A Messy, Liberating Guide to Journal Writing

wreck this journalYou should see my journal. It’s a cacophony of words and images, scribbles, doodles, and scraps of ideas tucked between the pages. It’s sort of a mess, and I like it that way.

I know some writers are diligent about keeping their journals pristine. The pages are crisp, the lines straight and legible, and every word is thoughtfully selected. The theme is consistent — a dream journal, an idea journal, a diary. It’s an orderly affair done up in a tidy fashion. And that works for some people.

But it doesn’t work for me.

If I’m going to be creative — if I’m going to let my creativity flow — then I need to let things get messy. I need to dig my toes in the mud, bury my fingers in the clay, and splash paint across the walls. I can’t be confined by order or logic. I need to write sideways and upside down. I need to doodle. Jot down song lyrics. Make smudges. I need to be free.


And I’m not the only one.

Keri Smith created Wreck This Journal with the same understanding that when we allow ourselves freedom to make a mess, we also free ourselves to be as creative as possible, unchaining hidden ideas that refuse to come out for fear that they’ll be destroyed by our linear and conventional thinking:

By forcing ourselves to wreck it on purpose, the “journal as an object” loses it’s preciousness, and allows us the feeling of completion.

Wreck This Journal is a great way to get your creativity out of the box. As you work your way through the journal, you actually wreck it. You’ll cut, tear, and generally thrash this book (you’ll even be asked to tie it to a string and drag it around on the ground). You start letting go of constraints, allowing yourself to make mistakes, create poorly crafted prose, or senseless art (because you’re going to wreck it), and this gives your creativity the courage it needs to take risks.

Getting Creative with Journal Writing

I haven’t wrecked my own journal (yet), but I don’t play by a set of rules either. I started journaling many years ago and I’ve tried every which way: keeping separate journals and notebooks for different purposes, tracking my life’s events, daily journal writing. I had a dream journal and an art journal. A gratitude journal. None of these stand-alone methods worked for me.

But I didn’t give up. In time, my journal writing became a mish-mash of ideas and themes that lived together on the pages of a single journal. My writing and creativity blossomed. Encouraged by my creative writing instructors, I wrote in circles, used large cursive and teeny tiny print. I sketched in the margins, sometimes on full pages. Anarchy ensued as I became increasingly experimental and let go of my overly tidy journal writing habits.

My journal has become a sacred space for disorder. I know that when I open it, anything goes. I can create with total abandon. And I do.

25 Ways to Journal

I’m not going to ask you to wreck your journal, but if you think it might open your creative floodgates, I say go for it. When we want to be more creative, we have to be willing to try anything. What I am going to do is give you a list of ways that you can use your journal. You’ll find that if you open your journal to more possibilities for material, media, and subject matter, you’ll start to build interesting connections. And that is one sure path to better writing!

Since Writing Forward’s inception, many readers have left comments sharing brilliant ways that they use their journals. Here are some of the ideas they’ve shared mixed in with some of my own:

  1. Forget about lines. Turn your journal sideways or upside down. Write in the margins or on the spine. Write in a spiral. Draw a shape and fill it with words. This was one of the first creativity techniques I ever used and it really got the ball rolling.
  2. Reader zz, who blogs at Eek.Eke knows a thing or two about wrecking journals: “When I’m feeling particularly uninspired I like to journal melodramatically – it makes me laugh and keeps me going. Otherwise I like to make paper mache bowls out of pages of my worst writing – something about ripping the pages into tiny little pieces is very freeing…”
  3. Ever come across mind-blowing imagery in a magazine or online? Print it out, cut it out, and paste in in your journal for inspiration.
  4. Reader Gaya commented to share how she uses an art journal. She includes pictures with funny captions and keeps a record of the galleries she attends. You too can write crazy captions for the images you paste (or draw) in your journal.
  5. Write with colored pens, crayons, or Sharpies.
  6. Paulo Campos commented about how he uses his journal: “A habit I learned while reading about Virginia Woolf: she regularly copied passages she liked from books she was reading into notebooks.” Brad Vertrees also keeps a reading journal where he write his thoughts about the current book he’s reading. And Deb keeps a log of books she’s read in her journal.
  7. Write down words. Not sentences — just words — words you like, words that evoke intense emotions or strong imagery or words that simply resonate. Randomly fill the blank spaces in your journal with these words. Write them big, write them small, and write them in all different colors!
  8. Make lists of names and places (make up some place names!). List foods, song titles, and sensations. List nouns or list adjectives. Or simply list random, short thoughts that pop into your head.
  9. When Wendi Kelly wakes up with a song stuck in her head, she asks the song, “What do you want?” If you get a song stuck in your head, jot down some of the lyrics and then keep writing to find out what message the song is sending you.
  10. Doodle, doodle, doodle, and draw. Or try writing and sketching in your journal with chalk or charcoal. See what happens when you smudge and smear your words. Maybe you’ll make some pictures or abstract art!
  11. Use stream of consciousness, also known as freewriting. Rebecca Reid shared her experience: “I kept a journal for about 10 years: it was combination train of thought and ‘diary’ of my day. I think a train of thought journal would be nice now too.”
  12. Dreams are a popular source of inspiration, and ideal for journal writing. You can get story ideas, imagery, and bizarre notions from your night visions. Write down your most interesting dreams in your journals. When I mentioned dream journals in another post, Trisha from Marketing Journeys responded, “Journaling my dreams has been on my list for quite a while – you’ve given me a jumpstart and the inspiration to get going!”
  13. Use journal writing to engage in dialogue with people who are inaccessible. Write letters or short notes to people you’ve lost touch with, people you’ve broken up with, and people who have passed away. Chat with your characters. Converse with your heroes (dead or alive).
  14. Deep Friar told us that his mom (who is very wise) suggested a “Happy Compartment” journal: “When something nice happens, you put it in your ‘Happy Compartment.’ Then, whenever you feel bad, you just open up your Happy Compartment, and relive the happy time and make yourself feel better.”
  15. Monika Mundell mentioned in a comment that she keeps gratitude and travel journals. She added, “Come to think about it though, I do have a lovely creative journal from years ago. I used to draw, stick pictures in there and sketch. Loved that thing.”

All-Purpose Journal Writers

As I searched through the comments across this site to find out what readers had shared about their journal writing habits, I discovered that lots of writers already use all-purpose journal writing creatively and freely:

Cheryl Wright keeps “an all inclusive journal where I record idle and focused thoughts, ramblings about my life issues and life in general and everything else for that matter.”

And Karen Swim has journals “for life, writing, dreams, ideas, notes, and prayers.” She mentioned all of these journals more than once while visiting Writing Forward!

T. Sterling Watson kept a journal that “contained funny quotes I overheard, random ideas for future poems or scripts, doodles, and general thoughts.”

Michele Tune, who writes the cyber highway, commented, “I draw, write poetry, document the day’s events, or whatever I feel like putting on paper. I’ve written in pretty journals, on scratches of paper that I’ve tucked into journals…”

Milena uses her journal to “paste images, cartoons, photos, write stuff, even jot down grocery lists (these can be interesting to come back to sometimes), impressions of any sort or anything that comes to mind and which I fear forgetting.”

That’s what I’m talking about!

Of journal writing, Amy Derby once commented, “Those paper journals of mine are priceless.”

Treasure your journals! Let them them get wrecked up and messed up.

And keep on writing.

Do you have any fun, unusual, messy, or liberating journal writing tips to share? Interested in trying any of the ones listed here? Share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment.

Journal Writing Resources:

Wreck This Journal
What Should I Write in My Journal?
Seven Different Types of Journal Writing

Where Journal Writing Meets Reading

journal writing

Journal writing and reading go together!

Journal writing is something I’ve done on and off since I was just a kid. I’ve always wanted to keep a reading journal, but usually I inhale books, leaving little time between chapters to jot down my thoughts and reactions.

And by the time I finish reading, it’s often the wee hours of the night and time to fall asleep, which means I’m far too exhausted to post entries in a reading journal.

Next thing I know, I’m on to the next book without a minute to spare.


But lately, I’ve been trying to capture my reading experiences by writing down notes about what I’ve read, and I find it incredibly helpful.

Benefits of a Reading Journal

Keeping a reading journal:

  • Increases retention
  • Gives new insight to what you’ve read
  • Helps broaden your understanding of the material
  • Provides a space (in your writing journal) where you can note ideas that are sourced from what you’ve read

Most writers already practice regular journal writing. There’s no reason you can’t start including your reading entries there, or, if you like to keep things neatly separated, start a separate reading journal. Use a Word document, start a blog. The important thing is that you record your thoughts and your reactions or observations about what you’ve read.

Creative Writing Ideas and Journal Writing

A reading journal can also help you grow as a writer, because you can note what works and what doesn’t. Which scenes in the novel were compelling? What character traits made you fall in love with the protagonist or loathe the villain?

You can keep notes about your all your reading, not just books and novels. Jot down your thoughts after reading a magazine article, news story, or blog post. If you really want to get all-inclusive, you can even include music lyrics, movies, and TV shows. All of these are sources of inspiration.

Even if you don’t want to start a whole new reading journal, try writing down your reaction to whatever you read over the weekend. Look for writing techniques, such as plot twists and brain teasers, and make notes on the writer’s style and voice. See if knowing that you’re going to make notes changes the way you read something, and see if those notes benefit your own writing.

Do you keep a reading journal? Is there another genre of journal writing that you prefer? Share your experiences by leaving a comment.

Seven Different Types of Journal Writing

journal writing
Creative Commons License photo credit: Auzigog

Every expert in the world thinks you should keep a journal. Physical trainers say keep an exercise journal and nutritionists say keep track of your meals. Oprah insists on a gratitude journal and business consultants recommend journaling workplace activities.

How much journal writing can one person do?

Of course, journals are, first and foremost, the forté of writers. Journal writing provides a sacred space where thoughts, ideas, stories, and poems can be recorded. We turn to our journals for inspiration and when we’re inspired.

Some journals are topical while others are a hodgepodge. You might use several different journals, each for different projects or topics or you might use one journal for everything. There’s no right or wrong way, and there are no limits to the types of journals or number of subjects that you can use to inform and inspire your creative writing projects.

Journal Writing Ideas


These seven different types of journals foster creative thinking and promote regular (daily) journal writing. Some are great for keeping track of your ideas. Others are good for solving problems or keeping yourself inspired and motivated to write. Try one or try them all, or just create one journal for all your creative journaling.

  1. The Dream Journal

The subconscious is a wondrous thing. Artists and geniuses alike have attributed some of their best work to the messages they received while dreaming. A dream journal is useful for anyone interested in exploring the subconscious mind, where creativity often lives and breathes. This type of journal writing is also ideal for folks who are interested in dream interpretation or trying to achieve lucid dreaming. For writers, journals that hold dreams will provide a myriad of images and plots that the waking creative mind simply can’t drudge up.  Keep your journal near your bed and make sure you jot down your dreams as soon as you wake up, otherwise with each minute that passes, you’ll lose chunks of your nighttime imaginings.

  1. Art Journal

Even us writers have to admit that a picture is worth a thousand words. Symbols are particularly powerful and speak directly to the subconscious, which is where your muse might be hiding.  Like a dream journal, an art journal is a clever way to get in touch with the deeper recesses of your mind, where some of your most creative ideas are lurking. You don’t have to be a fine artist to use an art journal. Doodles and stick figures will open up your right brain too! An art journal is also perfect for sketching your characters, scenery, and maps of the worlds you are creating for your fiction.

  1. Freewriting Journal

Sometimes called stream of consciousness writing, freewriting is a way to clear your mind of clutter. If you keep at it long enough, some pretty interesting stuff will emerge through your freewrites. Yes, it’s yet another way to tap into your creativity. If you can stop your conscious thinking and let the words flow, you’ll be amazed at the creative stew that is brewing just beneath the surface. You can do straight freewriting or try guided freewriting in which you focus on a specific word, image, or topic. It’s a great way to hash out conversations with your characters, accumulate raw material that can later be harvested for poems, and brainstorm for just about any writing project that you’re planning or working on.

  1. Idea Journal

How many ideas have you lost? If you make it a point to note your ideas through daily journal writing, there’s a good chance you won’t lose any at all. This is why so many writers keep a journal or notebook with them at all times. In fact many writers use miniature notebooks for this very reason – there’s nothing worse than coming up with a brilliant idea when you’re at a party, in the middle of a phone conversation, or trying to fall asleep. Keep your journal near your person at all times, and you’ll never lose an idea again. Or, pick up several miniature notebooks and keep them in convenient places – your nightstand, purse, car, office desk, even the bathroom!

  1. Inspirational Writing Journals

What inspires you? A sunset? A day with friends and family? A great movie or inspiring song? Quotes from the greats? You can record all the things that inspire you in an inspiration journal, taking notes from some of the world’s most successful creators. You can even paste photos and clippings, using images to capture moments that were especially inspiring. Then, when your creativity meter is running low, you can flip through your inspiration journal to capture ideas that ignite your passion (and your next writing project).

  1. Life Events or Diary

A diary is pretty straightforward — you simply record the goings-on in your life. Some people start writing journals in diary format for special times or events in their lives, such as when they are getting married or having a baby, traveling, or moving to a new place. This is a great place to start if you’re interested in writing a memoir or autobiography. It’s also a perfect place to record the real experiences that you’ve had even if you plan on fictionalizing them later. Some of the best dialogue, descriptions, and scenes come straight out of real life!

  1. Reader’s Journal

If you want to be a writer, read. Read a lot, then read some more. You just can’t read enough. If you keep a journal, writing about what you’ve read, you can capture what worked and what didn’t work from a writer’s perspective. You’ll pick up neat writing tricks, jot down techniques that you’ve observed other writers using effectively, and of course, as you read and get ideas for your own projects, you can include those as well. Best of all, you’ll have a place where you’ve listed everything you’ve read and by keeping notes, you’ll retain all of it much better.

Journal One, Journal All

Not all writers keep a journal. Especially with advancements in technology, writers are more and more likely to turn to their computers or handheld devices for all their writing needs. Don’t let technology stop you! You can always create writing journals using your computer. Start a document or blog and keep it up electronically. Traditionally, journal writing is done with pen and paper but that’s not a hard and fast rule.

But there is something to be said about putting pen to paper, something that the computer just can’t mimic.

What types of journals have you kept? Do you think journal writing is beneficial? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

The Creative Benefits of Journal Writing

journal writing

The creative benefits of journal writing.

Practice makes perfect, right?

That’s exactly why journal writing is essential for writers.

Do all writers keep journals? Of course not. But most of us have kept journals at some point, and for most of us, journal writing has been instrumental in generating ideas, developing a strong voice, and learning how to flesh thoughts out onto the page.

Journal writing is an excellent way to improve your writing by taking a little time out of each day to hone your skills. It’s perfect for stashing all those creative writing ideas that you just don’t have time to develop right now, and journal writing gives you an opportunity to explore your thoughts in greater detail and to access those thoughts that are somewhat elusive.


Morning Pages

artists way

Probably the most famous application of journal writing comes from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. In it, she encourages people who are trying to connect with creativity to write every single morning. “Three pages of whatever comes to your mind — that’s all there is to it.”

Writing morning pages is like boot camp for your muse. By writing every day at the same time, you train her to show up when you say it’s time to work. Cameron’s methodology also involves turning off the inner censor, that little voice that berates every sentence.

The key is to simply let the words flow.

Think about this — if you write three pages a day, then in seven days, you’ll have twenty-one pages. In a month, you’ll have about ninety pages and in one year, you’ll have well over a thousand pages. That’s a lot of creative material to pull ideas from. And that’s why journal writing is a great tool for all creative people.

Get on the Writer’s Express

If you’re new to writing or want to explore writing as a career or hobby, then journal writing is your ticket onto the expressway to becoming a writer. You can use your journal to draft stories, sketch characters, jot down poems, or record the events of your daily life. Maybe after one year and over a thousand pages, you’ll be able to do some editing and publish your memoir.

Journal writing is also great for commercial writers (technical writers, copywriters, etc.), who spend all day writing and editing copy for clients. This type of writing is a lot different than writing stories or poems, so journal writing can help to get your head out of business and into more creative forms of writing. The creativity you cultivate will then seep into your professional writing and it will become more vivid and engaging.

Sticking to a Schedule

Even if you don’t stick to a rigorous schedule, it’s important to journal somewhat regularly. This helps keep ideas and language flowing and helps you to build the journal writing habit. You may only be able to journal on weekends or on certain days of the week. While I do think sticking to a schedule (preferably daily) is the best way, it’s not always realistic.

The most important thing is that you commit to journal writing and then proceed to keep your journal with you or nearby at all times. You can also carry smaller notebooks or scraps of paper and either glue or tape them into your journal later.

You’ll Need a Journal

watson guptill sketchbook greenI’ve been writing a journal on and off for more years than I care to admit that I have under my belt. Throughout all those years, I’ve tried every type of journal under the sun, and finally, I found my favorite for journal writing.

Technically, the Watson-Guptill Sketchbook is just that, a sketchbook. The pages are blank instead of lined, so you can doodle and write sideways.

Some writers can journal using anything — composition books, legal pads, napkins. I can do that too, but I don’t feel the connection to it as when I have my own sacred space especially for journal writing.

When I journal, I usually do freewrites or describe the goings-on in my life. Sometimes I write about my goals or beliefs. Other times, I draw, and I usually do that with Crayola Markers of all things!

Journal Writing

Recently, I’ve got it into my head that I’ll start journal writing on the computer, now that I’ve got a shiny new Mac. But it’s just not the same as having that pen and paper in my hand. It’s almost like I’m closer to my creativity or my subconscious when I’m using a pen. I’m not sure if that’s true or even possible, but it sure feels that way.

Have you ever kept a journal? Do you keep one now? Let’s talk about how journal writing has impacted our writing or even our lives. And don’t forget to mention what type of book or paper you prefer to use for journal writing — or do you do it on the computer? Online? Is your blog your journal?

How Journal Writing Made a Writer of Me

journal writing

Many writers start their careers with journal writing

My first writing journal was a tiny diary that I received as a birthday present when I was a little girl. I regarded it as a log and wrote a few entries chronicling my daily life. It was boring, and I left most of the good stuff out for fear that someone in my family would find it and read my innermost thoughts. Soon, I gave up on it entirely.

Then, in junior high, which is really when the writer in me sprouted, I was required by my English teacher to keep a daily writing journal. We had about ten or fifteen minutes at the start of each class session to write in our journals. Sometimes we were given topics or a question to answer pertaining to the literature we were reading (Flowers for Algernon, for example). Usually, we had free reign and could write whatever we wanted.


I really liked this particular teacher, who happened to be a student teacher, and I opened up a lot in that journal. I talked about my family, friends, boys, and the general goings-on in my life. Sometimes he would comment on my entries and he was always thoughtful and respectful of everything I had to say. Most days, I would prefer to spend the entire class writing in that journal. I could go on and on and on…

Keeping a Writing Journal

That was eighth grade, and during the following summer, I continued to keep my journal. The practice had stuck and I found that I couldn’t stop. I used a half-sized spiral notebook and it doubled as a repository for my poetry and an outlet for the teen angst I was experiencing on an hourly basis.

Later, in high school, another teacher had our class keep journals, almost always using topics and questions. Sometimes the questions were very general (What should happen to drunk drivers?), and other times they were very specific (Is MacBeth good or evil?).  But about once a week we had “free topics” and I always reverted back to writing about my life. This teacher was the opposite of my eighth grade teacher – she was rude and confrontational. I remember once she actually insulted my boyfriend… in MY journal. But I secretly liked her too, because the insult was spot-on.

Journaling continued to pop up as I made my way though college. I kept literary journals, chronicling the many books, stories, and poems that I read as well as my reactions to the works. There were idea journals, dream journals, art journals, and eventually I drifted away from personal diary-type journaling. My need to use writing for expressing the frustrations of my teen years pretty much dried up, and I found a host of other things to journal about. I wrote about my thoughts on culture, politics, religion, and ideas for everything under the sun: books, films, websites, and more.

A Place to Write

I’ve gone through many writing journals since that first one, and I always have notebooks tucked away in every nook and cranny – they remind me that I always have a place to write, somewhere I can jot down my thoughts, explore my feelings, or work out the details of a story, poem, or blog post.

Writing poetry at a young age planted within me a love for wordplay, but journaling harnessed that passion and triggered a lifelong need to put my thoughts on the page (or on the screen, as the case may be). Whenever I reflect on my many writing journals, I smile when I remember that student teacher from eighth grade, and send him thoughts of gratitude for being second only to my mother in making a writer of me.

Do you keep a writing journal?