How to Journal: 5 Tips for Capturing Your Best Ideas (Part 1)


Did you ever keep a diary–the kind that had a lock and key?

If so, you probably poured your heart and soul onto those pages—at least you did until your sister stole it, pried it open, and embarrassed you by reading it in front of all her friends.

But maybe that was just me…

In any case, I hope you saved those diaries so you can look back on who you were and what you were thinking at a particular point in your life.

That kind of diary probably met your needs when you were young. But now that you’re all grown up you may be looking for a better way to capture your daily thoughts and spur your creativity.

Maybe you’re ready to journal.

What’s the difference between a diary and a journal?

The dictionary does not make a big distinction, but here’s the key difference from my perspective:   In a diary, you simply record your reactions to the daily happenings in your life.  A journal includes that and much more—it’s a repository for all of the things that interest and inspire you. It also provides a safe environment to experiment and grow creatively.

Part 1 of this series deals with the basics of how to journal.

5 Tips for Capturing Your Best Ideas

1.  Take your journal everywhere you go.

But if you don’t have it with you, write notes on whatever you can find (a napkin, a sales receipt, etc.) or use your smart phone’s voice recorder and then simply transcribe and paste the notes in your journal whenever you get around. Try to do it at least every week so you don’t forget.

2.  Select a journal that feels right to you

Over the years I’ve used spiral-bound notebooks with lined pages, hardcover books with unlined pages, 3-ring notebooks with folders for loose papers, and beautifully crafted handmade journals.

But for the last several years I’ve been addicted to Moleskine notebooks which are available in a variety of sizes, colors and styles. They aren’t bulky and don’t come apart easily. In addition, they fit comfortably in a purse, pocket or computer case.

Whatever you choose is fine; just don’t buy something so precious that you’re afraid to use it. This is a workbook that is meant to be messy.

3.  Handwrite your journal entries 

Of course, you can do it on a computer and there are some well-reviewed journaling software programs out there, but my experience is that it’s too easy to edit your thoughts on a computer and that gives your inner critic the opportunity to rear her ugly head.

Handwriting keeps things more spontaneous and also gives you clues about your emotional state.  If you’re anything like me, you can tell what you’re feeling just by analyzing the state of your writing.

4.  Leave room—usually just a few pages—in the beginning of each journal for an informal table of contents 

Number each page and try to list the topics covered as you go along.  This makes finding the “good stuff” a lot easier down the road.  Don’t worry about doing this each time you journal. But do complete your table of contents before starting your next journal. Trust me on this….

5.  Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or any other rules 

Unless you have an “evil sister” you probably don’t have to worry about anyone seeing your journal unless you choose to share it. This is a workbook, not a finished product, so let the rules go—at least for now. You’ll have plenty of time to fully develop and then edit these ideas later.

Now that you have some basic information about how to organize your journal, I’ll bet you’re wondering what the heck to put in it. We’ll cover more about this in part 2 of this series, but below are some ideas.

What to include in your journal:

  • Reactions to personal situations and world events
  • Goals you’re working toward
  • Inspiring quotes
  • Poetry that moves you
  • Pictures from magazines or photos  you love
  • Books to read
  • Music  you’ve heard that you may want to purchase (or reference in a story)
  • Websites to explore
  • Grocery lists
  • To do lists

In other words, whatever is important or interesting to you.

Just don’t wait too long to write this stuff down because, as Rolf Smith says:

“Ideas can come from anywhere and at any time. The problem with making mental notes is that the ink fades very rapidly.”

I’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t capture that inspiration or idea immediately, it’s probably lost forever.

Don’t let this happen to you.

If you do keep a journal, please share some of your organizing tips and techniques.

(In Part 2 of this series you’ll learn a few journal exercises that will boost your creativity and polish your writing skills. If you don’t already have a journal please get one. You won’t want to miss out on all the fun.)

About the author:
Cheryl Craigie is the Contributing Editor at Write to Done. Cheryl also blogs at The Manageable Life.

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36 thoughts on “How to Journal: 5 Tips for Capturing Your Best Ideas (Part 1)”

  • Hutch says:

    Thanks for this post. I have been journaling for a number of years and wish I had this information to get me started. I recently wrote a post about blogging and reviewed a few journals (Moleskine was one of them). In my journaling, one thing I didn’t do was to leave space at the beginning for an index or table of contents. The challenge is that I now have many journals full of great thoughts and ideas but struggle to find even which journal a thought is in, much less what section in a particular one.

    Looking forward to part two.


    • Hutch says:

      ** Sorry, I meant to write I recently wrote a post about “JOURNALING”. I must have blogging on the brain!

    • Cheryl says:

      Hi Hutch–

      I used to have a stack of old journals, too, from before I discovered the importance of the “T of C.” Here’s what I did about that … Every so often while I was watching TV (after all, TV doesn’t require your full attention) I’d break out one of those old journals, skim through it and write that T of C right on the inside of the front cover. I’d continue it on the inside of the back cover, too, if necessary. After a couple of years, I was all caught up.

      There was a lot of “crap” in those old journals, but I found some good stuff, too, and now I know what to find it.

      Good luck!
      Cheryl recently posted..Do you know how much is enough?My Profile

  • Martina says:

    I have not tried moleskin, but will look into them.

    For my journaling, especially when travelling, one of my friends calls what I do “journaling with bits.” The bits are interesting pieces of paper- matchbook covers, postcards, programs from shows, menues, etc. I always travel with glue sticks to put them in place. And I always leave extra room around them. It adds depth to the memories for me, and reminds me of things I would otherwise forget in relaying the stories to others.

    Martina recently posted..Improve Your Visualization SkillsMy Profile

  • Steve says:

    I use two books. One for my pocket so as t not lose things and one for my desk as a revive, review, rewrite space!

  • Thank you for this post! I’ve been chiding myself lately about not being more diligent with journaling. I’m sporadic, and I tend to feel more comfortable journaling on my laptop. I do notice that writing by hand does tend to make me “ramble” on in a more personal, deeper way than when I use my computer. I have a stack of spiral notebooks, never finish one though. A spiral notebook reminds me too much of school work, not like crawling into a nice leather or moleskin book. Your post inspires me to “just do it!” So off to the store. I will quit procrastinating and start my new journal with conviction to keep at it this time. Looking forward to part two on How to Journal. 🙂
    Pamela Williamson recently posted..What’s on Your List?My Profile

  • Thomas Derry says:

    “Take the journal wherever you go.” This is the one one I need to learn most. If only they sold journals with little chains one could attach to one’s wrist— like in the spy movies of old. :v)
    Thomas Derry recently posted..Pathetic Reviews: A Game Of Thrones & A Clash Of KingsMy Profile

  • Moleskine notebooks are the best! Something about them just inspires me to fill them with writing. Lately I’ve been keeping track of my thoughts in a spiral bound weekly planner — it’s part organization (keeping track of events and such) and part recording important moments, thoughts, etc. I’m in total agreement on the need to hand write journal entries, but then again typing up a journal entry makes me feel like Doogie Howser and that’s cool too. 🙂

  • Chimica says:

    Hi. I’m a huge journal person. I currently have 5 journals. One is for business stuff, one is for writing info products, the other is for mind maps and my planner goodies, another is my idea list and the last one is my gratitude journal. I’m actually not a fan of Moleskin journals for a number of reasons — price being the main thing. I love writing, I tend to fill up one journal a month thus I don’t have time to buy an expensive journal; the cost will add up way to quickly.. instead I go for the cheap 50cent composition notebooks in college rule style. They are on sale this time of of year! Can you image paying for 60 to 75 large moleskin journals a year? Lol.. The cost would be a buzz kill for sure. All I do is make with my composition notebooks is make them pretty with a bit of scrapbooking paper and some stickers. Plus even if I wasn’t going to use a composition notebook, I’d go to and find a really pretty long lasting leather journal instead of a Moleskin. Never even thought about skipping a few pages, just to write the table of contents later… like that idea.. might try it once my new gratitude journal is filled. One thing I normally use is little plastic post it labels to mark important pages. I love the bright colors and easy to write on tabs plus since they are plastic, they are long lasting, great as a write as you go organizer. Great posting!
    Chimica recently posted..What you are lacking is a website.My Profile

    • Cheryl says:

      Hi Chimica–

      Glad you’ve found something that works for you. I have friends that make gorgeous handmade journals and I tried to use them, but they were just too precious to me–I didn’t want to “mess them up” with my scribbling. I ended up just displaying them as the works of art they are.

  • Sarah says:

    I have two journals that I’ve actually managed to keep up with. In the past I used little notepads and would always lose them, so bigger turned out to be better in my case. I love this Table of Contents idea, will definitely use that.

    I find two things very helpful with journaling:
    1. leaving it on my bedside table to get rid of thougts so I can sleep instead of mulling them over.
    2. writing excerpts from my favorite novels/writing. It helps keep those thoughts in my brain after I write them down.

    Thanks for posting this, it was super helpful!

  • Hello! I just discovered Write to Done and I was immediately sucked in. I’m excited to be apart of such a great writing resource.

    I have always been a HUGE journal advocate (my friends make fun of me for it) and I loved this article. I especially appreciated the distinction between a diary and a journal…there is a big difference. And handwritten journals are definitely the best kind.

    One of the greatest parts of keeping a journal is looking back on what you have written. You can laugh at yourself. You can learn from yourself. You can inspire yourself. Whenever there is a dispute in my family about when something occurred, I thumb through my journals, stick my finger on a page and say, “Ha! Let me prove my point!”

    I could go on all day. Thanks again for a great post!
    Alexandra Sue Burton recently posted..Why We Read & Write LiesMy Profile

  • Thank you for the index idea. I generally make margin notes as I go if there’s something I want to use in a blog or a presentation somewhere along the way but I still have to flip through the entire journal to read the notations. You couldn’t be more right about the DO IT NOW approach. I’ve learned the hard way that the emotions associated with a specific thought or event are generally not as high when you try to write about it after the fact.

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  • Susan says:

    Oh, how I loved this post! I’ve been journaling for over a decade now and consider it the single most important tool I’ve found to implement change in my life. However, over the years, because I love to stick in all my photos, postcards, etc., I’ve been going for books that get bigger and bigger, so that now, if I were to take it everywhere with me, I’d need a wheelbarrow to keep it in! I feel a ‘back to basics’ change coming on, to buy a smaller book to carry around with me, too. Can’t wait for Part 2!
    Susan recently posted..Come with me; I know a placeMy Profile

  • leonard waks says:

    If you want to start a journal, today is the time to do it. Gop to any walmart and buy spiral 70 page notebooks -college ruled work best for me and I have been using these for many years. IN the pre-school special, they are 17 cents each. But a couple dozen and you are fixed for life.

  • Jocelyne says:

    Journaling is also a passion of mine! A need, actually. What a great idea to leave a few pages at the beginning to insert a table of contents! Brilliant! That would be immensely helpful when, for example, i remember journaling about something that i (much) later want to blog about but i cant find the journal entry.

    I currently have a journal where i take notes in ‘class’ and also a section for writing ideas for blog and magazine articles. It’s helped me to remember stuff that i would ordinarily (and so frustratingly!) forget when i had the time to finally sit down and write it out. I love that quote about the ink of mental notes fading quickly. Aint that the truth! ha.

    I’ve also seen examples of using washi tape to tape the edges of pages in a journal as a sort of marking system – similar to the post-it note suggestion already mentioned. The example i saw had her pages washi-ed in catagories: one kind of tape for lists, one for writing ideas, etc. Once the journal was finished it had a beautiful coloured edge that also made it easier to find what she wanted to reference later. I’d love to try this idea and have already imported Moleskine journals (i agree, they ARE expensive! but oh so lovely!!), am waiting for an opportunity to have someone bring in a selection of washi tape as well. (i live in Madagascar where good stationary and things are not available – therefore have to have them brought in with visitors).

  • Thanks for the wonderful tips. I will use them.

  • Javier says:

    Excellent! I have been thinking to start a journal for months, now this convinced me to do it! Can’t wait for Part 2!

  • Cheryl says:

    HI Everyone–

    I’ve been gone for a few days but wanted to let you know that I’ve now had the chance to read all of your comments and appreciate all the kind words. Part 2 is up now, so let me know what you think about that, too.

    Keep journaling!

    Take care,

    Cheryl recently posted..Do you know how much is enough?My Profile

  • John says:

    I have been using a digital voice recorder to help me with my musings. It has been pretty invaluable as it is faster than grabbing for a pen and paper (which is also always at hand).

  • One of my great addictions in life is collecting journals. Sticking with the actual journaling, however, is an area of contention. So thank you for these tips…and in a few cases, reminders. I’ve always had this problem with perfection–worried about sullying the pages or using sloppy handwriting or adding scraps or clippings and such. (It’s getting better though.)

    As far as journals go, I’d recommend the Leuchtturm1917 by Kikkerland, which comes with a dedicated table of contents and numbered pages. In regards to construction and paper, the quality is on par with Moleskine. (With the hit or miss quality of Moleskines of late, I’d say dollar for dollar, the Kikkerlands have them beaten.)

    I personally prefer their dot grid (ok, personally prefer is an understatement…I’m completely in lurve with it) for those journals which are more creative and unstructured because the dots are faint enough to be unobtrusive–similar to a blank sheet of paper–but do offer a guideline whenever one is necessary. And they come in a variety of different colours, too.

    This is probably where I should mention that I don’t have any stock in the company, nor work for them–just thought their journals deserved a little shout out. 🙂
    J. D. Montague recently posted..Wordless Wednesday 011: An Experiment in InspirationMy Profile

  • sudiksha says:

    at first i thought writing journals was of no use when it used to be a part of my homework but when i started, now it feels really good. It feels good to turn the pages back. I have finish up a notebook and today i am to start a new one and your 5 tips, i believe will make a perfect start. Thanks!

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