How To Make Your Story More Powerful With Journaling

journaling - book and pen

Your Journal Can Help You Go Deeper into Your Story!

You know writing a journal develops your personal life.

But do you know it can develop writing projects as well?

Many of us have childhood memories of spiral-bound diaries with a lock and key, but few have carried the habit of journaling into adulthood.

Why not?

Perhaps we undervalue journaling because we see it mainly as a tool for recording events. But journaling has the potential to help us grow – as people, and as writers.

The power in writing your truth

Journaling is simply expressing yourself on the page.

But it’s the way we journal that can be transformational. Researchers such as Dr. James W.Pennebaker have found that writing our deepest thoughts and feelings in relation to events and circumstances in our lives leads to healing and positive change.

When we write from a personal perspective, we usually do one of two things:

  1. We write about an event, detailing what happened, or
  2. We rant and rave about something or someone, without really coming to any conclusions or finding a resolution.

But if we can write about our emotions around each detail of the event, expressing what happened and how it made us feel, our writing will propel us forward and enable us to look at our circumstances with a fresh perspective.

The best thing about journaling is that there are no rules. Forget grammar. Forget perfect prose. Your journal is for you and you alone.

The following 5 journaling techniques are excellent ways to grow in your personal life as well as your writing. Each is an exercise in expressive writing.

1. Lists

Lists help us organize time, projects, and remember what we need to pick up at the grocery store.

But the journal list is a little different. The idea behind it is to use repetition to help you focus on something you’re having difficulty with.

First, pick a topic – preferably something for which you need to find a solution. For instance, you could begin with a question such as What do I need to know about a certain character in my book?

Next, list 100 possible answers to your question. Write words or phrases as they come to mind. Try not to pause or overthink it, just keep the pen moving. You may find you’re repeating yourself, not necessarily using the same words, but writing within certain themes. Keep going – this is vital to the exercise.

When you’ve reached 100, look at your list and categorize items according to theme. This should help you figure out which areas of your character need greater depth.

2. Portraits

The portrait technique is great for developing characters in a novel, especially oft-neglected minor characters who can bring a scene to life.

A portrait is literally the description of a character. Write about the way they look and behave, what you like and don’t like about them, what intrigues and irritates you about them. Try to embody the essence of who they are.

The fascinating thing with portraits is that as you describe your characters, you will see elements of yourself emerging within them. When we create characters, they are based on parts of ourselves, and when we examine character in others, we subconsciously look for the traits that mirror who we are.

Here’s a helpful exercise that involves two characters in conflict with each other. Try writing a portrait of one character from the perspective of the other one. This will help you develop more nuanced characters.

3. Mind mapping

Also called clustering or brainstorming, this is a wonderful creative tool to help you effectively access the subconscious mind.

Begin by thinking about what’s currently weighing heavily on your mind. This could be any aspect of your writing – the plot, a character, a scene. Try to find the one word or phrase that’s causing you the most discomfort or fear. Write the word in the middle of the page, circle it, and then draw a line to the next word you associate with it.

For example, if I’m feeling overwhelmed trying to juggle a full-time job, family and writing a novel, my first word might be time, because that’s what I need more of in my life. My next word association could be friendships, because my friendships may be suffering due to my overloaded schedule.

Keep writing, circling and exploring. After a few minutes you may find your words have shifted to a new topic or a deeper level of emotion. When you’re done, look for words and phrases that seem to jump out of the jumble of circles and lines.

These should offer you fresh insights, leading to possible solutions to your problem.

4. Dialogue

This is one of my favorite techniques for learning more about another person’s perspective.

How often do we look at situation only from our own point of view? Set up a dialogue between one character, and another character, object or emotion.

What does your character need to say? What do you believe the other character, emotion or object would like to say to your character? Write as though you they’re having a real conversation. It may feel awkward at first, but when you’re done, you will hopefully know more about the situation.

You can also use dialogue to connect with parts of your character that are buried deep, such as the inner critic, or a younger self. This is especially useful when writing memoir.

5. Letters

Writing letters to people who have played a significant role in your life is a great way to unravel your emotions about them. This strategy is often used after a death, when the bereaved person needs to release emotions and find closure.

You can also try exchanging letters between characters to learn more about the dynamics of their relationship.

If you’re writing memoir, writing a letter to your younger self or anyone who has strong emotional significance in your life is an enriching exercise. For a fiction novel, write a letter from an underdeveloped character to your protagonist. You’ll be amazed how getting to know that character better can bring a scene to life.

Pulling it all together

These exercises are great starting points to guide you in your journaling practice, but the most important part of the process is to be honest with yourself.

Holding back from the page is tantamount to being silent in a conversation. Writing down your thoughts and feelings, and processing them is the key to gaining a fresh perspective and moving away from feeling stuck.

Do you keep a journal? Which techniques do you use to take you deeper into your story – or your life? Tell me in the comments!

About the author

Claire DeBoer

Claire De Boer writes and offers one-on-one mentoring at She is a certified Journal to the Self® instructor. Visit her blog to download the free eBook: Why Writing Your Story Could Be The Most Important Thing You Ever Do.