Creative Writing: Reflective Journaling

creative writing reflective journaling

Reflective journal writing cultivates personal awareness.

Technically, a journal is a chronological log. Many professionals keep journals, including scientists and ship captains. Their journals are strictly for tracking their professional progress.

A writer’s journal can hold many things: thoughts, ideas, stories, poems, and notes. It can hold dreams and doodles, visions and meditations. Anything that pertains to your creative writing ideas and aspirations can find a home inside your journal.

Today, let’s explore an intimate style of journal writing, one in which we write about our own lives.

Personal Journals and Creative Writing

Some personal journals are diaries. A diary is merely an account of one’s daily activities and experiences. In a diary, we record what we did each day.


A reflective journal is similar to a diary in that we document our experiences. However, reflective journal writing goes deeper than diary writing; it strives to gain greater understanding of our experiences rather than simply document them.

Reflective journaling is a form of creative writing that allow us to practice self-reflection, self-exploration, and self-improvement, and through reflective journal writing, we gain greater awareness through observation, contemplation, and writing. By chronicling various aspects of our lives, we become more self-aware.

Reflective Journal Writing

We all have stories to tell. With reflective journaling, you write about your own life, but you’re not locked into daily chronicles that outline your activities or what you had for dinner. You might write about something that happened when you were a small child. You might even write about something that happened to someone else — something you witnessed or have thoughts about that you’d like to explore. Instead of recounting events, you might write exclusively about your inner experiences (thoughts and feelings). Often, reflective journal writing reveals tests we have endured and lessons we have learned.

The Art of Recalibration (by Kristin Donovan, who is a sisterly spirit but no relation) is a perfect example of reflective journaling in which stories about our lives are interwoven with our ideas about life itself.

Reflective journal writing has other practical applications, too. Other forms of creative writing, such as poems and stories, can evolve from reflective journaling. And by striving to better understand ourselves, we may gain greater insight to others, which is highly valuable for fiction writers who need to create complex and realistic characters. The more deeply you understand people and the human condition, the more relatable your characters will be.

Do You Keep a Journal?

I guess I’m a journal slob because my journal has a little bit of everything in it – drawings, personal stories, rants, and reflections. It’s mostly full of freewrites and poetry. I realize that a lot of writers don’t bother with journals at all; they want to focus on the work they intend to publish. But I think journal writing is healthy and contributes to a writer’s overall, ongoing growth.

I once read a comment on a blog by a writer who said she didn’t keep a journal because she couldn’t be bothered with writing down the events of each day; I found it curious that she had such a limited view of what a journal could hold. A journal doesn’t have to be any one thing. It can be a diary, but it can also be a place where we write down our ideas, plans, and observations. It can hold thoughts and feelings, but it can also be a place where we doodle and sketch stories and poems.

I’m curious about your journal. Do you keep one? What do you write in it? Is your journal private or public? Is it a spiral-bound notebook or a hardcover sketchbook? Does journal writing inspire or inform your other creative writing projects? Tell us all about it by leaving a comment, and keep on writing!

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

54 Responses to “Creative Writing: Reflective Journaling”

  1. Mamo says:

    Hello. I keep writing refrective journal in Japanese. Now I’m trying to it in English. My dream is publish my book of English someday.Mamo

  2. BJ Keltz says:

    Except for a few short months following an interstate move in December, I’ve faithfully kept a journal for 24 years. It’s reflective, it’s prayer, it’s story starts, character sketches, research and notes, it’s sometimes a rant, and usually how I see the world and my take on life. There’s just no way I function well without the journal. It fills some deep need for reflection and observation, but also the need to physically write, which is soothing and mind-ordering for me.

    • 24 years is a long time! I’m impressed. Wait… that’s about how long I’ve kept a journal too! However, I haven’t been that faithful about it. There are weeks and months when I’m writing so much in other forms (blogging, fiction, etc.), that my journal gets neglected. I admire anyone who can stick with it over the long haul. No wonder you’re such a good writer!

    • Anuja says:

      It is wonderful to know that others in this world feel this way. Journaling does seem to help me fell aggreable about the events and happenings that were wholesomel and settle the ones that were not. I never thought of writing as soothing and wondered about dragon voice recognition to do the writing for me, but it just does not have the right feel. So I have stayed with hand writing to record my experiences in this fleeting life.

      • I have to confess I’m not a fan of voice recognition software except in cases where it helps people who are disabled and cannot type or write. The act of writing, of putting words down on paper or typing them onto a screen, is how we learn vocabulary, sentence structure, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Otherwise, we’re just dictating, and that’s not writing.

        Yes, I definitely believe that journaling is good for working out problems and celebrating life’s blessings. :)

        • Denise says:

          Just today I was visiting with my pastor about this very topic. He wants to journal so he could revisit his thinking from time to time but is too impatient with handwriting. He uses Dragon Writing for dictating sermons, etc. and mentioned he might try it for journaling as well. Whatever works! I’m a big fan of handwriting and I occassionally type journal entries, print them and glue them into my journal. My journals include bits of everything – handwritten entries about my life, copies of special emails, images and articles I run across, quotes, creative sign copy I see while traveling, etc. etc. I tend to keep a separate travel journals and include bits of info from local newspapers, promotional brochures, etc. Other than travel, I like to have everything in one journal.

        • I’m a one-journal person, too, although I have notebooks for various purposes: one for my blog, one for my client work, and another for a fiction project. I don’t consider those journals. My journal is for ideas, personal thoughts, and poetry. Keep writing!

  3. C. says:

    I write essay and poetry, and I also keep a journal. I write stream of conscious sessions or dive into explanations of what I’m trying to say ina poem or essay. I also write book reviews and thoughts on what I’m reading. Rant too. All kinds of stuff.

    • I love stream-of-consciousness writing sessions too, although I usually call it freewriting. It’s the ultimate adventure in writing for me :) and it generates so much great, raw, creative material. A really good session actually feels magical.

  4. Ann says:

    I’ve kept a journal since the early 1970s as a record of the things going on around me in my life, events, good and not so good things. It is a record of my life. I don’t know if anyone will read it after I am gone, but it has been handy for me at times. When I wanted to know when a certain event happened, I look back in my journal. Because people know I keep a regular journal, I have often had others call and ask me when such and such happened and I am able to find it.

    • I think your journal will be a wonderful record of your life, something you could pass along as an heirloom or donate to an archival library. I know lots of historical writers love to dig through those archives and learn about people’s lives. I think that’s so cool!

      • Ann says:

        Thanks, but I doubt that it will ever make it into an archives. I will just be happy if my children and grandchilren appreciate it. I have read that people put all kinds of things into their journals, but this one is a life journal. That is one reason I started using some of your ideas for different kinds of journals. I have started a reading journal going all the way back to when I can remember reading, recording some of my experiences and favorite books and so on. I am doing in that way as more of a legacy in the hopes that someday my grandchildren who are avid readers (and possibly a few budding writers as well) will enjoy reading about their grandma’s reading adventures. It definitely has to be what works for a person, or they wouldn’t be motivated to write in it.

        • What a wonderful legacy — such a treasure :) Your children and grandchildren are very lucky!

        • Denise says:

          I agree your grandchildren are fortunate. I recently acquired a copy of my great, great aunt’s journal. It is priceless to me and gave me so many new insights into “pioneer days” when she and her family were traveling across the prarie during the land run in Oklahoma.

  5. Jean Wise says:

    I have kept a journal for years. It does reflect what is happening in my life but is more conversations with God, my hopes and dreams, my discernments and my frustrations. I know someday my kids will read them but on a whole I am very honest in them. One of the best habits I have is to ‘harvest’ them, rereading what I write and highlighting certain passage. Get double benefits from that.

    I have my great Aunt’s 60 plus years of journal and want to do something with them someday. I have a friend who typed out all of his grandfathers journals, gleaned nuggets of thoughts and wisdom and published a book for his family. Isn’t that cool?

    Thanks for good thought today!

    • I love the double benefits of journaling. In my family, there has only been one journal/diary that I know of and I believe they threw it away because it was full of so much smack-talk about other family members. I read it and didn’t think it was all that bad, but someone got offended and our little family heirloom got tossed. Ugh, what a shame. I kind of wish someone had redacted the offending passages. Anyway, yes, one thing about journals is that “one day someone will read them.” People need to keep that in mind. Thanks Jean :)

  6. Hannah Kincade says:

    I’ve been keeping a journal since I’ve been able to write. It was full of angst during my teen years, but since adulthood, it’s been mostly filled with observations and just whatever’s on my mind that day. Some could be called writing exercises, but I think they’re more like Morning Pages purging my mind of whatever ails it, to free it up for fiction writing.

    • I was a big teen ranter and whiner too (in my journal). I did morning pages for a while and enjoyed them very much, but I’m not a morning person, so eventually I switched. Now, I guess I write Night Pages, except I call them Moonlight Pages. Ha!

  7. Fernanda says:

    Hi melissa,

    Great post! I do have a journal and I write there everything you have mentioned: ideas, thought, insights, things I observe around, small stories that come out of my mind in the middle of a train ride.

    Regards,
    Fernanda

    • I love the multipurpose journal best of all. There are so many different types of journals and who needs a hundred different notebooks floating around? I’m right there with you Fernanda, although I do have special notebooks for fiction and blogging. Everything else goes into my journal though.

  8. Tiffiny says:

    Nice post with some great ideas. As to your questions, I guess I’m a journal slob too. My journal has a little bit of everything and I often put in story ideas and story beginnings. So you could say I get a lot of my writing from what began in my journal. As to what type of journal, I have recently started to keep mine at an online private journaling source, makes it really easy and convenient.

    Thanks for posting this.

    • I’m curious about private online journaling. Do you worry about a third party having control over your journal? Do you back it up locally? I can’t journal electronically anyway. For some reason, I write all poetry and journaling (plus some fiction) longhand. I would love a tablet with a stylus!

      • Tiffiny says:

        I just started using the online journaling a couple of months ago. I use penzu.com, supposedly they use the same encryption that the military uses plus you can lock your journals with two pass codes and no one is suppose to be able to access it but you, not even their staff. You can also download it or print it out at anytime. I use to journal on my computer, because I can type faster than I can write longhand. But constantly downloading to cd and having to upload it each type I wanted to use a different computer was a real pain. I’ve lost journals due to viruses or corrupted cd’s. This way it’s all backedup automatically so I don’t have to worry about losing anything, and I can access it from anywhere. It’s really nice.

        • Thanks Tiffiny — I certainly see the benefits of storing a journal online. I guess everything will eventually move to the cloud. Normally, I’m all in favor of technological advances, but storing my stuff (journals, photos, music) somewhere other than my own memory drives is one advance I’m not crazy about. I like the idea but am fixed on having my own backup :) Anyway, I’ll definitely look into penzu.com. That sounds pretty cool!

  9. Nicole Rushin says:

    I don’t go anywhere without my spiral notebook. I don’t really call it a journal, though. I write everything in it. From grocery lists to affirmations. I tend to think of a journal as being more personal. I cannot underatand a writer who does not keep some form of journal with them at all times. I guess they figure the good ideas will rise to the top.

    • I kind of understand the good-ideas-rise-to-the-top concept now. A while back, I started conceptualizing a novel and I would just think about my ideas throughout the day — for several months — and didn’t write anything down. And it worked. The best ideas stuck, so then I moved on to brainstorming and note taking. But generally, I write everything down and keep little notebooks stashed in places where I might need them in a pinch (my car, purse, nightstand).

  10. VJP says:

    I journaled frequently during our Peace Corps experiences in Ukraine and posted them on my website so they were availableto the public. I was amazed how many people followed them. I received many e-mails from total strangers who were living vicariously through my journals. When we returned to th euSA, we decided to do a stint in AmeriCorps*VISTA and because of my journals, someone contacted me and offered us wonderful housing (a housesitting arrangement) for the duration of our tenure. My journaling is generally reflective. I also do “morning pages” (a la “The Artist’s Way”)…these tend to be rants or details of my day or dreams and schemes and plans…these are private, unedited, quickly tapped out and I do not share them since they may be too intimate or revealing. (I use 750words.com and write as fast as I can for 20 minutes every day – no editing and no thinking just hit it sister!)
    It is amazing to look back at my journals and relive my thoughts and obeservations. I recommend doing this kind of daily writing. It is cathartic, healing and helps one know themselves. Life is good.
    “Ginn”
    In Steamy SC
    http://www.pulverpages.com (look for my Ukrainian journals there and my Malawi journals and find a link to my blog on my Camino from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela)

    • I will definitely go check out your journals and 750words.com (I’ve never heard of that site). I love a fast, intense writing session with no editing. That’s where all my best material comes from :)

  11. Amelie says:

    I used to keep diaries when I was a kid and teenager. The ones from my teens were mainly public blogs and I wrote on them nearly everyday. In my twenties I’ve kept a private hardback journal where I write about experiences I don’t want to forget, feelings, stories, lyrics, doodles, rants, etc. I write pretty much anything I want to write about. Sometimes it helps me sort things out and other times it inspires me to write about something.

    • It is so weird to me that kids these days are keeping public diaries on their blogs. Blogs didn’t exist when I was a teenager (and I’m grateful for that!). When I was a teen and in my twenties, I always wrote down my favorite song lyrics (and made up plenty of my own too). What I love best about journaling is that anything goes. It’s my writing space and I can whatever I want there :) and so can you!

  12. Margaret says:

    Hi Melissa,
    I’ve kept some form of journal writing for years, but in a more deliberately conscious manner for about 8 years, in which I include, as you say, ‘free writes,’ which are so great for personal growth and awareness, as well as sudden insights about family and relationships and story ideas. I love my journal and, as I say, in recent years, keep it handy with me wherever I go.

    • That’s so interesting because I never get personal insights from my freewrites — just a lot of raw material that I can shape into something like a poem or song. I guess when I do focused freewrites, I solve problems, but in those cases, the freewrite has an intent (as opposed to just writing anything that comes to mind). That’s what I love about freewriting — there are so many different ways to use it :)

  13. Yvonne Root says:

    Melissa,

    This is the first time I’ve responded to one of your posts. Yet, you can rest assured that I read them faithfully. Why? Because, um, well, uh, because they are just so darn good!

    I learn from you and enjoy the process.

    Before I say how I use my journals, I must disclose that I am part owner of a business which sells guided journals as well as a home study course about how to get the most out of using a journal.

    My first introduction to journal keeping came while I was in college. I treated the process poorly. I was a very bad date for my poor journal. You can say that while he was always faithful to me I certainly was not that to him.

    Later, peer pressure from some very wonderful friends had me reaching for another blank book.

    Now, well let’s just say my journals and I have become dearest of friends.

    There is one journal which is different from all my others. I began it four years ago and there are only a few pages used. Yet, this journal is used faithfully as it was intended to be used. Once a year my granddaughter and I have a Christmas Tea. After our tea I record things about the tea and ask for her input. She will be six years old when we have our tea this year. This will be the first year her own pen will touch the page.

    My desire is that she continue the Christmas Tea Celebration as well as the recording of the event after my death. Perhaps her mom or a friend will join her. Some day her own daughter may be her guest.

    At any rate, the treasure she and I are creating together is worth more than any gold I might think of leaving her.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Yvonne. Your Christmas Tea Celebration and its accompanying journal is a beautiful idea. What a wonderful thing to share with the little ones. I think it’s a lovely tradition :)

  14. Kristy @PampersandPinot says:

    Yes, I always keep a journal. My thing is to not put any rules on it or it stresses me out. So, it is chaotic, unorganized, pages ripped out, stuff written here and there, scribbles, magazine clippings stuffed inside, pictures stuffed in. Messy.

    • Rules are stressful, aren’t they? I find that sometimes rules promote creativity but other times (like in my own journal), they hinder it, so I’m with you Kristy :) I like a messy journal.

  15. Neha says:

    Your post is wondeful!! I do have a journal about which i had forgotten for almost a month :/ Reading your post just reminded of the fact that it was only because of constant reflective writing in my journal that i realised that this (writing) was what i want to do for my entire life! Thank you :)

    • I think a lot of writers start out by keeping a journal. There’s something about journal writing that comes naturally to certain people and it makes sense that they would go on to become writers ;)

  16. lily says:

    Hey

    I started to keep an everyday journal when I was going through a tough time (about 4yrs now), it was suggested to me and ever since I’ve been keeping one. It’s great to get things out,sometimes though it’s hard to put everything down because I’m afraid someone will read it (because they would if they found it).lol but I use my journal for writing thoughts, feelings about things and people,memories,dreams/nightmares, I write about events that have happened too good and bad, I do drawings,sketches,poems,favorite quotes, stick in fav pics etc. Basically a bit of everything!! I prefer leather bound journals with plain paper but at the mo I’m trying out an art blanc journal because the design caught my eye,not to fond of being restricted to lines though! :)
    I hope I keep one on into my life,sometimes I forget how helpful it is.

    Great post! :D

    • Your journal sounds a lot like mine! I do have a suggestion for you. If you are uncomfortable writing your private thoughts in your journal because you’re worried someone will invade your privacy, you might develop a code system or use images instead of text to express certain ideas. I used to use code names for people and I would sometimes write certain key words in another language or using icons. It also makes journaling a little more interesting ;)

  17. Marlon says:

    I call my journals Daily Milestones, because that’s what life feels like to me. Even in the most mundane days where I don’t engage in many activities, I can still have an epiphany in some way or another. If I’ve had an activity packed day or week, then I can go off even more!

    I also like titling each entry with something witty like Planting Seeds in the Sandbox because it sometimes keeps the focus and intent of a certain entry. That one in particular is about how life is like a giant sandbox and how we, like children, like to play different roles. We plant “seeds” of our imagination to sprout into our reality.

    When I first started keeping a journal in 2009, my entries would just be positive messages and revelations about life, but as time went on, they became more personal. I began writing about actual events in my day rather than just abstract inspirations. It felt odd to write about what happened in my day and even more weird to write how I felt about different aspects of the day and my life. I realized if I’m not gonna be honest with myself, especially where I have all the space and time to do so; what chance would I have with being honest with other people or in my creative writing?

    It’s really helpful as a fiction writer to keep a journal because I notice a lot of recurring themes to write about: Reminders of how to remain on the path of truth and virtue amongst the many others that would take too much space in my post. One thing I find is how I judge/commend other people. When I write about other people they feel like they become fictional characters because of how I pick apart their faults and qualities. It helps me see them multidimensionally and transfer that realism in the characters I create in my stories.

    And of course all this leads to a massive insight to self discovery as I find myself revisitting old entries just in case I’ve strayed from the path.

    • Thank you Marion, for sharing your experience with reflecting journal writing and explaining how it has benefitted you as a writer, storyteller, and human being. What a wonderful testimonial!

  18. sue jeffels says:

    Hi Melissa, sounds like your reflective journal is much like mine, with ideas, lists, doodles and plenty of free writing and first drafts of poem. I also note down story ideas and scraps of conversation or a phrase from someone else’s poem or story – so I suppose mine is a journal cum writer;s notebook. I also have a pad specifically for things to do and also my diary and when I look through they also seem to be combination of things, sometimes including pitching ideas and client requests.

  19. Bill Polm says:

    Hi Melissa,

    I have been filling sketchbooks for years as a way of developing my watercolor painting skills, but I am a writer too, so inevitably I worte abd write a lot too, sometimes more than I sketched.
    Currrently, my main journal is a sewn-binding refill from Renaissance-Art. I have about 14 of them filled. I use mostly the 5.5 x 8.5 size and put my own hardbound covers on them when done, usualy with a sketch or writing on it and imitation leather trip. I use them for sketches on the spot or from photos, like a scrapbook at times, pasting in photos and this and that. An yes, resflections, insights, acconts of evens and trips, just about anything.

    Good post, as usual. Thanks.

    B

  20. RICH SATTANNI says:

    I honestly don’t keep a journal,but I periodicaly write in a tablet ideas for new story development.
    ps.I have a book out the title is THE SIR DAVID THOMAS SERIES.Perhaps it may be something you would like to read.

  21. Afshin says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Honestly, i also don’t keep a journal, but I’d write my story ideas, probable developments of them , brainy quotes by others in every-day life and any interesting observation in my phone, laptop, or on a variety of papers (which do not form a notebook in whole!).
    But I have a separate notebook to jot down ideas for my thesis research report. I guess I’ll keep on writing my creative notes also in future in the same manner.

    Afshin

    • Yes, now with all these electronic devices, I think a lot of writers’ notes are becoming spread out. I use Evernote, which syncs to all my devices, including my computer. It has tons of great features — for example, you can clip stuff from the web. You can also create multiple notebooks.

  22. Natti says:

    Hi Melissa,
    Personally, I love keeping journals. I have multiple journals for different things. My private journal is just a regular composition notebook where I write down basically all my thoughts and things that happen to me. Occasionally, I paste pictures and articles. Another journal I keep is a spiral-bound notebook where I write down ideas, poems, short stories, etc. I have a couple of those, and I tend to read through them from time to time. I find it helpful to keep journals, that way, I can see the progress I’ve made over the years.

    • I love flipping through my old idea journals. I often find little treasures that I’ve forgotten about! Sometimes I even find an old idea that I’m now ready to use.

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