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.

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    • arulanand says:

      im 16 years old i write a journal to record the most important and memorable events and i even record my spellbinding dreams in that .

    • Maxim says:

      thans for information and hello from Russia!

    • Hi Suzanne – good for you for doing NaNoWriMo – I think one day when my kids are out of the house I might actually get around to it! Yes, there are definitely some great journaling techniques for character development! Good luck this month – I hope you find the heart of your story 🙂

    • Suzanne says:

      Just what I needed to read this morning. I’m in the middle of National Novel Writing Month and need some help with my characters.

      • arulanand says:

        keep thinking hard that you ll end up getting a path breaking idea

        • Mary Simon says:

          I enjoy read what people have to say about things.

    • Ugh! I wish I had time to write in a journal. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I had kept a diary throughout childhood. It would be so nice to look back at how I thought at a particular time!

      • I don’t really have the time either – I just commit to a small goal of 10 mins 3x week. It’s amazing what you can write in that time! Thanks for reading, Stephanie!

    • Bliss says:

      Great tips for character development! Another great one I have used is downloading a questionnaire of different things, big or small, seemingly important or not and answering those questions as one of the characters in my story.
      Takes time, but helps a million!!

      • Hi Bliss – yes the questionnaire is a great way to explore character. Thanks for your comment!

    • Hugs Claire, thanks for putting such a clear post together. Journalling has been one of the key tools in getting me through many “life stuff” and when I cant journal, because the pain is too much or I feel blocked,,,.I feel it. Recently, I have started to journal with my left-hand (I am right-handed) and am suprised at the difference, in terms of depth and range of emotions and feelings captured when journalling with left hand compared to right hand. Why is this? Do you know? in fact, it feels a “freerer” experience in writing with left hand.

      • Hi Ntathu! The writing with the left hand thing (or writing in circles, or vertically) helps to tap the subconscious mind more because you aren’t using your usual linear method. It’s fascinating that it’s made such a difference for you. I’m glad you find journaling to be such a useful tool – personally I couldn’t do without it either 🙂

        • yes i am interested in writing tour journal of my tour as a wildlife patroller,but i am in cojunction how to go ahead

    • Really useful post. I’m sharing it with our Rethink Press writing community – & @rethinkpress.

    • Esther says:

      Thank you for this post, Claire! I like the idea of writing letters. Never thought of that one before. I’ve tried dialogue once or twice before, but it never seemed to work the way I imagined it should. So thank you for this post. It’s definitely going in my list of “To Remember for Writing”. I’m sure I’ll use some of these points!

      • That’s great, Esther! Letters are definitely a great technique. I find if something isn’t working well for me (like dialoging for you) that it means I’m only scratching at the surface and I need to go at it a few times. Plus it can also feel a little awkward at first, so try that one again and see how it works out for you 🙂

    • Hi Lisa – I find journaling really helps with my fiction writing – I’m so much more expressive. Thanks for reading!

    • I stopped journaling when I started writing novels. It seems I need to get back to it. Goid post.

    • That’s great that you’re feeling inspired to journal again, Lucille. I think morning papers are a good way to tap into the subconscious mind during that period between sleep and being fully awake. Did you do anything with those papers by way of processing, or was it just a way to download for you?

    • Years ago, I used the technique from The Artists Way called “Morning Papers.” It transformed my life by getting rid of a lot of clutter and I had more direction in my life. This reminds me of that and I would like to start a journal again.

    • I have journaled for many years, and still do. I have always loved writing and expressing myself through words; this outlet has helped me understand myself that much more. Writing poetry helps, too.

      I like the tips you have offered in this post about using journaling to assist with character development, particularly the point you made about having characters exchange letters. In Fifty Shades Of Grey, emails are exchanged. I really enjoyed this aspect of the trilogy!

      As for your other four points, I do them all already! It’s reaffirming to know that I am doing all the right things! 🙂

      • Hi Lorraine – that’s great to hear you are already using some of these methods and benefitting so much from them. I really like using journaling for character development – it’s really helped bring some of my one dimensional characters to life. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

    • Julie Luek says:

      I love the process of journaling, not only as a way to clear my thoughts, but as a way to gather them together and give them words. So many good ideas can spring from uncensored journaling– it’s like opening a gate to creative thoughts without fear. Wonderful post.

      • Hi Julie – I completely agree – using a journal does open the door to all kinds of self-growth in so many areas of our lives, without fear. It’s great way to explore new ideas and I love it as a tool for memoirists. Thanks for reading!

    • Dale Power says:

      I love your post! So often when I sit down to write in my journal I draw a blank. These are great ideas and obviously will light the fire of the ideas trapped in my brain,.

      • That’s fantastic Dale! Sometimes it’s just really helpful to have a direction instead of a blank page. Let me know how you get on 🙂

    • I used to journal all of the time back when I was in high school and college. Now more than 5 years later, I’m just getting back into it, and I’m so bummed that I spent so much time away from it. The insights that you can get from writing down your thoughts it so valuable. I hope I can keep up the habit.

      • Hi Raubi – I’m so glad you came back to journaling. I had no idea how powerful a tool it could be in my life when I was young. Now as an adult it’s a lifeline. Thanks for reading!

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