What is a Journal and Why Keep One?
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What is a journal?
A journal is a written record of your thoughts, experiences, and observations. You can write in your journal daily, or only when you feel the urge. You can write with a fountain pen in a leather-bound book if that inspires you, or you can write with your lucky pencil on the backs of dollar bills if you are both superstitious and rich. It’s entirely up to you.
Our whole lives we are told to write a certain way, to use a number two pencil and stay within the lines, to fill up exactly three pages with our thoughts on a specific theme, being sure to include topic sentences and a conclusion. Journaling is different. With journaling, there are no rules, no rights or wrongs. You might decide to share parts of your journal, but, fundamentally, your journal is for you. So you’re in charge. Your journal is a space where you’re absolutely free to express yourself.
There’s a lot of interest out there in journal prompts, so I’ve included some on this website. Please don’t feel, though, that you need prompts or assignments for writing in your journal. Your daily life, the places you spend time, the people you spend time with, any thought passing through your mind — all this is perfect journaling material. As the writer Linda Leopold Strauss says, “The world is your writing prompt.” But in case you do want some ideas to get you started, click here.
What is a journal – Why keep a journal?
Here are just a few of the reasons for journaling:
- Preserve memories. It’s amazing how quickly we forget. For instance, try remembering in detail your day exactly one week ago. Can you remember what you wore? What you ate for lunch? What you felt and thought about?Try an experiment. Write down in detail everything that happened to you today. I bet you can keep going for a dozen pages or more. But if you try to write about yesterday, you might have trouble filling up more than a couple of pages. And if you go to the day before yesterday, you probably have even less. We are constantly losing pieces of our own lives, pieces of ourselves. A journal is a way of keeping them.
- Improve your writing. Generally, the more you write, the better a writer you become. Writing regularly makes writing easier, and it helps you develop your own writing voice. Even if your journal is just for yourself and it doesn’t matter how “good” it is, journaling builds muscles that you can use for other kinds of writing. And the fact that it is, generally, for your eyes only makes your journal an ideal laboratory for experimenting with new styles, techniques, and subject matter, increasing your range as a writer.Your journal is also a place to collect ideas and material for creative writing. All of the sights, sounds, tastes, and feelings you record, the overheard pieces of conversation, the people you were watching in the street — all of these can be recycled in stories and poems. These observed details will give your creative writing the texture of reality.
- Sharpen your senses. Writing about your experience can make you a better observer. When we know we’re going to write about something, we pay a different kind of attention to it. Keeping a journal gets you in the habit of noticing the details of your daily life. The result is like a heightening of the senses, as you observe the world with greater richness and complexity.
Of course, another reason for journaling is simply for the love of doing it. You may take sensual pleasure in the velvety looping of ink across the creamy surface of a page, or in the private time with your thoughts at the end of a hectic day. You may find it comforting or therapeutic to pour out your emotions in writing. And the other side of journaling is reading. You can always go back to old journals and find windows into your past.
What is a journal – Next steps
Choose one of the links below to go to pages related to “What Is a Journal and Why Keep One?”:
How to Write a Journal – What Supplies Do You Need? How to Write a Journal – What Should You Write About? How to Write a Journal – What is a Creative Writing Journal? How to Write a Journal – Journal Prompts and Ideas See a complete list of CWN pages on How to Keep a Journal
Why you really should keep a journal, no matter how cheesy that sounds
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Sure, it sounds cheesy, but there is more and more evidence of the extraordinary healing power of writing things down
Anyway, this problem just got worse. It turns out you should probably be journalling about your deepest emotional suffering, too. Maia Szalavitz at Time magazine reports on a new study suggesting that writing about traumatic experiences, and the emotions associated with them, for 20 minutes a day greatly accelerates the healing of physical injuries – in this case, tiny skin wounds administered as part of the research:
Researchers led by Elizabeth Broadbent, a senior lecturer in health psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, studied 49 healthy senior citizens, aged 64 to 97. For three days, half were assigned to write for 20 minutes a day about the most traumatic event they had experienced, and were encouraged to be as open and candid as they could about exactly what they felt and thought at the time…
The other participants wrote for the same duration about their plans for the next day, avoiding mentioning their feelings, opinions or beliefs. Two weeks after the first day of writing, researchers took small skin biopsies, under local anesthesia… Eleven days after the biopsy, 76% of the group that had written about trauma had fully healed while only 42% of the other group had.
This isn’t the first study to show physical wounds healing more rapidly thanks to a writing-based intervention: a team at Kings College London found something similar a few years ago. Jamie Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Austin at Texas who’s been studying the broader benefits of writing for years, makes the important point that you shouldn’t view journalling as an attempt to formulate solutions to your problems; the real benefit comes from the third-person perspective that’s attained when you externalise your thoughts. It’s interesting to speculate whether the effect may be similar to that of meditation: not changing your thoughts and feelings so much as changing your relationship to them – so that you no longer take them to be an unquestionable, intractable, non-negotiable reality.
So, yes, it might be a worthwhile idea to start keeping a journal, however appalling that sounds. The good news, as the psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky explains in her book The How of Happiness, is that it’s probably more effective to do so intermittently, rather than every single day, to avoid the procedure becoming so routine that it loses its efficicacy.
Write about your most profound fears, your feelings of loneliness, of regret and grief. Then hide it somewhere where nobody will ever find it, don’t tell a soul, and we’ll all carry on making cynical wisecracks on Twitter like it never even happened.
Why You Should Keep a Journal (and How to Start Yours)
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Even if you don’t think there’ll ever be a documentary that uses your journal for flavor commentary, there are plenty of reasons to keep one for yourself. Maybe you want to leave something behind for your children that tells your story and what you accomplished. Maybe you’re more practical, and want a way to harness your creativity. Maybe you just want the cathartic release that comes with regular writing. Whatever it is, these are all great reasons. Let’s look at each one, and why they matter so much.
Regular Writing has Mental Health Benefits
Writing can do wonders for your health. Beyond keeping your creative juices flowing—a separate topic we’ll get to shortly—regular writing can give you a safe, cathartic release valve for the stresses of your daily life. We’ve discussed some of those mental and emotional benefits of writing before, from the angle of creative writing—but you don’t have to write fiction to get them. For example, we’ve mentioned that keeping an awesomeness journal can do wonders for your self-esteem. Not only does regular writing make you feel good, it helps you re-live the events you experienced in a safe environment where you can process them without fear or stress.
In fact, there’s so much data about the mental and emotional benefits of journaling that counselors, social workers, and therapists often encourage their patients to do it. This study from the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment is a great experiment, and a solid summary of current research on the topic. In the piece, the researchers noted that 15–20 minutes on 3–5 occasions was enough to help the study participants deal with traumatic, stressful, or otherwise emotional events. It’s been specifically effective in people with severe illnesses, like cancer, for example. In fact, the practice is so well regarded, there’s a Center for Journal Therapy dedicated to the mental health benefits of regular journaling, both in therapeutic and personal settings.
It’s not just what you write about though. How you write plays a role as well. This University of Iowa study showed that journaling about stressful events helped participants deal with the events they experienced. The key, however, was to focus on what you were thinking and feelingas opposed to your emotions alone. In short, you get the best benefits of journaling when you’re telling your personal story, not just writing about your feelings on their own. It’s a great example of how telling your own personal story can make a huge difference in your well being.
Keeping a Journal Helps Harness Your Creativity
The creative benefits of keeping a journal are also well documented. You’ve likely heard that the best way to get better at writing is to just keep doing it. That’s true, but the benefits go deeper than just crafting better sentences. For example, regular writing can help you learn to process and communicate complex ideas effectively. It can also help you memorize important information, and brainstorm new ideas. In other words, writing about your experiences not only helps you process them, it helps you see opportunities that may not have been apparent at first glance. It also helps you learn to break down complex experiences into relevant, useful bits of information organized coherently.
Even if you don’t think anything special has happened to you, the very act of keeping a journal can help you brainstorm. How often have you caught yourself writing about something that seems dull on the surface, but led you to a spiderweb of other thoughts, ideas, and memories as you were processing it? Regular writing opens the door to those opportunities every time you sit down.
Even If You Don’t Do Creative Work, Regular Writing Has Practical Benefits
Regular writing can be functional, too, and serve as a reminder of mistakes you’ve made, accomplishments you’re proud of, and great moments you want to remember. For example,keeping a work diary can serve as a track record of mistakes and successes. That written record can come in handy later when you’re feeling down, but they can also help you right your personal ship when you’re feeling lost. Pick up your work diary and look back over the things you did really well with—you may be able to pick out a pattern of things you want to follow, career-wise. Similarly, those achievements and awesome moments don’t just boost your self-esteem, they give you great justification for a raise or promotion when it comes time to talk to the boss about an increase. You don’t have to be a creative worker to appreciate looking back over the things you did well, and the things you need to work on. Seeing your own mistakes before they’re pointed out to you is a great thing, and documenting your achievements makes sure they’re never overlooked.
Regular writing can apply to more than just work, too. Keeping a journal is a great way to build better habits, as it forces you to be aware of your actions and behaviors. If you’re looking to watch what you eat, keeping a food diary is a great way to stay paying closer attention—one that’s been proven to help people eat more healthfully. Similarly, just writing down positive things that happened to you or tracking your mood can help you identify good patterns in your life that are repeatable that you should make time for—not to mention things that make you feel bad or throw you off your game that should be eliminated.
Which Medium You Should Choose, and Why
Once you’ve decided to keep a journal, your next decision is the medium to use for it. You have plenty of options, and what works for one person won’t work for another. You have to choose the one that works best for you. Here are a few options:
If you love the feeling of physically writing down your thoughts, a paper notebook may be the best option for you. There’s really nothing like setting pen to paper, and we even have somepaper notebook suggestions to get you started. Keeping a paper journal gives you total physical control over your writing, and it gives you the most privacy, since there’s little chance of your journal being “hacked” or “lost” when a service shuts down or is compromised. However, paper journaling means you don’t have backups in case something happens to your work—theft, fire, or just a lost backpack means your journal is gone forever.
If you don’t want just a plain empty notebook, the Bullet Journal productivity method fits in nicely if you’re already using your paper notebook for to-dos and notes, and the previously mentionedSorta has unique notebooks with removable pages. If you’re afraid you’re too busy to journal, consider the Five-Minute Journal, a paper notebook that’s sets you up with a motivational quote, then gives you daily writing prompts to fill out like “Today I’m grateful for,” “What would make today great?” and “3 Great Things that happened today.”
Journaling and Diary Apps
If you just can’t separate yourself from your phone or laptop, there are plenty of apps that promise privacy and security as well as a great writing environment. We’ve featured a few before, but some of the stand-outs include Penzu, an all-online private journaling webapp with mobile apps, and Day One, a good looking iOS/OS X app that’s location-aware, lets you add photos, and more. If you prefer free and open-source, try RedNotebook. It’s a fantastic wiki-style journaling tool that’s cross-platform.
Of course, you don’t have to use apps at all. You could just keep an encrypted text file in Dropbox, use Evernote or Google Keep, or any other note-taking app you prefer. You can evenroll your own custom journaling system with whatever tools you prefer, but keep in mind that the more you automate the process, the less you’re actually journaling, so you don’t get quite the same benefits.
Blogging is another great way to get the benefits of journaling, regardless of whether you get started to make a name for yourself, or to just get your thoughts and feelings out in the open. Keeping a blog opens the door to the widest possible audience, but it comes with the sacrifice of privacy. If that’s your preferred route, you have a wide array of tools and hosts to choose from, both free and paid. We’ve walked you through some of the most popular blogging platforms, and even introduces some of the new contenders you may have heard of. All of them offer different looks, cater to different audiences, and are designed for different kinds of people. Whatever you choose, keeping a personal blog may not come with writing prompts or fancy mobile apps (although some do), but they can come with community, and option to share your story with the world.
However you choose to keep your journal, there are clear benefits to doing it. You don’t have to be Kurt Cobain, Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, Andy Warhol, Leonardo Da Vinci, or any other famous artist, creative, politician, scientist, or famous figure for your thoughts and experiences to be worthwhile. In every case, they can be a huge benefit to you, personally, and enlightening for anyone you choose to share them with.
Title photo made using Oliver Hoffman (Shutterstock). Other photos by Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, Joel Montes de Oca, loppear, JimileeK, Day One, and Chris Booth.
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