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 its 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.

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. 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.
  3. Write with colored pens, crayons, or Sharpies.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 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.
  7. 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!
  8. 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.”
  9. 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!”
  10. 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).
  11. 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.”
  12. 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:

  • Karen Swim has journals “for life, writing, dreams, ideas, notes, and prayers.” She mentioned all 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 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

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.


42 Responses to “A Messy, Liberating Guide to Journal Writing”

  1. Erika says:

    I always hesitate to have a journal. What if someone finds it? How can I be honest and loose in it if I’m constantly thinking that it will get into the wrong hands? How do others handle this?

    • There are a few things you can do, Erika. First, you can write in code. If you just want to keep track of your life events so you remember them, then be vague, use trigger/code words so that another person won’t be able to figure out the details. An alternative would be to use a password-protected document on your computer.

      However, the ideas presented here are for a general writing journal rather than for a diary-style journals. This would be a place to be creative, not necessarily to make a record of your life (although that may be included).

      Good luck!

  2. I love my journal when it is wrecked. I use Moleskines now pretty much exclusively and it is a good thing, because the elastic strap around them holds them together. My pages are wrinkled and filled with different colored inks, notes in all directions, arrows pointing here and there and so on. And the back pocket bulges with scraps of paper and things I might want to write more about some day.

    This is a great post with all kinds of great new ideas to try.

    • I recently got my first Moleskine, but I haven’t started using it yet. I’m waiting until I finish my current journal. I do like the looks of it, and I’m looking forward to trying it out (especially since so many writers rave about it!). The more messy and wrecked a journal becomes, the easier it is to create freely! I often find the first page of a new journal both exciting and intimidating. But as I fill it up (mostly with scribbles and scrawls), it becomes more lived-in and comfortable.

      • Gabriella says:

        I’m using my first large moleskine now, too. Does anyone else find the smell off-putting? It was bound in China and it smells to me like cheap, toxic glue… Kinda crazy, I know, for an “upscale” journal to have that problem. Oh well. I’m keeping on with it.

    • Custom Notebook says:

      I love this, my sketchbooks are mostly the same. I think that having a notebook to cull together all of those little bits of inspiration are what keep me sane. Great post – keep up the writing!

      • My notebooks and journal are pretty messy too. I jot all kinds of things down, and I doodle, make outlines, lists, character sketches. I find that this approach gets my creativity flowing.

  3. Wow, what a post!

    I used to journal every single day, but by the time I write all day and blog and leave comments and answer emails, I feel all “written out” and haven’t journaled in a while.

    Thanks for linking to me, by the way! I’m honored to be included in this post. 😉


    • I hear you, Michele! I don’t write in my journal nearly as much as I used to because the blogs and business are getting all my writing energy. Mostly, I think that’s a good thing!

  4. Hannah says:

    I’ve kept a journal for over 20 years and I love it! I’m somewhere between messy and neat. I try not to have loose pages but writing in moleskines solves that problem with the back pocket. Great post!

    I left a little something on my blog for you a little while back and forgot to mention it for you to see.

    • I’m looking forward to using my Moleskine, especially because it has that back pocket, which I think will be extremely useful. Do you have a link to the little something on your blog?

  5. zz says:

    Thanks for the mention Melissa! This is definately up my ally. I have currently have about four running journals. My favourite is huge, made of recycled paper with a thick leather wrap. I’ve stuffed it which inspiring and beautiful images, textiles, fits and starts of stories, love letters (from my husband and from me to myself!) interesting articles, a few print outs of your posts :), etcetera etc.

    • I’ve thought about using a large sketchbook (11″ x 14″) for journaling because it would handle art and collage so much better than the smaller journals that I use. I think the ideal would be something with removable pages (kind of like a three-ring binder), but I haven’t found the right solution yet.

      • zz says:

        Yeah, I find I tend to bring “stuff” to that big journal, rather than write IN it. So it’s more of a messy, pretty filing system.

        I wanted to say before I think points 4 (about the captions) is an awesome idea – will definately be pinching that idea! I do point 6 a lot – I love hand writing beautiful sentances that I find. Also love the idea of a gratitude journal too – how very Oprah of us!

        • I kept a gratitude journal for a short time, until I got in the habit of simply being grateful without having to schedule it or write it down. It definitely has an enormous, positive impact on me, and I did get the idea from Oprah.

  6. J.D. Meier says:

    I like the way you cut loose on journaling and pumped up the volume.

    My mental model of journaling used to be pretty constrained … almost a “dear diary” sort of view with blah, blah, blah. One day, one of my mentors explained the all-over-the-board approach and combination of visuals and notes Da Vinci style and it reminded me that heck, make the journal be whatever you want it to be, so it works for you.

    You echoes that crucial concept here very well.

    • Yep, I used to do the diary thing too, and then I slowly started using my journal for all kinds of other stuff. This was back when I was a teenager. Eventually the diary entries stopped completely and gave way to poetry. Oddly, the poetry from my 20s actually functions sort of like a diary because those poems document what was going on in my life. Anyway, the older I get, the less interested I am in recording my life events and the more interested I become in sharing ideas and making stuff up.

  7. Danielle Buffardi says:

    Thanks for opening my eyes to this wonderful journal…I just ordered one.

  8. t. sterling says:

    Once again, thanks for the shout out and it’s truly humbling to be named amongst some other brilliant writers. I sometimes forget that I am regularly journaling as often as I do. Between my moleskine, random tiny notebooks, post-its and now even my phone… although I’m not interested in wrecking my phone anytime soon.

    I think one way I believe I’m wrecking a journal is not writing in it sequentially. I might start on page one, but I may skip a few pages with a brand new thought or start again with the last page or somewhere randomly in the middle. I do this specifically not to interfere with whatever thought(s) I started with earlier in case I want to expand it later. This proved very helpful. I’ve also written in code to with the thought my journals might be found. Sometimes I think it would be interesting what people think if they ever found them.

    • I have tried that technique — writing on whatever page or trying to leave space so I can come back and elaborate on something I started. In particular, I’ve tried this with the notebook I use for work. And I found it just doesn’t work for me. I don’t know why, because it makes sense, logically. I like to fill up page by page, otherwise I get totally lost when I go back to look for something.

  9. --Deb says:

    I have the hardest time being messy in my journal. (Other than the handwriting, which I can’t help.) I’ve never been much of a doodler, and I like things to be tidy, so I can’t quite bring myself to go crazy. I do use different colors, though, and love to copy passages and quote in there for future reference.

    (Thanks for the mention, too, by the way!)

    • Maybe Wreck this Journal would work for you! Actually, I don’t think it’s for everyone. I was always an overly organized, tidy person and in recent years I’ve been sort of letting that go. First, because I got so busy that I just didn’t have enough time to stay on top of all the tidiness. But there was a part of me that wanted to experience being a little messier because artists just rant and rave about the creative disorder. I think I’m happiest somewhere in the middle. I still like organization so I can find stuff, but I’m not as overboard as I once was and it’s a comfortable middle ground for me. My journal is the same way. I don’t have pages poking out and falling all over the place, but if I open it and flip through, it looks like someone’s imagination exploded all over the pages. And it did 😉

      • --Deb says:

        I think my problem is that “messy”–no matter how creative–just looks to much like “clutter.” I things to be clean and neat–I don’t even like wearing patterns, preferring solid colors, because I like the simple look. A journal written in clumps and circles and all willy-nilly might be freeing but there’s a part of me I’m quite sure it would drive crazy! (grin)

        • Well, being messy definitely isn’t for everyone. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get tired of my cluttered journal and return to a more organized style. Only time will tell.

  10. Deb says:

    I’m not compelled to be neat and tidy from the standpoint of neatnik but I keep hearing old tapes to clean up my penmanship. Some tapes die hard.

  11. Seth M Baker says:

    Hey Melissa, nice post. I’ve followed my wife’s lead and started keeping a glue stick handy. When I have some interesting bit of paper ephemera (ticket stubs in Thai, brochure pictures, etc), I cut it out and paste it in. Adds a nice visual aspect to everything.

    • Thanks, Seth. I keep a glue stick handy too, but I haven’t used it in a while. It looks like I”m going to have to plan a few hours to glue my random notes and ideas into my journal. It definitely adds a nice (inspirational) aspect to my journal.

  12. Matthew Dryden says:

    I’ve never been someone who keeps a journal/book next to my bed in case I wake up at night. I still have roughly 18 different books that are half-filled with utter crap. I don’t write without purpose anymore, and maybe that’s been my problem over the past few months. Hm.

    Maybe I should take the idea of “Wreck This Journal” and apply it to my website. Hm.

    • I find that writing without purpose allows me to purge my brain of all the crap and get to the good (best) stuff. You’re an extremely talented writer, Matthew. Sometimes I worry that you’re too demanding of yourself. You’ve got it, so just let it flow.

  13. Wendy Sullivan says:

    Melissa, I love this post! I’ve been journaling since I was 14, and rarely are two of my journals alike. Some are written as books of letters-never-sent. Others have day to day thoughts, along with more mundane items like doctors’ phone numbers and appointments with the lawyer. The reality is that journals are books of memories, and if I want to look back on what my life was like at a certain period, that trip to the doctor adds just as much insight as my feelings do.


    • Hi Wendy! It sounds like you started journaling around the same age I did. As I get older, my journals become more alike, especially since I’ve started using the same sketchbook for journaling (I think I’m on my third or fourth blank book). I love the idea of incorporating the mundane into journal writing, and I agree that it adds as much insight as emotional material.

  14. Friar's Mom says:

    Melissa, you misunderstood my Happy Compartment. It is not a written Journal, yet it’s with me all the time. I make a conscious effort of storing my memorable happy moments in my mind. I can dig into my HC whenever I wish. I can share it with friends. It came in handy when I was convalescing for three months this summer in a Rehab Centre.

    Some of the moments stored: Holding my firstborn in my arms for the first time. Remembering how tiny and soft his little hands were, how perfect his tiny feet were. I can picture my hospital room, I remember his baby smell.

    Listening to the silence at the top of Kindersley Pass, and hearing a bee buzzing in the alpine forget-me-nots. This conjures up a panoramic view, and enjoying a hiking lunch with my husband.

    My Last Slow Dance with my husband in the living room of our winter suite, overlooking distant pink/mauve/orange snow-covered mountains, as the sun was setting.

    Recently when Friar and I were riding a T-bar we noticed an intense brilliance in the snow. We inspected the snow at the top of the T-Bar, upon closer inspection we noticed that the overnight fog had created two-inch large flat ice crystals of hoar frost (no two alike). These unique crystals reflected dazzling sunshine.

    A HC moment can be as insignificant as feeling the gentle wiry claws of a chickadee landing on my finger to feed on sunflower seeds in my palm.

    My Happy Compartment is overflowing with a lifetime of memories. The secret is making a conscious effort to tuck away these moments. When retrieved, these moments bring a happy feeling and memories

    • Hi Friar’s Mom! I’m so glad you stopped by. Your Happy Compartment must be leaking because it made me feel happy when you shared some of its contents. I’m sorry I misunderstood and explained it as a written journal. At the same time, I can’t think of a better idea for journaling. So many writers and artists depend on hard times and misery for inspiration. But your Happy Compartment is a great way to show artists that joy can lead to brilliant art, if only they would take time to take note.

      If you wrote a book of all your HC memories, I would love to read it.

      Your comments reminded me of some of my own happy times, one in particular was so simple — I was on the beach at night with some friends and we were just lying on the sand looking up at the vast night sky and listening to the waves crash against the shore. I remember thinking to myself that I must remember the moment and how it made me feel (so small and yet at the same time, a part of something so big), and I have always remembered it vividly and fondly. I guess I have an HC too! Hopefully, we all do.

  15. Nacho Jordi says:

    Thank you for the post, and very especially for the imaginative 25 ways to journal. I’ve been journaling for a long time and only recently switched to digital format; I intend to make words as “transparent” as possible, so experiments with the page setup looked like an additional “distraction” to me more than a possibility to increase creativity (maybe because I am not a very visual person).
    Regarding the technique of writing some sentences and leaving some blank space to expand the writing later, it made me recall the oven metaphor: I have the need to write things right away, I cannot go back to the events later, with a very different mood: the oven has “cooled down”.

    • Thanks for your insight, Nacho. I think that in presentation, white space is important, particularly with poetry and online publishing. When we write things down immediately, we can capture the immediacy of our emotions (especially if they’re intense). On the other hand, if we wait until we cool down, we may be able to capture a different (or more objective) perspective. It’s interesting to think about these two approaches and consider how they affect our writing in different ways.

  16. --Deb says:

    Incidentally, I spotted this at the bookstore the other day when I was out with my almost 21-year old niece, and we both just flipped through it, enthralled. The difference is that I still really don’t think I could DO this (grin). She, on the other hand? Well, let’s just say … guess what she’s getting for her birthday next month?

    Did you know there are other, similar journals also by Keri Smith?

    • Ha! That’s awesome, Deb. I can understand how messy journaling would be unappealing. After all, I used to be hyper-organized. But if you want to try it, it’s really just a matter of changing your mindset a little bit. Several years ago, I was at a friend’s house. It wasn’t dirty, but there was a little clutter here and there. She apologized and remarked that sometimes they were just too busy living to keep everything organized. That struck me and stuck with me. It got me wondering: how much time was I spending organizing my closet or alphabetizing my books/CDs/files that I could have spent writing or doing other things? Since then, I let up on being so rigid. I can’t say I prefer one way or the other. I still like things organized! But I also like spending my precious time on projects that matter a lot to me. To each her own, right? Still, I say it’s worth a try (hint hint).

  17. Sharon Greentree says:

    As the daughter of a parent with Aspergus Syndrome,, Journal writing is my OCD. I have been writing in a Yearly Journal since 1973. For me it is life consuming, but also very rewarding. With each passing year the Journals have become more than just a Diary,, like you said Melissa, they are filled with clippings, poems, and world news events. When I pass away the Journals will be my legacy.