create the total aspect according to your vision. We have a right to select our vision of the world.”

What she meant is that as soon as you record a perception, you start giving it a structure and organising its details. When you become aware of how you apprehend the world, you can start choosing the kinds of perceptions you wish to cultivate.

Nin also said that writing, like practising the piano each day, kept one nimble so that “when the great moments of inspiration come, one is in good form, supple and smooth”.

<em>Jo-Anne Richards is a South African novelist and journalist, who lectures at Wits University in Johannesburg and teaches writing through Allaboutwriting. Her fourth book, <a href=”http://joannerichards.com/novels/my-brothers-book/”>My Brother’s Book</a>, was published in March 2008 by Picador Africa. </em>