I'm an off-and-on journaler. I've had periods in my life–long stretches, like ten years–when I got up every day and wrote in a journal first thing. (And to prove it, I've got three huge tubs of them.) I've also had journaling droughts, where I don't actively write in a diary.
Article after article suggests that journaling is good for you in a number of ways, including your mental health. Studies show that journaling is linked to reducing stress, helping to deal with traumatic events, and increasing your physical health (it boosts your immune system and lowers blood pressure). It has even been shown to help in sports performance and reduce employee absenteeism. (You can read more about these studies here.) And that is all well and good–really good, actually–but the bottom line for me is whether or not journaling helps me with my writing.
And I'm here to tell you that the times when I am writing in my journal regularly are much more productive and creative for me than the times when I am not. I actually thing journaling is good for everybody from writers to visual artists to musicians to business people. Journaling helps you sort things out, process life, and come up with ideas. And I don't care what you do in the world, those are valuable processes for everyone . For writers, one of the biggest benefits I see is that it helps us see life as story, and that stories abound in life.
But sometimes, I will admit, I open my journal and my pen hovers over the page and I can't think of anything to write. So over the last few months I've been keeping track of the various ways I use my journal and I now present them to you. I've also included some handy journaling tips at the end of this post.
So you can blow up your writing brain (I mean this in the best of ways) and your creativity.
Account of day to day life. This is probably the most traditional kind of journaling, the kind of activity we used to call writing in a diary. It can be a great starting point for a journal entry (see below). Austin Kleon calls it keeping a logbook, and makes a case for doing it regularly. It is probably the kind of journaling I do least, but when I do do it, I love looking back on the accounts of my days..
Idea incubator. One of the best reasons to keep a journal as a writer. I think every writer should have some kind of notebook where you record ideas, things they've seen, books to read, etc., even if you don't actively write journal entries. (You might like the bullet journal idea below for this.) For a fantastic post on using the writer's notebook, check out this post. I love it so much I'm going to print it out and put it in my bullet journal.
To sort things out. This is the kind of journaling the mental health professionals want you to do, and with good reason–because it works. Process your crap on the page and deal with it, instead of waiting for it to come out at an inopportune moment. (Talkin' to myself here, too.)
As a vessel for the spiritual. Those of us on a spiritual path know that writing in a journal can help you figure out your relationship with the divine, talk to God, converse with angels or spirits–whatever you desire. I would go so far as to suggest that journaling can become a form or meditation or prayer. I know it often is for me. My favorite writer for this is Janet Connor.
As a bullet journal. This is how I organize myself, and until I found this system I was constantly searching for the best way to keep my life together on paper. (No, I do not use a digital system. I hate phone and computer calendars.) But the bullet journal is much more than just an organizer or planner–it can hold all your thoughts and ideas. Mine has become a hybrid which I use for my journaling entries as well. If you are interested in this system start with the original link, and then google "bullet journal." You'll find a ton of helpful post and articles about it, complete with clever hacks. I find mine works best, though, if I keep it as simple as possible.
Morning pages. Julia Cameron popularized this version of journaling in her book, The Artist's Way, and it is a perennial favorite because it works. The process is simple–you get up and you write three pages without thinking. That's it. You don't have to craft beautiful sentences or write about how your boyfriend stood you up. Just write and see what comes up. Not only is it helpful to get your ya-yas out, over time, certain themes will emerge that may help you see your life more clearly.
A space for free writing. Sometimes you don't know what to write but you know you want to write. Your journal is the perfect place for this. Grab yourself a prompt and have at it. Set a timer and write for 20 minutes without lifting the pen from the page. Miraculous things will emerge.
A place to write about your current WIP. I spend a lot of time writing about my current novel. If I get lost in the plot, I write about where I might go. I write about characters and their back story. I write about the homes they live in and the places they work. Writing in a journal is a godsend for helping you figure out your story. You may want to keep a separate notebook for this, so you can easily access the information when you need it.
Those are just some of the ways I use my journals, and there are a ton more that I don't have room for–like making lists or mind mapping. You'll come up with your own favorites.
Start where you are. I had a friend who found journaling a great help when she went through cancer, but then she stopped. She wanted to get started again, but felt she had to commit to the page everything that had happened since she had last written. Nope. Just start where you are, with whatever you want to write about.
Index! This sounds tedious and overly organized, but it is a lifesaver. It is a key part of the bullet journal and I've started using it for my all my journals. Label a page at the front or back of the book as an index, then number your pages and when you write something you want to keep track of, note it. Oh, and I recently found the Leuchtturm journals, which not only have page numbers already printed on them, but also a pen strap and a gorgeous rainbow of colors! I can't wait to order one.
Keep at it. As with everything we do, at first it can seem awkward and useless. But the more you write in a journal, the more you'll see the various benefits and keep at it.
Maintain a list of prompts. It's really helpful to have a page in your journal where you write down prompts and then if you don't know what to write about, there you are. Feel free to use mine–there's a ton of them here.
If you really get stuck, go back to day before and write what happened. It's as good a starting point as any!
Do you keep a journal? What's your favorite technique for journal writing? Please comment!