An Introduction to Journal Writing

Something a little different today. I've mentioned to a few select people that I'm writing a book on paper-based productivity and creativity, and this is a first (and very loose) draft of an introductory chapter on journalling. Hope you enjoy. -DJ

Journal writing. What a terrifying and intimidating concept to many of us. It's rather like keeping a diary, some consider, but one we have to take far more seriously, and one that will shame us to the core should its ill-conceived words be read by another. Others conjure up images of literati sitting in Parisian cafés, sipping expressos by day and sucking back brandy or absynthe by night, committing all their complex thoughts about la condition humaine to their sacred little notebooks. Still others, beguiled by the mysterious power of becoming a creator, see journalling as a form of automatic writing, a way of channelling higher spirits into words upon a page, completely uninfluenced by the hand that inscribes them.

Hooey. Those are all ridiculous notions, ones that arise from fears and stereotypes. There are plenty of reasons to keep a journal, and very few of them involve any higher calling, or desire to be psychologically laid bare and naked for the world to critique. Journal writing, in its simplest form, is for collecting, remembering, exploring, and providing focus; all of us --whether we're a depressed teenager or a world-hardened scion of industry-- can benefit from keeping one, and on so many levels.

I kept a journal religiously all the way through high school, a receptacle into which I poured my overly-personal teenage angst --punctuated by alternating periods of elation and melancholy-- and collected my half-formed poems (which, of course, were about angst in a more general sense). I wrote vociferously, often churning my stomach into twenty pages a day, and made copious sketches, diagrams and lists whenever I felt the calling. I continued to spill my guts and blood --albeit in a slightly more educated fashion-- all the way through college, often skipping classes to commit dreams and wild-eyed speculation to the pages, scribbling till my right hand cramped up and then trying to write with my left one.

All the time, these shabby books were piling up in boxes in the closet, contents that proved too embarrassing or too personal for even me to view. Occasionally I burned one, lest someone find a window to my psyche better left unopened. True, these windows were often no more than the unfettered thoughts of a sensitive teenager about romance and what it meant to be a writer, but a set of errant eyes upon them would be akin to one's therapist suddenly releasing all her notes and recordings to the wilds of the Internet.

It was partially out of this fear that I decided to take journal writing more seriously. In other words, I would write a journal in such a way as to archive my more valid thoughts and musings for posterity. My thoughts would be more lucid, my wording more considered, my ideas more grounded, and my sketches more realistic. I even bought an expensive journal and a high-quality pen with the proceeds from a poetry competition.

You've guessed by now, I'm sure, what happened.

Yup, never wrote another word. Not for several years, at any rate.

Since then, I've taken a stab at no less than a dozen "electronic journals". These took the form of Palm files, Emacs text, Word docs, LaTeX files, a locked-down wiki, encrypted MacJournal entries, and so on, and so on. My proclivity for experimenting with various methods of enhancing my productivity pales by comparison with the things I did to boost my digital journalling. (The most successful, for those curious, was with Emacs and its diary function, which resulted in about 150 pages. That was about two weeks' worth of lacklustre speed-writing.)

So why do I bother telling you all this? Well, we learn from failures, and it's just as well that those are somebody else's. Now that I'm successfully keeping a journal again (using a Moleskine and fountain pen), let me share with you what I've learned over the years. A few tips, if you'll allow me, that might teach from experience.

Why Bother?

First off, let's dispel a myth: journals aren't just for writers, artists, and other creative types. True, they are an extremely important part of a writer's kit and livelihood, but the benefits of journalling go far beyond providing ideas for stories and songs and art.

A journal is a place to collect thoughts, ideas, events and facts. Musing about a possible future project, or about the one presently occupying your days or nights? Write it all down. Tired of going blank in a video rental place, your favourite bookstore, the shopping mall? Write your lists, and add to them over time. See your friend in the paper? Clip it out and tape it in. Your little son used a hammer for the first time, or was it your daughter's first day at kindergarten? Record it. Have a bunch of numbers you absolutely have to remember, or someone's name and contact information? Your pages are ready and waiting.

A journal is a place to remember those all-too-fleeting ideas and moments and places and people before they fade into obscurity forever. Occasionally browse back through your pages, and you'll be constantly amazed by the treasures on almost every page. Not only does inspiration lurk in forgotten phrases and memes, but you'll recall where you were and what you were doing on almost every date, which is especially important if you're a business person, or --God forbid-- entangled in legal action.

A journal is a place to explore. Remember that little spark of inspiration you had in the shower, or that tasty concept that popped into your head while commuting to work? Write it down, quickly. Then go back later and flesh it out, explore it, savour it and --if necessary-- spit it out or swallow it. We all have problems we face that seem hopeless and without direction, and we need a place to consider our actions. We all have a million half-baked ideas that might lead to opportunity, but we need a place to play with them. Yes, you know the place: take out your pen and start scribbling.

Finally, a journal is a place to provide focus. You know the situation well: you're leaning back in your chair, having just seized upon an intriguing thought, and then the phone rings, or the dulcet tones of "You've got mail!" chimes through your speakers. Hrm... what was I thinking about, again? Writing in your journal, even a bullet list of keywords and vague notions, can keep the idea going long enough to focus through calls and email and other inconvenient interruptions. Slippery goals, year-end outlooks, a report or story in progress, or an important letter can "stabilise" within its pages and provide a valuable outline for you to follow.

A Question of Quality

A topic of much debate: what should you write in? My answer: anything you can learn to love (and can carry, of course... that's next). After a few dozen pages, as long as the journal doesn't fall apart, you'll bond with it and love it anyway. True, I'm now using a higher-quality Moleskine (pocket ruled), but some of my favourite journals have been the $2 "black-and-red Chinese specials". (Tip: the thicker, hand-sized ones with the fabric edges to the binding tend not to crack after heavy use.) I've used a journal of every size and shape, and as long as it opens flat and is comfortable to write in --I do find spiral bindings uncomfortable-- that's all I truly need.

A word of caution. You may find a journal that's so beautiful it could bring tears to the eyes of a bibliophile. Don't buy it. You'll probably never write in it.

It's Not the Size That's Important, They Say

Buy a journal that fits conveniently in whatever you use to carry your stuff around. I've had huge journals, and could only carry them in my perennial backpack of the time. Nowadays, I want a journal that can fit in my omnipresent Eddie Bauer guide bag. Bring your favourite bag with you to the store, and compare its size to that of the journals. If you need to put one inside to test it, call an employee over to explain first. (True story: an acquaintance was accosted by security personnel at a mega-bookstore for checking the sizes of journals within her almost-empty purse, and they considered laying charges for shoplifting. Be forewarned.)

Penetrate the "Precious" Barrier

I hear this time and again: "I just got this beautiful Moleskine (or designer journal, etc.), but I'm afraid to spoil it by writing in it." Oh, get over it. It's a blank book, folks. It's probably worth less than a CD. Memories are priceless, but notebooks aren't. It's what you write inside that makes it valuable, and if you never write in it, this collection of empty pages will mean nothing more than a half-forgotten spine on a shelf.

Do you know how I start my Moleskines and other journals? I write a page of "pen tests". Just write the name of each of the pens you're thinking about using, with the ink type, and make a series of uniform scribbles. Use this to choose your pen. The next page is much easier to write on. Write a grocery list if you have to.

Fragments or Formal Essays?

Ever hear of performance anxiety? It applies to journal writing as well. A journal should be a collection of fragments, thoughts, idle musings, drawings of the cat, daily meanderings, clippings, ideas for the future, glances back at the past. Chances are that no one is going to grab your journal and make off for the nearest publisher, so don't worry about what you put inside it. Just keep it safe; if you keep a journal well, you'll treasure it more than your wallet, guarding it even more closely by very instinct.

Matters of Intimacy

Ask yourself this question: how would you feel if someone found and read your journal? If you think you'd be devastated, it's probably time to consider what sort of material you'd write inside it.

Now, I personally wouldn't feel great about anybody else reading my journal, but it's rather from lack of quality than anything too deeply personal (at least nowadays). My advice for those people wanting to get very intimate with their journals: keep a separate diary. Most people know the amount of respect that should be accorded to a book marked "Diary", but a book marked "Journal" doesn't carry with it the same expectations of privacy. If you're going to commit your most secret thoughts to this book, and thus have it act as a mirror of your deepest psychological fears and hopes, get a diary, a safebox, and a secret place to hide it all. That piece of your soul should be yours alone.

Some people, like Neil Dench, actually allow others to read their journals on an ongoing basis. That's perfectly fine, of course: just make sure that others in your household know what they can --and can't-- read.

Utility, Like a Pick-Up Truck

Some people dump absolutely everything into their journals, and that's okay. My own is a mixture of creative thoughts, to-do lists, ideas for stories, D*I*Y Planner wishlist items, research, books to read, and technical procedures (yesterday, it was the thrill-filled "How to Reset a Pismo Powerbook Battery").

Some business people I know use theirs as a way of conducting their business. They elucidate the pros and cons of each decision, see the dates they conducted certain transactions, record the monthly sales figures, and jot down the names of contacts with whom they'd like to network. Very utilitarian journals indeed, but --having kept them for a year or so-- they tell me they can no longer do without them, so important have they become to managing their affairs.

On the other hand, some creative people I know tend to use theirs as an entity separate from their work, another "brain" with which to think and muse. No clutter from workaday numbers and facts here, just a pure and simple sandbox in which to play and explore.

The Importance of Ritual

Julia Cameron, in The Artist's Way, expounds upon the importance of writing three "morning pages" (about anything, and nothing, in particular) when you get up every day. Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) and Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird), along with many other books on writing and creativity, discuss how vital a daily journal becomes to the creative process. Read any of these books, and you'll note one item in particular: the need to feed your journal or notebook regularly, preferably at the same time and place.

Journal writing can be an inherently painful thing to do on those days when you most need to do it. A scattered mind needs to focus. Pent-up frustration or pain needs to be shared, worked out, and dispelled. The stress of a ticking deadline should be kept at arm's length while one collects thoughts and regroups. A busy day with a child at a beach should be recorded for posterity; there will be plenty of time to watch TV and relax later. Discipline, forcing yourself to write, is elusive at these times. The best way to get around this is by setting up a ritual.

Mornings and I don't get along. That comes from being a workaholic insomniac with a dire need for caffeine to jump-start my brain. Dorthea Brande talks about getting up early to catch uninhibited thought patterns (the same "uncensored mind" that Cameron discusses), but that just doesn't work for me right now. However, I find that fifteen minutes of late-evening relaxation or meditation puts me in the correct frame of mind around 10 pm. An hour or two of latenight writing also sows seeds for my mind to muse upon and dream about, come bedtime.

While living and working in France, undoubtedly the most prolific writing period of my life, my eight o'clock evening ritual began with a little light classical music on my tinny radio, two sips (and only two sips) of Saint-Remy brandy, and the manual rewinding of my typewriter ribbon with a pinky finger. Whatever works. The important thing is to set a time and place, and --if necessary-- another habitual item or two to set the gears in motion.

Keeping It Going

But then we let it all slip, don't we? No matter what degree of earnestness or expectation we bring to our journals, we eventually get to the point where we just don't feel like writing any more. As I mentioned above, it is precisely at these times that we need to write most. If following your ritual doesn't help, there are still a few other options.

First, seek inspiration. It can be about writing in general: short, digestible chapters or essays in such books as Bird By Bird, Writing Down the Bones and Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing have proven instrumental in my life. Or it might be a favourite song or story. Just limit your intake. It's too easy to get sucked into a book or album or film when the demon of procrastination is at work.

Inspiration can also come in the form of a "prompt". What If, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, provides an excellent series of ideas for journal entries and stories, as do many writing sites and pieces of software, such as the excellent cross-platform Writer's Café (see my review here). A book of quotes also does the job handily. Or inspiration can be found in scanning "source" material like the newspaper. Keep it to fifteen minutes of searching or less. Set the timer.

Speaking of timers, try one. Grab your journal, your pen and your cup of coffee, set down comfortably, and then set your timer for fifteen minutes. Go! Write about anything, everything, nothing. After the first half page of babbling, you'll probably latch onto a coherent subject. When the timer's up, you can finish off your thought and quit, or keep going. You'll probably keep going.

Here's something that works for some of my friends in more populated areas: a journal writing club. Just like a creative writing group that concentrates on short stories or poetry, a journalling group gets together once per week to read one choice entry each from the past week's entries. The deadline does wonders, as does the constructive criticism of one's peers.

But don't be fooled by all this "writing stuff." A journal is a very valid option for someone in business, though different prompts are sometimes needed. I'd highly recommend Roger von Oech's A Whack on the Side of the Head, which rarely fails to induce some new approach to a problem, or a concept for an innovative project. It's great for getting unstuck.

Begin at the Beginning

If you don't already keep a journal, give it a try, but vow to take it seriously for a month. Jot down everything and anything. Soon, you'll never leave your precious little collector behind, so empty will you feel without it.

In other words, if a journal is to work, it has to become a part of you, and you a part of it. It becomes an outboard brain, a sacred collection of thoughts, a parking spot for unformed ideas, a memory trigger, and an unsorted reference of those facts otherwise lost to the mists of time.

But don't be thinking about all this. That's pressure. Just remember to write down anything that's remotely interesting to you, and everything else will flow naturally from there.

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From the poet Ben Lerner

Perhaps a motto for us all--

"The mind may be trained to relieve itself on paper."

Wise words. For years I was

Wise words. For years I was an avid journaller and a lonely traveller. My A5 bound blank books were my ever present companion, along with a decent fountain pen. Jack Daniels was golden, and so was my frantic mind. Eventually, my handwriting got so lousy due to the speed, that in a few years I had gotten to write in capital letters whenever I wanted to be read by someone else.

Privacy was also an issue. One day, off to work, my girlfriend caught a few pages of my journal, the entry in which I described a very pleasant dinner with another woman. Last time I saw my girlfriend she was carrying her suitcase out of my house. The other woman, three years later became my wife and the mother of my children. Should I thank it to the journal?

Years gone by I amamazed to read those ancient musings, accounts of my adventures, rambles under the heavy sign of alcohol. Just to show me this: life IS worth living.

After a few years without writting, came the Moleskine. I no longer keep a formal journal, but stuff it with work notes, improvised calendars, list and assorted contacts information. Even so, my life does show through on the occasional personal written thought and on the cascade of notes.

Someone once said that those who write do not live, and those who live, do not write. Couldn't disagree more.


I enjoyed that. I especially like the way Doug strips away the mythical genius that inhabits some books. After much prompting by D*I*Y's own innowen, I have started a journal/diary. My problem however is related to self efficacy in creative pursuits. As a former scion, I was lead to believe that A stood for 'Ace show' (a good show), B = Bad show and C = Centaur, a disgusting, smelly creature from Greek mythology. It was far safer to let one's family believe in a tainted soul, than to risk a grammatical error; a problem familiar to chronic procrastinators everywhere. It is reasuring to find 'creatives' are not a world away from us 'academics' after all.

Recipe for Love - A Subjective View of Journalling Between Meals

Having had chance to put Doug's work into practice I thought I would share my findings with the group. ;)

My first foray into the world of the diarist started life as a metaphor for relationships as seen through the eyes of a fictitious chef blending the ingredients of love - sentimental tosh. A souffle of self-indulgence. Doug's immortal words rang in my ears like a bluetooth headset: "Hooey! Nothing but fears and stereotyping". [For those in retail this is known as paraphrasing ;)] My second attempt faired no better; a diatribe on journalists who use the adverb "basically" at the start of every sentence. "Death to the banal!" Screamed I. How could I hope to write creatively while my mind behaved like an adjective ridden wasteland? Finally it clicked. The reason I alighted on DIY in the first place was a piece by innowen "Dear Me": Writing Letters to Yourself. I would write my journal/diary as a series of letters to myself.

Next came music - Each piece triggers a different memory so why not take advantage. At first I stuck to instrumentals - mainly Bartók, Dvorák and Khachaturian - then as my confidence grew, singing along to Leonard Cohen [much to the horror of the other passengers I might add. Those of us who have no voice and know it should concider headphones and not taking the train.. ;) ]

A note on paper - Originally I planned to use my beloved Filofax, however this was a mistake, for while I could control paper quality, I could not control my desire for perfection and found myself trying to destroy anything too touchy-feely (Just looking at an emotionally involved sock gives me heartburn :S ) A bound book wins hands down in the quest for personal development if nothing else. Perhaps I should bind a few sheets of my favourite writing paper into life journal or at least stop singing in public... ;)

It is Espresso not Expresso

Espresso is a coffee drink made by forcing water under pressure through very finely ground dark roasted coffee beans. Expresso was/is a trim version of the Dodge Neon manufactured in the late 90's.

journaling and such...

Great suggestions. Even if I never read my old journals it helps me remember the moment.

I've found some other good books on journaling here.

Two favorites are:
Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal - Alexandra Johnson
Keeping a Journal you Love - Sheila Bender

Within the last year I've combined my daily journaling with my desire to sketch into an illustrated journal.

I do enjoy reading past entries (especially the current year's). The illustrated journal quickly brings the memory into view. The words help me relish the moment.

I used to have a sketchbook, a personal journal, a project journal, an illustrated work journal (I do software architecture), etc.

Now I only keep two journals:

1) illustrated work journal (it's an 8.5 x 11 art book wherein I've added numbered pages)

2) illustrated personal journal (A5 blank pages).

It keeps life simple and is in the spirit of my motto: Do the simplest thing that could possibly work.

insomnia cure

the graphic journal

One of my friends is an artist, writer, teacher, musician and former hand surgeon. He has written several books about art. One of them deals with the graphic journal which combines writing and drawing and the same journal page.

Here are the links to the site and some sample pages:

Many of these drawings were done in our 9X12 refillable journal.


Graphic Journal

Arthur - those are gorgeous graphics & journal pages - inspirational! Thanks for the Links!

Here is one of my favorite graphic journals (hope she doesn't mind!). Her pages are on Flickr under KBlados... She is a great artist and her journal pages make me giggle. Even her penmanship is great!! Check it out!

I wish I could draw... I cannot even make cute stick people!
nay nay

Love these!

My new beau and i have been checking out books from the library on this very topic! also on altered art and book binding. These are great links for inspiration and as a helping hand to get us started. thanks!

I just hope we can get organized enough to have time to do this kind of thing. I miss it so much.

my artwork | my blog

Recycled Words

Alter book art is fascinating...I found this artist's work...very cleverly and meaningful. His artist statement is very profound.

Will Ashford

Duc Ly

i have a lot of bookbinding

i have a lot of bookbinding and altered book art books, if you need more recommendations. :)


Book Binding

Book Binding is something I've been meaning to research for a long time now...:)
Sure just sent me stuff on facebook or here.
Duc Ly


I've done quite a bit of altered art without ever really knowing it was a "thing"... several of my works incorporate book text I select and cut out with an Xacto knife.

Im really eager to look into and start Artist Trading Cards... :D We'll have to arrange a DIYPlanner swap some time...

my artwork | my blog

Trade show

Yeah... that would be a great idea Sara.
I remember a few times around Christmas, the co-op gallery I belong to had a 'Trade Show'. The idea was that anyone including the public can take the work off of the wall as long as they replace a piece for further trading. No money was involved and it was a success. I would like do ATC with the diyplanner.
Duc Ly

Wonderful stuff. I would

Wonderful stuff. I would love to take his class. And I want this CD but . . . $35 for a PDF? Wow!

I'll have to make my own.

insomnia cure