I am not doing much to actively study Japanese lately, but there is something that I do every day since February: writing a page in Japanese in マイブック.
マイブック is a sort of agenda that looks exactly like a book. It is published by 新潮文庫 every year. It uses the same format, paper and characteristics than any other book by this publisher. But of course, the inside is blank. The only things you get on each page is the date. The book is also divided into 12 “chapters,” from January to December.
Before I bought マイブック (a minor investment of 370 Yen), I was struggling to get into the habit of writing in Japanese every day and kept failing in my attempts. But when I got マイブック, I started writing at least a sentence or two every day and ended up filling the whole page every single day after a month or two. So what changed? I have tried to sum up how I got into the habit of writing every day:
Get an agenda
This really changed my life. All the attempts I made to forge a writing habit had been done with a simple notebook. The problem with a plain notebook is that no one is here to remind you that you skipped one day, then two, then a whole week. You can even leave your notebook untouched for one month, and no one will notice it, not even yourself.
With any kind of agenda with the date on each page, you cannot skip one day and pretend not to notice it. The unfilled days will be there, as a good reminder that you haven’t written during a certain period. To avoid finding yourself with an agenda full of reproachful blank pages you should write at least one sentence a day. Fill it with something. Even writing a single word in Japanese is better than nothing.
One thing that I have sometimes done during the first month is to write in English. There were days when I didn’t feel like writing in Japanese, and so I wrote something in English instead. It is not the best option, but knowing that I have skipped one day is worse. I won’t be happy about it and even feel a little guilty, with the result that I will not want to open my notebook the next day.
It seems obvious to say this, but when I mean small, I really do mean it. For example, writing a single sentence is okay. This is how I started, my first month has more blank space than written space and some days are filled with just one sentence or two.
Following this, I recommend buying a small notebook. マイブック is an A6 format, and I find it perfect:
- If you only write a sentence or two, they don’t look as isolated, depressed and lonely as they would do on an A4 format.
- If you feel like writing a lot, you are bound to reach the end of the page quickly and get an immensely gratifying reward by doing so. There are even times when I feel “Oh, I would have liked to write more, but I don’t have space anymore.” This is the best that can happen because I have a good feeling associated with my notebook and the activity of writing. When this happens, I am always looking forward to writing the following day.
From not fancy to fancy
(I wanted to write “shabby” to say “in poor condition through lack of care”, but then I googled “shabby notebook” just to be sure… and I found notebooks “dressed in old clothes”… haha, I didn’t know “shabby” had these two meanings!)
I think that we are all different in our relationship with the things we use. Some people can build a new habit with any material they find lying around, and others need ar elegant or cute companion to get started. There are also people who get paralysed when they have a pricey or beautiful item in hands.
I am a little of the last two. That is, I will want to have a fancy notebook to start a new project, but when I see the beautiful notebook in front of me, I just can’t get started because writing in it would spoil it.
Now, I have found a way to overcome this problem. I realised that there are two phases of getting into a new habit. First, of course, you have to build the habit. But then, you have to keep the motivation to maintain it.
- Build a habit with a simple material
- Keep motivated with a beautiful and fancy notebook
To build a new habit, the most important thing is not to produce fantastic results, but to do the chosen activity regularly. We know that this is hard in itself, but it becomes even harder if superfluous considerations hinder us. For example, if I start building a habit with a beautiful and expensive notebook, I will want to make sure that I write well, with the right tools, that I take time to decorate and even draw in it. If I don’t have time for it one day, I will rather postpone it to the following day that writing quickly and spoil the whole appearance of my agenda. And then, of course, I don’t have time either the following day and so on.
Similarly, if I make errors and have to correct myself, I will be annoyed because the result will not be pretty enough. But in the beginning, we are bound to making a lot of errors. Wrong kanji, wrong word, wrong grammar…
This is where マイブック helped me to drop my artistic ambitions and to focus on the activity in itself. I would not say that マイブック is the best piece of stationery I ever come across and in any case, it is very cheap. Originally, the paper is made for printing and reading, not to write in it. As a consequence, even the invincible ballpoint pen sometimes had a hard time in it (it just wouldn’t write, I don’t know why). This resulting in my scribbling furiously to get some ink out of my pen, crossing out here and there, writing disfigured kanji, crossing them out, rewriting them and so on. In the end, my pages look very slovenly.
And this is where I really started writing on a daily basis. Even if I had only 5 minutes, I would take my agenda and scribble some Japanese in it. I didn’t feel under pressure to write well. This made the whole thing much more relaxing and easier. No pressure, no stress, no expectations. I was freed from the thought “I have to write well”.
One piece of advice generally given to build a new habit, is to make the access to the activity as simple as possible, for example, always keep your notebook with you or within easy reach. But “within easy reach” to me was not as much a physical problem than a psychological one.
Once I am sure that I have built a new habit and that writing in Japanese has become an essential daily activity, I will certainly raise my expectations a little and find new ways to stay motivated. I will go on with マイブック this year, and if I write every page of it until December 31th, I will reward myself with a more beautiful and high-quality agenda for 2019 (namely, a Hobonichi Original, which is the same A6 format). This simple thought motivates me more than I can say!
Writing is free
One other stumbling block when writing in Japanese every day is the question “what shall I write about; I have nothing to say…”
For a long time, I associated keeping a journal with “writing what happened to me.” Of course, I knew that there are no rules, that one can write about anything one likes. But I understood this more completely when I read this article on the Hobonichi Techo Magazine. The team has summed up how 100 people use their Hobonichi 5 years agenda. I read it with great interest because it inspired me and it was very easy to read in Japanese. Anyway, on page 2, they make the difference between できごと派 and 感情派, in other words, people who write about what happened to them, and people who write about how they feel. This has been some kind of revelation to me. I am definitely a 感情派 and putting a name on it justified and officialized it.
Even if I stay the whole day at home and nothing happens to me on this particular day, I still have tons of things to write about. For example, I like writing about the books I am reading, sum up the story and explain why I like them or not.
Another positive thing that directly follows this revelation is that I don’t write in the evenings anymore, but early in the morning or at any time of the day. I don’t need to wait until something happens to write, I don’t even have to wait to have properly started the day to write. I find that writing about the things I want to do this day is more motivating than writing about the things that I actually did. But the most important point is that I have more willpower in the morning, and I will be more likely to open my notebook. In the evening, on the contrary, I am often too tired or too lazy, and it is easy to just forget writing or postpone it.
Be your own teacher
I don’t have a Japanese friend or a teacher who could correct me, and I don’t think that I would like it. To me, knowing that someone will read and correct my writings would have the same effect than writing on a 30 euros agenda. I will want it to be perfect, I will try to be smart, write interesting things, use ten grammars in a single paragraph and so on. In the end, writing in Japanese might be more of a duty than something that I do for pleasure.
Of course, having someone who can correct you from time to time would be ideal. But even if you don’t, this does not mean that you should not write.
But then, how do I know that I am not making the same errors again and again?
A good method is to imitate what you know is right. You can take anything you find written by a native speaker or a person of reference and exercise writing in the same style. To begin with, just change a word or two. Then you can change more words and just keep the grammar or the structure of the sentence. Depending on your level, chose a good source to find your sentences. Grammar books are a good choice too. Write down a sample sentence in your notebook and challenge yourself with things like “write three sentences on the same pattern or using the same grammar.” This will have two benefits:
- Obviously, you work on your grammar and study Japanese
- If you don’t know what to write about in your journal, this can be a good starting point. It often happens to me that I would write a sentence using a given grammar and I will go on writing about the topic I chose. This helps a lot when I don’t feel inspired.
What I personally do is that I mix two kinds of writings. There are free writings where I don’t try to use a particular pattern. And there are these grammar exercises (which generally trigger some more free writing). As I don’t want to lose time looking for sample sentences when it is time to write, I do two things:
- I have my N3 grammar book within reach. My passive level is N2, but when it comes to writing or speaking, I go for N3 materials.
- Whenever I find interesting expressions and patterns that I would like to use myself, I write them down on non-sticky post-its and slip them in マイブック. When it’s time to write, I always have some patterns to study if I want to.
Writing by imitation is a good way to start writing with confidence. If you copy a sentence that is right, there are good chances that what you write is right too. Of course, it might not be colloquial, but this is not a big deal. If you can write in Japanese, even with errors, it is in itself a great achievement. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, but don’t forget to come back to the basics regularly. There is no shame in coming back to N4 grammar if you passed N2, for example. I did it the other day because I wanted to check something I had forgotten. This is the best way to avoid making basic errors.
About the kanji
I don’t see that there is any problem with writing in hiragana only as a start. After all, it is your journal, and you can do whatever you want with it. In the process of building the habit, looking up every single word to write the kanji may be too laborious to be done for a period long enough to call it a habit. This is why I would recommend starting by writing in hiragana only if you don’t feel at ease with writing kanji. The first goal is to write every day, not to write well.
After that, why not look up the words that you often use and write them in kanji? By slowly adding new kanji to your writing, you will soon end up with all the basic vocabulary written in kanji.
Writing is one of the best ways to remember the kanji, but they should not hinder your writing. Sometimes I check every single kanji that I want to write but have forgotten and sometimes, I just cannot be bothered and end up writing some words in hiragana.
It is hard to tell what exactly made me cross the bridge between a state where I kept trying to forge a habit without any success, and a state where writing in Japanese had become a daily activity. Of course, マイブック is not a magical book, and though it seems that acquiring it was the trigger, it is the combination of all the things mentioned above that truly helped me to build my habit.
If I failed before, it is not because I wasn’t good enough but because I hadn’t the right tools and the right approach. As we are all different, I think that finding one’s own approach based on one’s personal tastes is important.