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?). ย 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?

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.


56 Responses to “How Journal Writing Made a Writer of Me”

  1. t. sterling says:

    I mostly used LiveJournal in my later years, like high school to college, and eventually just disppeared altogether feeling that I “grew out” of that and it just became a writing place for drama and not knowing who might read it. But it did in fact serve a purpose in being one of many creative outlets for me, especially during a time when I was too scared to speak aloud in front of people or even confront close friends about something serious. I also had a dream journal on LiveJournal… but that only lasted a month or so.

    During that time, I also had a “hard copy” journal which was any notebook I hadn’t filled up with schoolwork. It contained funny quotes I overheard, random ideas for future poems or scripts, doodles, and general thoughts. An art teacher (who helped a lot in my early writing career) gave me a sketch book which became a drawing journal. I don’t do much drawing or painting these days, I’m enjoying using words to do that.

    I kept a tiny notebook I could fit in my pocket that I tried to take everywhere, but eventually started falling apart. I almost filled this journal with poems, ideas for stories and scripts.

    Last year my friend gave me a Moleskine after hearing this sad story of me not carrying around that flimsy piece of pretend notebook anymore and being paperless when great ideas strike. So this new journal is much more durable and has lots more space. I’m only worried someone might pickpocket me thinking it’s a wallet. I think I might be more heartbroken if they stole my notebook instead of my wallet. It was a long answer, but yes, I keep a writing journal.

    • Everybody talks about these Moleskines and I don’t even think I’ve seen one in a store. I just have to check them out – sooner or later. I think it’s essential for writers to keep something on them at all times that they can use to jot down thoughts and ideas. I have notebooks all over the place and my new phone lets me write notes (and blogs, and tweets, and… lots more). Unfortunately, I’m at the computer so much, I rarely need to use all those notebooks…

      • t.sterling says:

        I never knew where to find them either, but now I do! Borders bookstore has them, I don’t know if you have that chain out west… but perhaps other bookstores carry them. Or, if you can’t leave the computer, order one or a few from Amazon.

        I had no idea what a Moleskine was until it was given to me. The one I have is like 5in by 3in or something. I’ll verify later.

        t.sterlings last blog post..can’t end a vacation without a good breakfast

        • We have a small independent bookstore here in town, so I’ll check to see if they have Moleskines next time I go there. Otherwise, I might have to wait until my next Amazon order. I’ll bump into a Moleskine eventually, I’m sure ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Adam says:

    I keep a few journals. I have a small pocket Moleskine that I use for general writing and notes to myself, whether it be for blogging, fiction, errands I need to run or measurements I need to remember. I’ve also got a few others on the go, generally more focused on specific topics, but they’re all a huge part in my development as a writer.

    Just the act of regularly putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) is a huge source of growth and development.

    • Hmm, here’s a Moleskine mention again. One thing I especially love using my writing journals for would be brainstorming and hashing out ideas. For some reason, it’s just not the same on the computer – plus I like to use all sorts of colored pens and make sketches, things I just can’t do on my laptop. You’re right – there’s nothing quite like putting pen to paper. I even have a business journal that I use to keep notes and ideas for my business and clients. I’m not sure what it is about the pen/paper but I think it has something to do with it being more tactile and maybe it engages the senses better (?).

  3. Brad says:

    Hi Melissa!

    I don’t keep a writing journal, but I do keep a reading journal where I write my thoughts about the current book I’m reading (very nerdish, I know).

    I have kept other journals on and off over the years. I’m thinking about starting a new one where I can write about all the boring, detailed minutia of my everyday life.

    Great post, keep up the good work!


  4. Kiana says:

    i love that! i’m actually a young writer myself, and i found that article both in sighting and inspiring. truly and deeply from the bottom of my heart, i loved reading this. thank you.

  5. Iain Broome says:

    It’s a Moleskine all the way for me. I also keep a ‘by week’ diary that has a notepad on the opposite page for my to do list that week. So it’s diary/to do list.

    That means I my journal is free for story ideas, blog posts etc.

    Iain Broomes last blog post..10 things to write on in an emergency!

  6. Marelisa says:

    Hi Melissa: I guess it’s like playing the guitar every day to get really good at it. Writing on a regular basis since a young age is definitely something that will help you develop strong writing muscles. She insulted your boyfriend in your journal, the nerve! :-)

    (Oh, and Roger von Oech stopped by my blog and left a comment on the post I wrote about his work :-) ).

    • She did insult him and like I said – she was totally right ๐Ÿ˜‰ hehee! Oh if I’d only listened to her! I have always been far better at practicing my writing than I ever was at practicing the guitar. In fact my guitar is sitting in the corner right now, collecting dust. So sad. Maybe one of these days…

      Hey, that’s awesome that Roger von Oech left a comment on your post. I’m going to go read it in a minute but I know that feels pretty good – when I wrote a post about Cristin O’Keefe Aptowitcz, she sent me an email and a copy of her book – and I was absolutely ecstatic. It totally made my day! Congrats!

  7. Wendy Sullivan says:

    I used to keep a leather journal until I started blogging. What began as a purely political exercise soon turned into a heap for me to dump personal crap on, too. It’s cathartic, but not recommended. I get a lot of web-based abuse from it!


    • When I was a kid, I journaled a lot of personal stuff and the older I got, the less I liked reading it. One of these days, I’ll burn those old journals, I swear. Some of it is good but mostly it’s just a lot of unloading. At some point, my focus shifted and things got interesting. I think that happened because I went back and read a bunch of old stuff and I just didn’t like it. Yes, writing it was cathartic but reading it back was just disturbing. I’d rather turn it into a short story or poem ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. Karen Swim says:

    Hi Melissa, happy 2009! I love journals and I have kept one off and on since about age 11. I have journals for life, writing, dreams, ideas, notes, and prayers. Not to mention the notebooks in addition to the journals. LOL!

    • A writer can’t have enough journals and notebooks, can she? I have over a dozen unused blank books and notebooks and it’s become somewhat of a collection. I love them all (and some are quite beautiful!). I just don’t know how I’ll ever fill them all up!

  9. Kelvin Kao says:

    Man, I’ll never understand the obsession with Moleskines…

    In elementary school and middle school, we kept journals. They are more like diaries and since my parents and teachers would look at them, I tend to just write about what happened that day instead of what I was thinking. In high school, we also had to turn in journals, but this is a weekly journal. Sometimes the teacher would assign a topic, and sometimes she doesn’t. She is really cool though. I tend to write stuff that mocks how stupid, boring, or meaningless the assigned topic is, or write parodies or satires… and the teacher doesn’t mind at all. That was a good time. I still have that journal sitting on my shelf.

    In college, since it was no longer homework, I stopped journaling. One year my sister gave me a planner that she’s not using (she bought the wrong one… one that’s based on calendar year instead of school year) and I began using it as a planner… except I soon realize that I don’t plan much. What a waste of space! I started writing down what happened that day, instead. Very soon, I started to find the space to be confining, and typing is faster. That’s when I started a Xanga blog. I used to write every day for about a year and half. I still write in it to this day, just not as often.

    A few years ago I read about WordPress and decided to have a new blog, seperating the stuff I write about puppets from other personal stuff. Nowadays I write there more often.

    Recently I started a paper-based journal again. It was one of those notebooks with company logo on it, given to me as a gift for participating in my friend’s company’s open house. It was perfect because it was not too big, not to small. It was spiral-bound so it’s easy to write in. Also there’s a slot for pen so I always have the pen as long as I have my journal. I used it more as an ideas journal. I write down whatever that I can use later for scripts, blog posts, or other random projects. It’s more of a bullet point one instead of poetry or prose. It also doubles as a to-do list and calendar for me. I now carry it with me at all times.

    Kelvin Kaos last blog post..Goodbye 2008, Hello 2009!

    • Hi Kelvin, Sounds like you have tried a few different types of journals and finally found one that works just right for you. I’m a fan of the spiral-bound notebook too, and I’m not sure what all the fuss is about Moleskines (thought I’m determined to find out). Keep up the writing and the journaling :)

  10. Christine says:

    I used to keep a journal when I was in high school, although in grade school we were made to keep a journal every Monday. Usually we were instructed to write about what we did on the weekend, and now I have a cute little journal full of spelling mistakes and adventures from when I was 8 years old. While in high school, I hardly worked on homework, but instead my journals were pieces of art. Part scrapbook, part journal…
    In university I quit, but started writing freelance. Now I have about 4 journals I carry with me off and on. Mostly for ideas, and to jot down story lines. So I keep a writing journal of sorts, and can’t do without. Most of the time ideas come to me while I’m away from my desk, and when I sit at my computer pondering about what to write nothing comes to me. A journal is a fantastic solution!

    • Your high school journal sounds like a lot of fun! That’s why I use blank books (with unlined pages) – so I can doodle and paste, but I rarely have time to do all that lately. Soon though… Journals are just a great way to keep track of everything and they’re fun to go through later – I often go through my old journals and discover tons of ideas that I’ve forgotten.

  11. Yes Melissa I do. It was a dark and stormy night. Yes literally. I remember the day (night) clearly, when I opened a notebook sitting idly on my bookshelf and attacked the pages with my raw, tumbling emotions.

    I had journaled off and on since my teen years but it took an emotional hurricane for me to delve into journaling with passion. Now, I keep 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.

    A small journal lives in my handbag to capture ideas for my weekly column that I might gather from magazines at the doctor’s office, the hair salon or conversations I overhear at the mall.

    I can’t imagine my life or my writing functioning with any success or satisfaction without a journal.

    Cheryl Wrights last blog post..My apologizes

    • Hi Cheryl! I feel the same way – my writing just wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have a journal. Most of my writing now is done on blogs so my fiction/poetry journal is a bit skimpy – but the notebook I use for business is jam-packed with notes and ideas.

  12. Deb says:

    Hm, so which came first the journaling or the writing? I’m not sure I can say with certainty.

    I remember getting a little red 5-year diary with the lock and key in either 6th or 7th grade. It was one of those with about 3 tiny lines per day. Over the next 5 or 6 years I made some cryptic notes (emphasis on cryptic as in coded) about particularly stressful events that I had no confidante to vent with.

    In college I went on a semester abroad as a “branch” campus and the lit prof required journals of the experience with 3-5 entries a week. This should have been a positive activity but I was not having a typical semester experience and writing about it was not an option at the time.

    In spite of those less than typical prewriting adventures I still got excited about writing for the school paper and the local paper’s high school journalism workshop every week. And while part of me still loves journalism, or maybe loves the idea of being a journalist, I’m not fool enough to think that anybody is going to hire me to be a full-time print journalist. I’m lucky to have a weekly column to cut my teeth on for developing skills, like interviewing and storytelling, I can implement in some other realm.

    But starting to journal for myself in later years literally saved my life when the junk from the past began to refuse to be addressed and dealt with and I’ve been journaling ever since. I do think I will go back and recopy the best parts of old journals because they are such a road map of my journey to becoming who I am today.

    I read that even L M Montgomery edited her journals before she died because she understood that fans and researchers would dig through them eventually.

    PS: I don’t do Moleskin because they are so expensive I would feel bound to only write something profound in them instead of using them in a way they suits my process.

    Debs last blog post..2009 Word of the Year: Cultivate

    • Deb, it sounds like journaling has been a boon for you over the years, even though you got off to a rocky start with journal writing. Isn’t it odd how fans and researchers flock to the unpublished notes and writings of dead authors? I’ve always thought that was strange and maybe a violation – but I’m not sure.

      • Deb says:

        @Melissa – I think it depends. Montgomery had stipulations but bequeathed her journals to the university. I think she realized that fans weren’t able to separate Lucy from Anne; maybe she couldn’t either. I thought “Kindred Spirits” was the most sensitive of the biographies that I read and much came from her released journals and letters. They do help make sense of her rapid demise and death.

        Debs last blog post..Red-tailed Hawk outside my window

  13. B J Keltz says:

    I’m not a Moleskine girl. I got hooked on Clairfontaine when I ordered them for my online store and never looked back (the ones I use are $7 and 7.50 a pop for 90 pages, so I’m happy. :) ). I also have theme books, loose leaf, small dollar store hardbacks, and a nice leather journal stashed in various places in the house, car, and at work. Gotta have em!

    I’ve kept a journal since before Junior High, I guess, but have kept one unbroken for 23 years straight (wow, almost 24). By the time I decided I’d pursue additional writing endeavors, my voice and style were well defined (for better or worse).

    Thanks for your post. Bookmarked for Saturday link love. :)

    B J Keltzs last blog post..With Gratitude

    • Wow BJ – 24 years! You’re dedicated to your journal! Sometimes a few months go by and I haven’t written in mine at all – though that usually means I’ve been jotting notes in some other format like a notebook or computer. My favorite journal is actually an artist’s sketchbook by Watson Guptill – hardcover, blank, unlined pages, lots of pages, and under $10. They also come in a bunch of different colors. I think the one I’m using now is purple, but it’s wrapped in a nice cover so I’m not sure. I keep a little stockpile of those plus a bunch of others. My little collection ๐Ÿ˜‰

  14. Friar says:

    Okay…correct me if I’m wrong.

    But a Moleskine is just a fancy type of hardcover notepad/book that you can write in, correct?

    Wow…I never imagined such a thing could exist!

    WHAT will they think of next? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Friars last blog post..Grampa Friar Remembers Telephones

  15. Michele says:

    I’ve always kept a journal, too. Or, should I say: several journals! Like you, I have stacks of notebooks, drawers filled with notebooks, notebooks in my purse, my laptop bag… I even have a small one in my camera bag! Of course, that means I need to keep pens everywhere. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I love how you share in this post and we can “see” how keeping a journal from a young age nurtured the writer in you. It definitely worked because you’re simply an awesome and talented writer today. Here’s to a fantabulous 2009!


  16. Bobby Revell says:

    Hi Melissa! I have a few journals. One is a simple notepad and pen I carry with me at all times in my pocket and car–just in case. Luckily, I have a good memory, so I rarely forget ideas. I also have a personal journal and use mind map programs (something that took a while to get used to, but I’ve learned to make use of). I basically don’t adhere to a schedule and work mostly from home now. I write constantly–so much in fact it has become an obsessive addiction. I have to make myself take breaks LOL! :smile:

    I’m glad you had some good teachers, not all are.

    • Hey Bobby, Isn’t it fun having those notebooks tucked away in convenient spots? I haven’t tried any mind-mapping programs but I’ve done it using paper and pen. It’s extremely helpful, especially for broad ideas. Yes, I’m lucky that a few of my teachers did a good job ๐Ÿ˜‰

  17. Amy says:

    Hey Melissa,

    I know I’m late to the party… but I had to come back and tell you I love this post very much. Those paper journals of mine are priceless. Even the ones I only wrote one page in — they are many.

    • Thanks Amy! No worries. I’m late to the after party! I love going through my old poetry journals and digging up little treasures I wrote long ago. One of these days I’ll do something with all of them…

  18. Melissa,
    Thanks for sharing your writing journey!
    It gives me belief that one day i will become a writer too
    So far I am blogging and enjoy it a lot.
    I have so much to share about success and failure, but I guess the trick is sharing it the way so that my message would touch a reader’s heart – that’s something i need to master.
    Thanks for the inspiration.

    Alik Levin | PracticeThis.coms last blog post..Ask Your Customersโ€™ Friends – Your Growth Hides There

    • Hi Alik, If you write, then you are already a writer! Journaling and blogging are great ways to write regularly and that’s exactly how you’ll hone your writing into whatever you want it to be – heartfelt and inspired ๐Ÿ˜‰

  19. ScreenwritingforHollywood says:

    The two published journals that have most impacted me are those of Anais Nin and Anne Frank.

  20. Ann says:

    I just found this site. I’ve enjoyed reading it and some of the comments. I notice that many times you mention pen and paper as opposed to a computer. I have felt the same way, but was beginning to think it was just an excuse not to write. I feel so much better. I’ve kept a life journal for over 30 years, and a goal setting one off and on for about five. But my creative imagination has been unleashed and I am going to start a few more. Thanks.

    • I’m not sure if I feel more creative with pen and paper because that’s all there was to write with when I was a kid and first started writing or because there’s something inherently more creative about working with pen and paper. I’ve heard many writers say that pen and paper brings about better creativity so you and I are not alone. I just can’t shake the curiosity of how, exactly, this little phenomenon works. You said that using pen and paper felt like an excuse for not writing but when you’re working with pen and paper, you are writing, right? Keep doing whatever works best for you!

      • Ann says:

        I just read within the past couple of days that writing longhand rather than typing is more theraputic because of the part of the brain that is being used during the process. That makes sense to me. I have written like crazy since I first saw your post on the different types of journals. I spent some time counting up all the various journals I do have–some you have listed and some of my own making such as a quilt journal, a crafts journal and a projects to do journal. It has definitely done something to my soul to sit and write by hand.

        • That’s interesting, although I’m not surprised. I’d love to see a study on longhand versus typing. I always wonder if there is a scientific reason or if it has to do with the fact that when I first started writing, a notebook was pretty much my only option. I should probably research it and answer my question for once and for all. It definitely does something to my soul, too. Journal writing has its own special magic :)

  21. Gabrielle says:

    I have been a journal writer for many years since finding I could work through some of the past in this way. Writing things down opened up more and more pathways in understanding. It’s an important part of my life and I am writing daily for absolute pleasure.

    I would like to know how to turn my journal full of thoughts, ideas, knowledge and learnings into my creative writing. It’s natural for me to write but how do I create this way ?

    • Well, when you write, you are creating. I think you’re trying to ask how you can shift from personal writing to some form that you could submit and/or publish. There are so many forms that you could explore, and some are closely related to journaling. For example, you might look into writing personal essays and memoirs. Some articles, columns, and blogs are also based on personal experiences. I can’t recommend poetry writing enough — even if you don’t want to be a poet — reading and writing a little poetry will sharpen your writing skills in immeasurable ways. And of course, you can always turn your own life stories into fiction. Just embellish them :)


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