Fieldwork Diary Writing: A “Development Diary” for Self-Reflection

Goodbye “Dear Diary” and hello “Development Diary”

Many people can be a bit intimidated by the thought of diary writing. A large part of this is the recollection of childhood diary writing experiences filled with mundane details which look something like:

Dear Diary,
Today I got up at 6:30 and had five idli for breakfast. Then I went to the tea shop and had two cups of tea and …

You get the point. No one—not even you—is likely to want to read or re-read those words a month later.

So, why are we asking you to keep a “Development Diary” then1?

Simply put, a well-written diary can be an excellent tool for helping reinforce the central theme for Term I of your program: Understanding the basics of development and understanding yourself. The following brief note outlines some of the elements you can include in your daily diary which will make it a much more useful document as a self-development tool.

The “bare necessities”

At the very minimum, there are some basic practices which you should follow for the Fieldwork I Diary Writing assignment.

First, write daily. Find the best time for you to set aside, say, 30 minutes during which you can write uninterruptedly. One recommendation is the early evening before it gets dark. Many of you will be in locations where electricity will be unpredictable or in situations when you can only meet people in the early morning or late evening when they are not working.

Writing daily is important because, as most of us will agree, memory is an unpredictable thing! This is especially true when we are in situations where all of our senses are being overwhelmed with new information. If you neglect your diary for a few days, you’ll certainly have a difficult time remembering what you did, where you did it, who you spoke to ….

And this gets us to the second bare necessity: be precise. Pick a design and stick to it. Decide what kind of basic information you want to include in each entry, for example, the date, place, and time (of the event of which you’re writing—not when you’re writing).

There are other suggestions related to precision which make your diary more precise and more significant. You can try and remember actual direct quotations from people you spoke to. Get people’s names. If you find that you are spending significant time with a particular person as a resource in your fieldwork, you may want to highlight that person in such a way that, at a later date, you can retell a story focused around that person and their “outlook” on life in your location.

Another idea for precision would be to “tag” or “label” your entries for easy retrieval later. For example, you may want to think about the broader concepts of each of your diary entries—rapport building, problems, expectations, frustrations, classroom learning applications, others?—and include those tags at the head of each of your diary entries. Then, when you are writing your report and you want to write a chapter on, say, “Application of Classroom Learnings on PALM Techniques,” you can browse through your diary for entries tagged “Classroom Learning Applications,” “PALM,” or whatever tag you used.

The third (and perhaps most important) bare necessity is to remember your central theme. As stated earlier, this term was designed to introduce you to the basics of development and to improve your understanding of yourself. Specifically, this relates to changes in your attitudes, skills, and knowledge which will help you as a “development professional.”

Since this is an introspective exercise, your first and last 10 days in the field are perhaps the most important ones for you to carefully document. During your first 10 days, for example, you are likely to have many preconceptions, expectations, or doubts about what your experience will be like. Make note of these. Towards the end, revisit these entries and partake in a reality check exercise. How do your preconceptions and expectations compare to reality? How did you manage your doubts? What changes have you seen in yourself? From the perspective of personal growth, these reflections will be the most valuable parts of your diary.

But I have “writer’s block!” What should I write?

Your diary is a personal product, and we can’t really tell you exactly what to write, especially when we are not the ones out in the field. However, here are a few ideas to get you started on the days when you feel less inspired:

  • How did you build rapport with the community? What were your plans, your expectations, the actual process, and the outcome?
  • How did you find a place to stay? What’s that place like? What sort of personal “adaptations” did you have to make in your new “home”?
  • What are your emotions? What are some specific tangible changes you can observe in yourself? Have you surprised, impressed, or disappointed yourself in any way? (This one is fun! Most of your other academically-oriented writing calls for you to be “scientific” and impersonal or unemotional. Here, however, since you’re also trying to understand your abilities better, emotions are important and relevant.)
  • What were the problems faced or frustrations encountered during your fieldwork? For example, did you learn any new “ice-breaking” activities? When you were collecting primary data, were you able to apply PALM techniques and other classroom learnings? Did you have to modify them in any way? When you were collecting secondary data, did you have to work with people who were uncooperative? How did you manage those situations?
  • What kind of useful data have you collected so far? How did you collect this information? How might you use this information? Is this information useful to others also?
  • Is there an individual or a family you can do a profile of? How might the profile be useful to you and to others? Are there any natural storytellers in the community who would be willing to have you document some of their stories about their life in the community? This can also help with rapport building.
  • Practice developing your writing skills. Select an event and show it—don’t tell it—to your reader. In addition to helping you with your final report, your diary can also be the source of some more creative personal experience articles. Practice becoming a storyteller or a journalist rather than simply saying, “I don’t know what to write.” Remember that not many people get to experience these things the way you do, so whether you realize it or not, you have many extremely interesting experiences to share.
  • Keep a list of questions or topics you want to write on at a later date. If you’ve made an interesting observation but you don’t have enough information or time to write about it yet, make a note of it to help remind yourself later.

So I’ve done it…. How can I use it?

You might be tempted to ask “Can my diary entries really serve any practical purpose or are we just giving you ‘busywork’?”

Obviously we hope that you learn something from the experience, and it is really up to you how useful your diary ultimately is. Your diary can be the foundation for a myriad of other forms of writing. It can be useful in writing your final report. You can use it as a source of cases. You can be creative and write stories and put out an anthology of stories by the Academy’s students to share with the world. Your diary entries can help you remember things many years into the future and can renew your dedication to work whenever you find yourself in a slump. At the very least, committing yourself to write for a set amount of time each day will improve your writing skills.

Ultimate advice? Establish some objectives for yourself. Try to understand why we are asking you to write this diary; don’t keep a diary simply because you have to for a grade. Ensuring that you have such self-clarifications will ensure that you don’t fall into the “Dear Diary” trap mentioned earlier and will help guarantee that you can learn something from the process.


  1. This document was prepared for Tata-Dhan Academy students who are completing the fieldwork or development practice segments of their curriculum. As such, some of the content specifically highlights the types of topics they would be recording about their experiences. [back]

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