How To Write a Journal: Step-By Step

Do you want to know how to write a journal?

I've kept journals in various forms on and off for twenty years.

Journal writing is a skill that asks for commitment, practice, and honesty.

It’s also a perfect practice for creative and successful people.

And anyone can do it!

This article walks through how to write a journal step-by-step and includes some advanced tips.

But first why even bother with journaling?

The Benefits of Journal Writing

Journaling is a great pursuit for writers and creatives. I've journaled for years and recommend it to many writers.

It's easy to start a daily journaling practice, and it doesn't take much time. But why should you keep a journal in the first place?

To answer that question, let's explore how some famous journal writers approached this craft

1. Journaling Cultivates a Daily Writing Habit

Anytime, I avoid writing because I’m tired, bored, or devoid of ideas, I remind myself of the importance of discipline.

Almost every writer I’ve read about sacrificed to pursue their work. They rose early or worked late into the night and they wrote because they had to and not just when they felt the hand of inspiration.

Like many famous journal writers, Virginia Woolf kept hers with a pencil and paper. She recorded entries every morning until the early afternoon.

Virginia WoolfShe wrote about her routine, her ordinary moments:

“I generally write with heat and ease till 12.30 and thus do my two pages. So it will be done, written over that is, in 3 weeks, I forecast from today”

Cheever bemoans his lack of discipline throughout his journals.

However, in an entry written shortly before his death in 1982, he recognises he possessed this essential and departing personal strength that comes with adhering to a writing routine.

“I have climbed from a bed on the second floor to reach this typewriter. This was an achievement. I do not understand what has happened to the discipline, or character, that has brought me here for so many years,” he writes.

2. Journaling Documents Your Life

Yes, discipline is important, but not at the cost of day-to-day life.

For a long time, I thought there was nothing more important than filling a blank page with sentences.

Now, I spend time running, reading, traveling, meeting friends, and sitting quietly.

I do other things that aren’t writing.

And I’m OK with that.

Even if you’ve found a passion, side-interests are essential.

When you’re in danger of burning out, taking time to pursue a side-interest will stoke the embers of what inspires you.

Woolf chronicled her long walks while Cheever wrote dozens of entries about swimming, cycling, and meeting friends.

“I do have trouble with the dead hours of the afternoon without skating, skiing, bicycling, swimming, or sexual discharges or drink,” he writes.

The Russian writer Nabokov had little time for eating, socialising or drinking coffee with friends.

Instead, he loved to solve chess problems and study butterflies. Both of these interests informed his work; his novel, Zashchita Luzhina (The Luzhin Defense), features an insane chess player.

He writes in his memoir:

“And the highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.”

3. Journaling Tackles Self-Doubt

Journals sitting on top of a wooden desk
A collection of my journals

Self-doubt is a problem for many many writers. They worry about what others will think of their ideas and stories.

Years ago, I didn't like writing articles like this one. I worried about how people will perceive me, and if I’ll upset or offend anyone.

I learned from Virginia Woolf's journals that many writers are insecure about their work. However, criticism can help writers improve at their craft.

She writes:

“What is the use of saying one is indifferent to reviews when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on, that instead of feeling dried up, one feels, on the contrary, flooded with ideas?”

Cheever wasn’t one for paying too much attention to his critics. He rarely re-read his works or reviews about them.

That said, even Cheever occasionally dreamt (worried) about how people saw him.

He writes in his journal:

“…and last night I had a dream that a brilliant reviewer pointed out that there was an excess of lamentation in my work.”

One way to overcome insecurity is to practice expressing gratitude.

I try to do this by thanking those who take the time to read or even share my work, and by appreciating that writers today have more places to express themselves than before.

4. It's Cheaper Than Therapy

Vladimir NabokovSeveral years ago, I became a father for the first time.

It was a happy time but after my son was born, I dreamt about death and how my life would end.

I knew I wasn’t depressed but I worried there was something wrong with me. Then a friend (also a recent father), confessed the same thoughts.

As we get older, it’s natural to consider mortality and death. To pretend death doesn't exist is to live in ignorance of the bond we all share.

There are echoes of death in Woolf’s, Cheever’s, and Nabokov’s memoirs, and these authors taught me it's unnatural to avoid considering our place in the world.

In the opening pages of Speak Memory, Nabokov unpacks the notion of time as a single linear event. He challenged the reader to see not just the endpoint of life, but the beginning of life as well.

He writes:

“….my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life.”

In short, journaling is good for your well-being and mental health.

5. It Cultivates Personal Growth

John Cheever quoteJournaling is a good way of exploring your ideas, opinions, and inner beliefs.

Through this habit, you can mark accomplishments and failures and also reflect on important life lessons.

You could:

  • Set goals and track your progress towards these goals
  • Review your setbacks and move past them
  • Marking accomplishments and failures

The journals of Cheever, Woolf, and Nabokov taught me that keeping a journal helps identify negative patterns, thoughts, and behaviors.

Woolf writes about her depression at length. In 1934, she describes the period after she finished her experimental novel The Waves.

“I was, I remember, nearer suicide, seriously, than since 1913.”

John chronicles his alcoholism at length in his journal and towards the end of his book, it’s hard not the feel the same sense of relief as he does upon finally becoming sober.

If you want to learn how to write a journal, I don’t want to be too morbid and put you off.

The journals of these authors aren’t all filled with dark life lessons and lamentations. Sometimes, these writers express gratitude.

Nabokov writes at length about his love for his mother and father, his son, and Russia of old. And I’ve yet to read a more powerful personal mission statement than Cheever’s aspiration for the blank page:

“To write well, to write passionately, to be less inhibited, to be warmer, to be more self-critical, to recognise the power of as well as the force of lust, to write, to love.”

6. Journaling Is a Type of Writing Practice

Writer's block describes feeling uninspired and having no great ideas to write about. Thankfully, you don't need to worry about that while journaling. After all, your journal ideas and entries are for you and you alone.

Simply, turn up for a few minutes at the same time each day and jot down what you're thinking or doing.

It's also helpful for:

  • Articulate your arguments and ideas privately
  • Reflect on recent lessons from your personal or professional life
  • Chart your progress towards your goals
  • Reflecting on your to-do list or creative projects

Even if you don't turn journal entries in public works, it’s entertaining and revealing to read back on older entries from your own life.

How to Start Writing a Journal: 7 Easy Steps

A person sitting on a bench
How to start writing a journal

You don’t have to be a writer to learn how to journal.

To practice journaling, write a short entry at the same time of day, every day. If that sounds like too much work, try for once a week.

If you want to learn how to start a journal on your computer, use a dedicated journaling app like Day One. It's built for digital journaling and supports images and videos as well.

Alternatively, creative a password-protected file on your computer using Word, Pages, or some other word-processor. Ideally, it should sync with a service like Google Drive so you don't have to worry about losing entries.

With that in mind, follow these steps:

Step 1: Pick a Time for Journaling

Open your journaling tool of choice, close the door, and relax. If you have one to hand, pick a single journal writing prompt. Eliminate any distractions including your phone and social media. It's easier to follow a journaling habit if you stick to it at the same time every day.

Step 2: Select a Topic to Write About

A journal entry works well if it's about a single topic, e.g. your daily routine, creative projects, or a personal problem.

That said, there are no rules. Free write if you have to.

Often the biggest challenge with creating a journaling habit is figuring out what to write about. You can start a journal entry in several different ways.

Here are some creative things to write about in a journal:

  • What you did yesterday
  • You plans for today
  • An inspiring book, film or album
  • Lessons from a course you took
  • How you're feeling
  • An argument you had
  • A memory from you past
  • Dreams
  • Progress towards a goal
  • A problem at work or in your persona life

Julia Cameron, author of the The Artist's Way, advocates keeping morning pages. These are a great way of starting a journal entry.

All you have to do is get up, sit down at your desk and write a stream of consciousness entry first thing.

Step 3: Journal for a Pre-determined Period

Set a timer for twenty-five minutes. If that's too long, aim for five minutes. Consistency is more important than duration. Depending on what's happening, you may have time to write longer journal entries at the weekend or evening time.

Oh, and keep writing!

Step 4: Don't Stop To Edit 

While writing a journal-entry, don’t stop to edit yourself or edit for punctuation  until the buzzer sounds. Editing and journaling are different activities. Also, journal entries are for you alone, so it doesn't matter if you write a stream-of-consciousness.

Step 5: Explore Your Thinking

Allow for negative thoughts, expressive writing, and random ideas to make their way into your journal entries. Reflective journaling is a type of therapy and a window into the soul. So, don't hold back.

Step 6: Stop and Tidy Up

When the timer sounds, re-read your journal entry and tidy it up. Then, move on with your day.

Step 7: Review Your Journal Entries Regularly

Review your journal entries and writing process once a week, month, or quarter. Past entries should inform future entries. I don't recommend revising old entries much though, beyond fixing typos and grammar errors. It's easy and unhelpful to judge an old version of yourself. When in doubt, write a new entry.

Keeping Multiple Journals

I've kept various journals on and off since I was fifteen-years-old.

These days, I record a personal journal, and it contains the types of entries you would expect to find in someone’s journal or diary i.e. it’s about my day-to-day life.

I write 200-300 word entries every morning and a longer entry at the weekend. It's kind of like my morning pages (an idea advocated by Julia Cameron).

I also record a professional or business journal. Here, I write about how this blog and my work is progressing. I also describe the challenges I’m having and what I’m working on.

Finally, I keep a type of Zettelkasten in Day One, which acts as a repository of ideas and information I come across for future writing projects.

Here, I record snippets and other information from books I read, courses I take, and talks I watch.

I also include the links and write a reaction to these. This journaling habit gives me more source materials for future articles.

For example:

This Zettelkasten or Slipbox contains dozens of entries about writing advice from creative masters like John Cheever and Virginia Woolf.

I used a few of them for this article!

If you want to learn more about the Zettelkasten method, check out my podcast interview with Sacha Fast.

How To Find Time for Journal Writing

I won't lie; if you want to keep writing a journal, you must commit to the practice.

Some people who want to keep a journal say they find the process time-consuming, that they forget to write regular entries, and that it can become a chore.

These are valid concerns for journal writers.

I spend several hours each week on journal writing. However, if you're new, start with five minutes a day, ideally in the morning before you forget. Wake up early if you have it.

If you’re experiencing these problems, accept that there will be times when you don’t or can't write.

Instead, remember the benefits of journal writing and that no one needs to read or see this work (i.e. it doesn't have to be perfect or even polished).

You don’t need to keep more than one either. I’ve shared how I practice journal writing in case it helps.

Using Journal Writing Prompts

Some mornings it’s hard to write while tired and under-caffeinated. So I created a personal list of journal writing prompts and used those for a long time.

Day One app contains daily journal writing useful prompts. I also like taking pictures of my phone while out and about and using these to start writing entries faster. Sometimes, I just write up what I did yesterday.

I occasionally use TextExpander for OS X ( Phase Express is a Windows alternative) to write entries faster.

These are text-expansion apps that turn keyboard shortcuts into snippets of text that I use for my entries.

For example, when I type “; journal”, TextExpander pastes the following questions into my personal journal:

How am I feeling right now?
What are my plans for today?
What did I read/listen to?
How did I help my family?

When I type “; blog”, Textexpander pastes the following questions:

What did I do yesterday?
What lesson did I learn?
What could I have done better?
What one thing must I focus on this week?

I use a semi-colon to prevent Textexpander from inadvertently creating this text while I'm working on something else.

These questions serve as writing prompts. When I see them appear on the page, I spend less time thinking about “what I want to write” and more time answering these questions.

You can also find several dozen journal writing prompts in my book Yes You Can Write!

Journal Writing Tools and Resources

  • A notepad: you can’t beat the classics!
  • Day One: a dedicated app for Mac and iOS users
  • Journey: a diary app for Android
  • The Daly Stoic Journal by Ryan Holiday: Packed full of journaling prompts, I keep a copy on my desk
  • The Early Morning Pages by Julia Cameron: a guide to writing in the early hours
  • A password-protected file: nosey-parkers, keep out!
  • Onenote or Evernote: both are useful if you like tagging entries
  • WordPress: you can password-protect your entries
  • Yes You Can Write!
  • Speak Memory
  • The Waves

If you want more, check out Anthony Metevier's post How To Keep A Journal And Remember More and also my detailed guide on Medium.

FAQs

What do you write in a personal journal?

You can write whatever you want as each entry is for you alone. Some good topics include what you did yesterday, goals, your to-do list and personal or professional challenges.

How do you structure a journal?

Journal entries typically don't require much structure. However, it's a good idea to date your entries so you can understand your journal's chronology.

What is an example of a journal?

The novelist John Cheever's journals and Virginia Woolf's journals are both good examples worth reading.

What is the purpose of journal writing?

Journal writing enables you to clarify your thinking, work through negative emotions and record your daily life. It's also a form of writing practice.

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