This is a letter which I sent to an acquaintance -Mr. X- who asked for journal writing suggestions. Two decades have passed since Mr. X has written in a journal. He wanted to start again and asked if I had any tips.
What follows is my answer to him, reprinted with permission and with a few edits for clarity. Hopefully, this might prove useful to others.
Hi Mr. X,
Via text you asked for journal writing suggestions. I started thinking of everything I wanted to say and it was too much for a text message over the phone, so I’m writing in a longer form. Here are journal writing suggestions that I hope will be useful. (By the way, my mother always says this about taking advice: glean what works for you, and then toss the rest.)
Here we go:
- There is no right or wrong way to write in your journal. Your journal is neither an exam nor a measure of your worth. Some beginners become obsessed with doing it “right,” choosing the “perfect” pen, not making mistakes, etc., to the point of paralysis or negative thoughts about themselves. You are not being judged or graded. This book exists to serve you.
- Understand your purpose for the journal.
- Knowing why you journal helps to choose your format. If you journal for future generations 100 years from now to understand what life is like for you in 2017, then you might choose a leather journal or a digital journal -something long-lasting- as opposed to a paperback sketchbook.
- Knowing why you journal helps to choose how frequently you should journal. I write every day because I would like to look back on what I was doing a year ago today and see my progress (or lack of it). Other people only write on vacation, because those trips are important to them. They do not need to write 365 days a year.
- Knowing why you journal will come in handy on the rare days when you do not feel like doing it. Your “why” can be your motivation through writer’s block.
- Here are a few reasons that people journal:
- Some use a journal to record a history of their lives for the next generation. I call these heirloom journals.
- Some use it to think through an issue, e.g. Sometimes I don’t know everything I think about a subject until I write it all down.
- Many use a journal for personal development, to establish goals for the kind of person they would like to become, the kind of life they would like to have, etc.
- Others use journals to vent frustrations.
- Others keep interesting quotes in their journal so that it becomes an inspirational reference book.
- Some record their progress– physical, mental, academic. E.g. One guy uses it to record his daily diet and exercise regime. He can refer to an entry from 10 years ago to sculpt his body the way that he did in the past.
- Some use journals for specific events – e.g. They buy a new journal to record their thoughts during the first few months of their newborn’s life; they sometimes include photos.
- Many people use journaling just to find a home for the thoughts which ricochet inside their minds all day. e.g. Leonardo DaVinci used his notebooks to sketch many things that would not be invented for centuries, including the military tank.
- Choose a format which works for your purpose.
- There are traditional paper journals, which I use often. Paper journals are good for slowing down and thinking through an idea. They are also great for heirloom journals, since your heirs can hold the same book that their ancestors touched.
- There are digital journals –online and offline- such as the ONE DAY journal app for Apple products, or the JOURNEY journal app for Android phones. Digital journal apps are the best for searching through your old entries, creating tags so that you can re-read all journal entries that are under one category.
- You might type your journal on a WORD document on a password-protected flash drive or external hard drive, so that it’s offline and private.
- There are audio journals. In those moments when I do not want to write, I use the voice recorder on my phone to talk through an idea.
- There are video journals. You can record yourself using your camera phone, a point-and-shoot or a DSLR set up.
- An entrepreneur named Roberto Blake uses social media apps, like Instagram, as a public journal to record his life visually, to recall where he was, geographically and psychologically, on that day.
You can choose one of these formats or use a combination. It all goes back to your purpose for doing this, your lifestyle, and personality.
- There are different formats for organizing the contents of journals. Here are a few types:
- A log. In a log, you talk about what you’ve done today or during the week.
- Self-Improvement Journals. Usually you are hashing through what you’ve done, how can it be improved, what you’re going to do moving forward.
- Art journals. These tend to have fewer words and more images. An art therapist from Australia, Jade Herriman, says that art journaling is therapeutic and helps you to develop a creative mind.
- Bullet journals. These are mostly custom-tailored to-do lists more than traditional journals. Visit Boho Berry for bullet journaling tutorials.
- Commonplace books. These feature inspirational quotes or images that you have come across.
It’s best to make a combination that you prefer.
- It is helpful to have your form of journaling handy. I keep my paper journal nearby because I write at random times of the day, whether at home or away from home. Other people write at a set hour and at a certain desk, so they keep the book on that desk, ready to go for when they want to jot down an idea.
- On the days when you do not feel like writing, or when you would like inspiration, you might discover how other journal writers write.
- Bakari Chavanu, the founder of National Journal Writing Month, has a website to peruse when you would like fresh ideas. Here’s a link to his article, “10 Reasons I Prefer Digital Journal Writing Over Pen and Paper.”
- I have written a blog post on Tim Ferriss and a journal process that takes only about 5 minutes to write every day. Here’s a link to “How to Write a 5-Minute Journal.”
- Clark Kegley, a Youtuber, started journaling in 2013, I believe, for personal development and sharing what he has learned on his channel. Kegley uses only one journal per year. He suggests that you divide the journal into different subjects like a school notebook, e.g. He might section off 30 pages for each subject – 30 pages reserved for inspirational quotes, another 30 for ranting, another 30 pages for his goals, etc. He can go back and forth between the different sections throughout the year as he deems necessary.
Here’s a link to one of his many videos about journal writing called 4 Questions to Upgrade Your Journal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIqMzigWx04 (The four questions are also in the description box below the video if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing.)
Here’s another Kegley video that you might find useful, he takes you through how he sets up his journal in The Ultimate Guide to Keeping a Journal. (It’s not really the ultimate guide, there is no ultimate guide; it’s just Kegley’s way of journaling.) The talk starts at the 7min 12sec mark; this is a deep link to that part: https://youtu.be/kcNz4AE1FiI?t=7m12s
- Austin Kleon has a blog post about journaling called, ”On Keeping a logbook.” Here is the link: https://austinkleon.com/2010/01/31/logbook/
Basically, he explains that his journal is a list of 4 or 5 things he has done that day, with a few doodles. I’ve noticed that calling it a list instead of a journal seems to help many people to write more often.
Here is an image of what Kleon’s journal looks like:
Ultimately, the journal is for you and your purposes. After a while, journal writing becomes a habit. Journal writing can become something as useful to you psychologically as eating or drinking water is for you physically.
Always remember, however, if you decide to walk away from it, that’s fine too; it’s your life. (Plus, you can always pick it up again, if you wish.)
Deborah M. Thomas
What are some of your journaling suggestions? Let me know.