Written by A Guest Author June 29th, 2023

Imitating John Steinbeck: A Guide to Keeping a Writing Log

By Ratika Deshpande

Every time John Steinbeck sat down to write the next words of his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, he first wrote in his journal. This notebook, which was later published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath gives us a look inside Steinbeck’s mind—his struggles, his inspiration, his self-doubt, and his determination.

Because I was already a devoted diarist and writer when I learned of Steinbeck’s habit, I decided I’d emulate him—not in writing a masterpiece (as if such a thing can be done deliberately)—but in reflecting on my writing sessions. I started keeping a writing log. Here’s how I did it and what benefits I’ve gained from doing so:

The tools

I chose to keep my log in a Google Sheet because I didn’t want one more notebook to carry around with me and because I was planning to “extract data” about my writing. As much as I love paper notebooks, for this experiment I wanted ease of editing. I could also abandon the project without guilt if it proved unfeasible. (If it were a notebook, I’d feel bad about ruining its clean pages.)

The contents

I made columns in the sheet for each of the following:

The date.

The title of the piece. Sometimes when I don’t know what to name the piece but I’m burning to write it, I simply enter the date as the document name.

The genre. When I started my log, I was writing sci-fi, fantasy, creative nonfiction, and blog posts. I wanted to be able to see which genre I was writing more in and how it was related to the number of words I wrote or how I felt about the writing session. For example, I wrote a lot of fantasy but hardly any sci-fi. Eventually I realised I enjoyed the former more, so I focused on improving my fantasy short stories as well as reading more of them.

The inspiration. Here I note what gave me the idea for the piece. Was it something a friend said? A prompt I saw online? An image? A dream I had? Over time, I could see where most of my ideas came from. I then used this information to guide me when I was stuck. For example, I’ve noticed that several of my short stories were inspired by combining random nouns and objects (forager + sword; knight + cave) or by listening to fantasy music. Many of my essays came about because of frustration or something I’d written in my diary or some movie I’d seen. Several times recently when I took on story-writing challenges, I used this information to help me come up with ideas.

The time when I sat down to write. I’m a morning person. Sometimes I work best after breakfast. Sometimes, it’s the post evening-chai session that produces good work. I don’t think that science has any solid proof to suggest which time of day will help you create a work of genius, but it’s still helpful to know what times work best for you. This is, of course, assuming you have the freedom to write at any time of day: I began this log during the pandemic and now I’m a freelance writer so my situation hasn’t changed much. Your mileage may vary. For example, if you’re pressed for time because of your job, logging your writing time may help you decide if you should do it before you go to work or after you’re home.

The word count.

Rating. This is an intuitive assessment of how much I enjoyed writing a particular piece, on a scale of 1-5. Sometimes it’s a solid 1. Sometimes it’s a brilliant, my-heart-is-bursting-with-joy 6. A quick calculation shows me that my average rating for 2022 was ~4, which is a very good number.

Notes. This is where everything else goes. How fun it was to write (or how frustrating). Details on how a certain conversation or thought floating in my head led me to writing the story/essay. I vent, I recognize the places I struggle (e.g. plotting), and solutions (e.g. reading more short stories to understand how they’re written). I can leave notes for my future self—changes to make in the second draft, or encouragement to polish the piece even if the first draft sucks. A spreadsheet is not the perfect place to write long paragraphs, but it works for my purposes. I won’t be putting these entries together for publication, after all. Some things we write just for ourselves. And they turn out to be as important for our writing as the actual stories or essays.

“I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.” – John Steinbeck, Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath

If you want to start a similar log, you can create your own using my categories.. Everything here is optional. I recommend adding a new sheet to the document every year, otherwise you’ll have to scroll a lot and the document may hang.

Bio: Ratika Deshpande is a freelance psychology and culture writer from New Delhi, India. She has previously written for Tor.com and Submittable’s blog, Discover. Find her on her website.


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