9 Ways to Keep a Writing Journal

    writing journal - journal and computer

    I’ve always loved the idea of keeping a daily journal, though maintaining my pages was something I’d only done intermittently until my wife gifted me with a Macbook a few years back. Prior to that, I found it difficult to convince myself of the value of emptying my thoughts daily.

    Now I know better.

    It was the ability to finally keep my thoughts organized by date and safely harbored in a hard drive that finally pushed me into consistent practice. I now realize that gathering thoughts is a treasure, and that having a basket to collect at least a handful of the countless ideas from each day is something that will one day lead me down a road of remembrance and remind me of who I was and who I once wanted to be.

    There are no fixed rules for journaling.

    How often you choose to empty your brain, the length in which you allow your thoughts to run, and how carefully you keep to your schedule are all your decisions. The benefits of journaling are best when it slips into your life with ease. And the benefits are countless, from having a record of your life to practicing your technique to generating ideas for future projects, journals can serve whatever purpose you choose. So long as you stay invested, the rewards are waiting.

    Here are a nine ways to keep journaling fresh

    1. Carve Yourself a Corner.
    Everyone needs a space where they can write without interruption. Your space doesn’t need to be isolated, but it should be comfortable. If you thrive amongst the steady thrum of others, perhaps a coffee shop is the perfect place for you. Maybe solitude is best. Either way, find a spot where your mind can run free.

    2. Prompt yourself.
    If you find there is often idle time before you start writing, try filling the first page of your journal with a few prompts you can call on to get going immediately. “What are you thinking?” “How was your day?” “What makes you happy?” The questions themselves don’t matter, but you need a spark if you want to make fire.

    3. Be consistent.
    The more consistency you can build into your routine, the more success you will eventually see. If you can carve a time each day when you count on time alone, are able to manage your minutes, and can control the flow of interruptions, you will be far more likely to receive the full benefit from your writing exercise.

    4. It’s the doing, not the done.
    The point of journaling isn’t to write the great American novel. It is to use your journal as a conduit, keeping the flow of language moving in a direct line from brain to page. Do all you can to keep your current alive without stopping to worry about the words. Even if you’re only moving your pen in spirals across the page, promise yourself you’ll show up and then follow through.

    5. Look forward to it.
    How we approach our day’s duties is largely in our mindset. It is all too easy to manufacture escape clauses for the mandatory. If you consider journaling a peaceful time of anticipated reflection, where ideas are exercised and tea may be sipped, you are far more likely to greet it with a smile. Journaling should never be thought of as something to cross off your list.

    6. Journal because you want to.
    The moment you allow journaling to become an obligation, the exercise will lose its value. Don’t ask more from yourself than you can give, especially when it comes to nurturing a journal. If you miss a day or even 10, don’t sweat it, just start right back where you left off and keep right on going.

    7. Dig deep.
    Some days you will write only a little. Other days you will find yourself traveling places you never imagined. These days are a design in wonder. Greet them well and never let them pass without recognizing their beauty. Gather the seeds and plant them in fertile soil.

    8. Revisit.
    We grow each day, even if we don’t particularly like where we’re headed. We can never return to who we once were, but by writing each day, we are building a continuous bridge that will forever allow us to look back at where we came from. Return to your past pages in search of patterns and repeated themes to see how much you’ve grown.

    9. Above all, enjoy the experience.

    Maintaining a journal is like bringing a new best friend into your inner circle; a friend who always listens and never forgets. A journal can hold the raw materials for a million adventures, but they are up to you to foster.


    Image courtesy of pixabay

    About the author

      Sean Platt

      Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt published 1.5 million words through their company Realm & Sands, and built full-time self-publishing careers from scratch in 2013. In their comprehensive self-publishing guide Write. Publish. Repeat, they tell you everything you need to know about how to do the same. 

    • I have a difficult time journaling in a notebook. I’ve got a blog which is basically a journal but I find myself editing my thoughts because of some of my followers. That’s not a good thing, I’m thinking

    • ami says:

      Sean – thank you for the post. I believe in the magic of journaling (I’ve read that journaling can help you lose weight, become a better runner, overcome depression – it’s a virtual infomercial product for self-improvement), but I have not been able to sustain my journal writing over a long period of time. Your post motivated me to try again, to stress less about getting it “right” and just get going. Looking forward to seeing what happens. thanks.


    • Sean:

      Thanks for posting this.

      I would encourage journaling as a valuable exercise for anyone, and especially for writers. For those wondering how to find the time to do it, I suggest that you’ll always find the time to do the things you find important. I also found that like most things, especially worthwhile things, the hardest part about journaling was getting started.

      A couple years ago, Scott Ginsberg wrote a blog post called ‘9 ways to journal for joy and money’ that other readers may find helpful. I know I did.

      Even if it is garbage, or just stuff that’s bothering you – dump it out. Clear it out of the way so you can get to the good stuff. Trust me, it’s there, waiting to get out.

      If you want to be a writer – or a better writer – or a better whatever, journaling will help.


    • Karolyne says:

      I have kept a journal pretty consistently since 2000, when it was required for a doctorate class. Time fades the sharp moments in life, so it is helpful to reread and feel again the raw emotions that mattered so much at the moment. Thank you to Kate Eden for suggesting, “start by writing about your goals, hopes and dreams”. That’s key and takes journalling way beyond simply recording events. Also, when I lose a few days, it helps to list the days and simply find one sentence to record; it may jump-start the process. Great article – thanks.

    • I agree that journaling each day is necessary to help you reduce the clutter in one’s brain, just as Julia Cameron says. However, that being said, I’ve realized that I have fallen off the wagon and need to start doing those morning pages. The challenge is that there is limited time each day to do all the writing I want to do.

    • Thanks for this awesome post, Sean! I used to journal all throughout high school, but I got out of practice once I graduated. I think that journaling is the one thing that kept me sane and helped me keep control of my mind/thoughts.

      I’ve wanted to get back into it sooo badly, but I’m afraid of someone (my sig other, for example), coming across what I’ve written and reading it. I view journals as private thoughts for no one, but me.

      I think using my comptuer to journal is probably the best way around this, since I can keep the file private. But I also think there’s something to journaling by hand.

      Maybe I just need to find a good hiding place for it 🙂

    • Writer Dad says:

      DweezelJazz: I know what you mean for sure. It can easily turn into blather, but that’s okay – so long as you are eventually able to push bast the babble into something substantial. For me that happens after I’m in motion for ten minutes or so.

      Suzannah: Nail on the head – one of the biggest benefits of journaling for me is coming up with new things to write about. When running a dozen blogs, that can be an extraordinary gift.

      Dean: It’s EXACTLY like physical exercise, just for our most important muscle! It’s a terrific way to keep the writer juices flowing.

      Jenny: Well said. I couldn’t agree more.

      Shang Lee: Journaling is a wonderful way to hold yourself accountable. I use MacJournal and it is awesome.

      Barbara: Thank you, Barbara! Yes, a lot of our journaling can be quite boring. And if it’s boring to us, it HAS to be boring to others. Still, our journals can be mine shafts filled with good ideas.

      Sam: It sounds like you use journaling in a wonderful way. Experimenting with your writing and voice is a tremendous way to push yourself as a writer. I do many of the same things and couldn’t agree with your recommendation more.

      Lost Wanderer: WOW! You take journaling to a whole new level. I’ll have to check out Journal Addict. Thanks!

      Kat: I agree – and it is that motivation embedded within our ramblings that helps us to get to the next level of our writing.

      Cindy: I do a version of the same. For me it’s 500 words or so, but I agree – it works like a charm.

      Omar: I’ve only truly embraced it recently, but now I would never question its value. Journaling keeps me in touch with myself and helps me to find my best writer.

      Mandy: Prompts help for sure, and journaling adds to the cycle. By journaling you will be able to more easily manufacture new things to write about and take in exciting directions.

      Janice: WOW, Janice! 1972 (can you hear me whistle?) That’s impressive. I LOVE your line about the difference between bridges and anchors. AWESOME.

      CherylK: Self censorship is never as true to the artist. Of course I self censor when I write for a crowd, but that’s the beauty of a private notebook (even if it’s digital). : > )

    • CherylK says:

      I have a difficult time journaling in a notebook. I’ve got a blog which is basically a journal but I find myself editing my thoughts because of some of my followers. That’s not a good thing, I’m thinking.

    • janice says:

      Sorry. Journaling – it felt wrong as I wrote it and bugged me afterwards. We spell ‘travelling’ with a double L over here.

    • janice says:

      I’ve been writing morning pages and/or a nightly gratitude journal for years and can recommend the benefits to anyone, not just writers. Like you, I look forward to journalling; it’s like having a conversation with a treasured friend, someone who will never abandon you, whatever you say or do. A notebook is a great place to live the questions and listen to your heart and inner wisdom giving you inspiration and answers.The core of two of my books emerged in journalling notebooks.

      I recently re-read journals that went back to 1972. I kept a few bits to show the kids but shredded the rest. Very liberating! The time had come to figure out the difference between bridges to the past and anchors.

      Thanks, Sean.

    • Mandy says:

      I have recently come back to journaling, and this post had some great ideas to help me keep with it. I especially like #2, as I often find myself starting with “Today I…”. If I have prompts available, I definitely feel that my writing will travel in new and exciting directions.

    • Omar says:

      I miss journaling. It eases the mind and reduces stress. I didn’t appreciate journaling when I was a kid. I remember I had to do it for class. As I got older I appreciated it. It’s as if I was writing a letter or note to my best friend, explaining my fears and triumphs.

    • Cindy says:

      This was a great article – thank you for sharing. I have started journaling to prep myself for writing now – I do three pages of nonstop writing and write whatever comes to mind. It has been extremely helpful to get out anything that is on my mind so that I can focus on what I am truly about to write. I received the idea from Julie Cameron from The Artist’s Way – she advises writing 3 pages daily in free form so that you can tap into your subconscious more easily. At first, I thought it would be incredibly hard to write 3 pages without thinking about them first, but it has gotten easier and easier the more I do it.

      • ShelleyD says:

        I used to do a freewriting activity with my students to get them warmed up. Sometimes I would tell them to fill up a page with anything they wanted, BUT they must NOT stop to think. Other times, before taking on a more formal piece of work, I would have them write all they know about their subject. I would always remind them that there is no such thing as a bad writer, only inexperienced ones.

    • Kat Eden says:

      I must admit I’ve all but let go my journal habit in this past year, in a battle to focus on more ‘important’ writing for my blog and other projects. You’ve given me a great reminder – particularly when I consider how nice it is to occasionally look through past journals and reminisce.

      If anyone else out there hesitates at the idea of giving up other writing time for journaling, do what I used to do (and plan to re-introduce!) – start by writing about your goals, hopes and dreams. It’s very motivating, feels productive, and often leads into other ramblings.

    • I am devoted to journals. I have been keeping them regularly since 2002, and I know that I will never stop. They are totally invaluable. I like hand-written journals, as that act of actually writing with my hand, and then years later looking at my own handwriting makes a great deal of difference. Recently, I have even started a blog devoted to journaling – http://www.journal-addict.blogspot.com

      • ShelleyD says:

        …”hand-written journals” seem to be coming a thing of the past. It bothers me to see this. In fact, I am saddened that cursive writing is being lost. So much can be revealed about the writer.

        …”that act of actually writing with my hand,” reminds me of something I read by Peter Elbow. Writing is like a journey that happens when a person places pencil to paper. Avoid trying to control your pen or pencil. Let the thoughts flow freely through it. You’ll be surprised to find out where you will end up.

    • Sam says:

      I realize that I am a relative neophyte at journaling, having written only for the past 5-1/2 years (at least 500 words each and every day, none missed). I feel like I am just getting the hang of it. I very rarely go back and re-read what I have written. It’s by hand and in script. Sometimes I write for some far-in-the-future anthropologist who will (fruitlessly, I suspect) try to make sense of life in early 21st century America from my words. Sometimes I write for my father, who died in 1959, and try to imagine what he would think about the world and me were he magically transported to this time and place. Every day is a different experiment in style, voice, tense, and person. It gives perspective. I recommend it to anyone, and would insist that anyone who calls himself or herself a writer take pen to paper every day.

    • barbara says:

      I’ve been journaling off and on since grade school…much of it is pretty boring…lots is angst ridden and I am tempted to take it all and burn it…There’s always a fear that someone is going to read it and I’m going to get into trouble…(this is my paper journal…) On the other hand, I blog (sort of), I live journal, I tweet, and i interact via the written word with most of the people I interact with.

      I found this article to be inspiring, so I am going to link to it in my primary blog. thanks.

    • Shang Lee says:

      I journal my Tai Chi progress and end up journalling everything that comes to mind now. 🙂 What software do you use to journal on your Macbook?

    • Jenny says:

      I just started keeping a journal this week and so far I’ve found it very refreshing. I kept a journal during a month long bus tour of Europe a couple years ago and to this day it’s my most prized souvenir. The thoughts and feelings you have on a daily basis are so important to acknowledge, express and often, to revisit.

    • I’m like Suzannah. I don’t journal now because I spend sooo much time writing other things. But I used to many years ago. It seemed pointless at the time, but when I look back of some of the stuff I wrote, I’m pretty impressed. When you’re free to write anything you want without any restrictions or deadlines, you can produce some amazing prose.

      For those who aren’t sure about journaling, I’d say it’s like physical exercise. Spend a half hour working out every day and your writing muscles will grow strong, flexible, and fast.

    • Hi Sean,

      Great article. I don’t journal at the moment, but I have in the past. Seems I spend so much time writing anyway that I don’t really have time to write anything else! Still, I agree there are many benefits to keeping a journal. I do keep a notebook with potential post ideas and outlines for articles, which is invaluable to me!

      Thanks 🙂

    • Thank you for this article. In the past, I have tried halfheartedly a couple of times to keep a journal – I didn’t use the journal in an interesting way, and the content soon became overwhelmingly trivial and mundane, and I soon stopped. Your points and suggestions have clicked with me and I have just pulled out a blank journal and written a couple of pages. I intend to continue and am excited about using this in an expansive way to work ideas, projects, and musings. Thank you very much for sharing your experience.

    • Writer Dad says:

      Hi Debi,

      That’s a great question! It sounds to me like you have a lot of flow while journaling, which is a wonderful thing. Is there any way you could combine journaling with some other necessary part of your day? If great ideas are coming to you when you are journaling, perhaps you can use the flow to brainstorm other areas of your life or map out some ideas that will eventually lead to more minutes in the day.

      I know that often when I sit down to write I believe I am going to write about one thing only to end up writing about another. It is that other that sometimes means the most.

    • Debi says:

      My problem with starting to journal is that it is hard, almost painful, to stop. Once I hit a roll, I can find myself still writing an hour later and I just don’t have that much time available. Any tips for how to ease out of journaling when time is short?

    • >