Can Journalling Improve Your Writing? I Don’t Know, But Let’s Find Out.

A journal spread with sketch and writing, and a pen

I believe that writers should keep journals, because that’s where we truly write for ourselves, and what good is a story that we ourselves don’t want to see in print?

Along those lines, I do enjoy reading famous authors’ journals. Not that creeping is my pastime or anything, but with entries like this, why would I not?

There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.

Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934

Nin also wrote: ‘It’s writing what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervour, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work.’

As someone who’s written a lot for ‘formal work’, I have to say that she’s on to something there.

Why journal as a writer?

So maybe you don’t keep this habit, and you want me to convince you. Better still, you want me to tell you how it could benefit you as a writer. Well say no more! Here are some totally scientific benefits to get you started with.

1. It gets you writing

Here’s some good news for you procrastinators out there: Journalling is considered writing. Yes, even that whiny post about how the barista at Starbucks forgot to put whipped cream on your latte.

And writer’s block? You’ll find no such thing here. Maybe the fear of dirtying your expensive journal will lurk around for a bit, but you’ll get over that pretty quick.

There’s no audience to pander to, no expectations. You’re simply recording your thoughts, as most writing should be. More importantly, the more you write this way, the better you become at listening.

Listening for what, you may ask?

The universe! Yes, we skim the borders of woo-woo land from time to time, and today, I’d like to use my quota to share my observations with you: That we’re receivers, and our thoughts are the radio waves from the ether.

Some people call it listening to your muse, communicating with the divine, or simply accessing your higher self. Whatever it is you choose to believe, you can be sure that journalling will help forge that connection.

Totally scientific, is it not? Told you it’d be!

2. You get to practice habit-building

Once you get into the groove of journalling, you’ll probably have a set time and place to do it. I prefer the evenings, when I have an entire day’s worth of material to choose from.

And after you fall into said groove, you’ll discover that writing a novel isn’t that much different. You set a time, you show up, you fill up the page.

An added lesson you’ll gain is the gift of seeing your tiny efforts turn into something substantial. If you stick to your—hopefully painless—practice for long enough, you’ll end up with an entire notebook filled with your own words and thoughts.

If you need convincing on what 250 words a day can do, I can’t think of a better example than to journal.

3. You learn how to perform (without an audience)

I have a secret: I journal as if somebody else would read it. Sure, nobody really cares, but with posts like this, who knows what could happen?

Yes, the chances are low that my journals would grace a 22nd Century social-media platform, but hey, better to be prepared, eh?

And maybe someone would enjoy my work, and I’d get to entertain tens of thousands of people in the future, just like this housewife did in the link above.

The journal is a great way to practise your performative side of writing. And you can really ham things up too, because by the time someone puts your journal on blast, you’ll probably be too dead to be embarrassed.

Oh, also, you know that thing about writing voice? This is the best place to hone it.

4. It reminds you that the work is the gift

I’m not gonna lie, most of you probably won’t feel that much different from journalling. It’s not as if keeping the habit will turn you into a Steinbeck or Plath overnight.

So sticking to this habit requires intrinsic reasons. And for those of you who do stick to it, you’ll learn that the work itself is the gift.

Because like many other things in life, simply aiming for the end goal isn’t going to provide you with any sustainable purpose.

But if actually enjoy an activity just for its own sake, you’ll learn that perhaps this is how you should be approaching writing, a craft that you’re willing to work at, no matter what the results.

And maybe you’ll discover that writing isn’t the thing for you, and that’s okay too, because that opens up the space for you to find your work.

5. It keeps you on track

What do you do when you read a post from a year ago that says ‘I can’t find the time to write’? And what happens if that theme repeats itself over and over?

You’ll start to think, that’s what. And if you keep telling yourself you don’t have the time to write, then you’re either not putting in enough effort, or you’re really short on time and have to make some adjustments to your life.

Either way, having an external source tell you what you need to do does give you an added perspective, even though that external source is still you.

My own journals are filled with the whiniest posts, and I never connect the dots until I open a notebook from yesteryear, and realise that the problems I have are still the exact things I struggle with today.

Being the lazy slob that I am, I might not even start addressing said problems, but at least they’re on my radar. Maybe that’s why I’ve been on my longest no-alcohol streak to date. Because I got fed up of seeing ‘I drank again’ posts.

Also, it helps keep my writing in check. Every other entry I ask myself if I’m doing enough to reach my writerly goals, and every time the answer is no. So I probably have that to thank for this blog post.

Man with backpack standing on train tracks

Having repeated themes in your journal helps you stay on track. Photo: Joshua Alfaro

How do you start?

Keeping a journal is a fairly straightforward process, but if you’re the type of person who prefers knowing everything before taking a single step, then this section’s for you.

1. Give your day a title

Think of your life as a movie. What title would you give your day? Imagine Trailer Voice Guy announcing the arrival of your movie. What would that be like?

It’s almost bullet journal-ish in nature, and it’s a great way to build the daily habit without committing too much.

Sure, everybody has their process, and some writers binge while other maintain a more consistent practice. But if you’re just starting out, the best thing to do is to do it every day. Because we want to build the neural networks in your brain (totally scientific, right?).

So start off with a one-sentence summary a day if you’re new to journalling. Sound good?

2. Examine your day

I forgot which episode this was, but in one of Matt D’Avella podcasts was a discussion on the three things you should ask yourself every day. These questions help you notice any patterns you have in your life, allowing you to adjust as you see fit. And they are:

  • What made me feel more energetic today?
  • What drained me today?
  • How could I have improved my day?

I’ve used these questions for years, and it’s the sole reason why I’ve learned that drinking every day wasn’t exactly filling me with joy, even though I thought it was helping me unwind.

If those prompts don’t do it for you, try this interesting list from The Grief Reality.

3. Go micro

All right, so you’ve journaled for a bit and writing doesn’t intimidate you anymore. Time for some writer-style journalling.

You can now start exploring your voice, and the way you do that is describing a certain point in your day as best you can. Maybe you want to write about the joys of cuddling your dog.

You can dive deeper and describe how she nudged your hand when you stopped stroking her, and how her wet nose left a patch of coolness on your cheek. Recall what you were thinking, how the soft the couch was, how you’d overheard your neighbour’s conversation…

It’s not only fun for future you to read, but it’s also a great way to practise your style. I call this ‘sketching’ a scene with words, and this skill comes in handy when it comes to descriptions in your novels.

4. Hone your focus

Journalling can be like meditation if you want it to be. That means no screens or electronics nearby while you jot down your thoughts. Set fifteen minutes on the clock and concentrate solely on your journal.

Not only is this beneficial for other tasks in life, but it’s also a great way of cultivating mindfulness, and we all could use a bit more of that, couldn’t we?

How you do anything is how you do everything, and with enough practice focusing only on one thing at a time, you’ll be able to reclaim your focus, which you can then use in your writing.

5. Go third-person

Want to kill two birds with one stone? Write in third person and gain the benefits of journalling, plus the chance to practise your art.

What you do is describe your day—or what’s currently happening—from a narrator’s perspective. Make up a random personality each time you write. Sometimes the narrator might paint you in a snarky light. At other times, they could be rooting for you.

Think Morgan Freeman narrating your day. How cool would you doing your chores be (at least in your head)? Do that with various personalities and see how your stories change. Who knows? Maybe somewhere in that mishmash of random personalities lies your true voice.

Two women walking down a street with stairs, from a bird's-eye view

Sometimes a bird’s-eye view is what you need to discover your different voices. Photo: Giorgio Trovato

Start journalling and your writer-self will thank you

You know what’s a great thing to have? A journal from ten years ago describing the days you’d have totally forgotten otherwise. You know what’s also fun? Comparing your writing from then till now.

And if you’re anything like me, the cringe fest that follows will serve as a reminder that there’s no perfect story, that you might as well keep writing and sharing, because you always change, and what’s good today may not be decent tomorrow.

Whatever the reason, you will be glad you kept a journal. Don’t let the days pass you by. There’s magic in each and every day. You just have to look for it.

And if you don’t believe in magic, you could at least believe in science.


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93 thoughts on “Can Journalling Improve Your Writing? I Don’t Know, But Let’s Find Out.

  1. Ooh I love this post, everything you said resonates and my comment could easily get too long Lol!

    Benefits 1 and 4 especially – I credit journaling for making me fairly immune to writers block. Since you can’t really get writers block when journaling, you’re more fortified against it in other forms of writing. Also like you said, journaling reminds us WHY we write in the first place. This reminder is even more important when you write for work.

    • Oh yeah! Journalling really does prove that writer’s block is all in your head, doesn’t it? There really is benefits to keeping one, even though you don’t directly feel them sometimes. Always appreciate your thoughtful comments, Lizi. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. keeping a journal seems like work, since it is in addition to any other writing that you may be doing. I can barely get through every day with writing for my blog; I don’t want to add more to that :)

    • Oh yeah. Your writing output is a little different, and I’d say at this rate that your posts can double up as your journal entries at this point, lol. But it’s always great to have ‘side projects’ when it comes to writing, and journals are great for that. Thanks so much for stopping by, Jim!

  3. Fantastic post! Reading back over journal posts can definitely be cringe worthy, but you absolutely make the case that the benefits far surpass the disadvantages. Thank you!

    • Sometimes the cringe is fun too. It’s awesome seeing how stupid we were, and realising that the today-us will most probably look stupid to the future-us so there’s no need to take ourselves so seriously. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I do three pages every morning while I’m still in bed. I keep a journal and pen in my nightstand. This practice is called “Morning Pages” by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way.” Have you read that book? Morning pages serve as a brain dump to free your mind for creativity.

    • Oh yeah. I do morning pages on the side, supplementing my journalling practice. That practice definitely helps with my writing. It’s so cool that you have it beside your bed. I would most probably continue sleeping if I tried starting my morning pages there. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. I think journaling definitely helps me improve my writing. You brought up great points here and I’m looking forward to integrating each of them into my journaling routine. I mostly stick to the same genre and my journaling starts to bleed into my art, which is poetry. If I’m feeling a bit of a writer’s block I’ll start journaling about whatever comes to my mind and then it turns into my poetry after I’ve gotten all the mush out. Thanks for these ideas and you also linked to some great references with more great ideas! I’ll definitely be coming back to this article. -E

    • Oh yeah, writing something else before writing what you’d actually set out to write is a legit technique, used by the likes of Steinbeck, so you’re definitely on to something there. Thanks so much for adding this lovely perspective here. I really appreciate it!

  6. These are great ideas to make journaling a fun habit! I just recently started keeping a random thoughts journal. I’m hoping it will help me improve my writing skills as well as help me get a handle on my mental clutter. I’d like to make it a daily habit. I’m going to try some of the ideas you listed. I especially like the idea of writing as the narrator. That sounds fun.😁

    • Sometimes all it takes is a little perspective shift to tackle the same problem in a funner way.

      I dread writing on some days, but when I stretch myself and slap on a random challenge (like write this first-person story without using the word ‘I’), suddenly things seem a little less boring.

      Journalling works best for me when done every day, and I hope the habit sticks for you too. Thanks so much for stopping by, Suzanne!

  7. See, I need to up my journaling game. You’re so right about how you can improve in life when you start noticing a theme and get tired of it. I made a lot of progress in recovering from depression through being conscious of my negative thought patterns, and I actually got tired of filling notebook after notebook with everything that’s wrong with me. My hand got tired of cooperating with it, and when I’m tempted, my hand says nope, not doing it anymore. But my journals are sorta lame quite honestly. I don’t really push the envelope and I think I need to push more in experimenting or writing deeper thoughts about life.

    • I don’t know about you, but I actually love the lame parts of my journal, lol. Like that time I wrote ‘couldn’t stay awake so I cuddled with the dog and slept more’. There’s nothing much to be said about naps, but I do enjoy reading posts like those.

      Here’s to pushing the envelope anyway. Anyway, just thought I’d remind that you have a very distinct voice. Maybe it’s because of all the notebooks you’ve filled up before!

  8. Excellent post! I enjoyed reading it and discovered new things I want to try out the next time I take out my journal.

    This post is very well written. Thank you for sharing.

    Have a blessed day ❤

  9. Hey Stuart, this was really a great post! Hopefully this would inspire me to be more regular in my journalling. Seems to have many benefits especially for a budding writer like me. Thanks so much for this!

  10. I’m thankful I came across your post this morning, I’ve recently decided to try again to stay consistent with my journaling and I find myself so censored, it’s painful. I skip a lot of days and on the days I do write it’s just very difficult. Your post inspired me to keep going. Thank you. 🙂

    • You have no idea how glad I am to hear this. I’m so honoured that you’d continue journalling because of this article. Anyway, if censoring is too much of a problem for you (it is for me too), try morning pages! Being able to throw away the pages right after writing does help with removing your filter. Anyway, am looking forward to your updates!

  11. Excellent as always! A superbly scaffolded argument for journaling for sure. Gonna point others curious about starting to write in the direction of this post. They’ll have all they need in one post. Thanks Stu!!

    • ‘Superbly scaffolded’ is a pretty awesome term that I may want to start including in my vocabulary.

      Thanks so much for you constant support, Kelvin. Always great to read your comments.

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  13. That’s so true. Many writers keep journals, from which they draw inspiration. Even George Orwell keeps journals, but I still don’t have the time to finish that diary of his. You just remind me how much I love his writing.

    • Lol, to be honest, sometimes I think journals are hard to read, because they were meant for the authors and not us. I love Sylvia Plath’s work, but some of her journal entries can seem too stream of consciousness to me too. Thanks so much for stopping by again!

  14. Very helpful tips, I’ve been journaling all my life. Often times as a child, a pen and paper were my only companion/friend. Now at nearly age 50, I journal about my medical history and document various things so that my children and future generations will have a record of my history in vase it’s needed after I’m gone. Thanks for your post my friend.

    • That’s so cool! This is also part of the reason why I journal as though someone will read my work. I’m sure that your family will love this keepsake.

      It’s also amazing how paper and pen used to be your only friend, because that’s how I feel sometimes too. Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts!

  15. Reblogged this on Anisette Studios & Shibui Fine Arts and commented:
    You are a delight! SO spot on! I have journaled over the years and now I have taken up pen paling so my journalling goes somewhere! You can find some interesting pen pals that are fun, intellectual, and challenging. I have one I am having a dialog about nature vs nurture with! Penpalooza. You don’t have to send anyone gifts, it is something you can do. I am blogging to improve my writing skills as well. That and I have all these ideas ratting around my head. I also talk about my art which I call Shibui Found Image Art. I look forward to reading more!

    • And I love your comments. I think that pen-palling does help you fine-tune your writing for an audience. And journalling helps you listen so you can have the words in the first place.

      For me, it’s also a great time to test new pen and ink combos since I’m a fountain pen fan. I love all your comments so far, PJ. They’ve made my day. Let me know if you ever want a pen-pal from Malaysia!

  16. Yes, I definitely think so. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I know that my writing improved by leaps and bounds since I started to write every day. Preferably the writing is not being imposed upon.

    • Right? ‘Not being imposed upon’ is the key here. I find that term to also relate to any discipline in life. Even things like suffering. Suffering is a good way for us to build ourselves, provided it’s a suffering that’s not imposed upon us. Always great to see you here!

  17. Great tips Stuart – I use similar questions for my evening journal – What made today awesome? What did I do well? What could I do better? I also journal in the morning – I answer the following: Today is your last day on earth, how are you going to spend it? I then set my intention/review my purpose. Thanks for the inspiration Stuart 🙏🙂

  18. I don’t know whether I’m just a weird guy or something, but I’ve been narrating in my head ever since I started to read, and it has gotten stronger in the past few weeks since I’ve been writing at least few hundred words at least 6 out of 7 days during these weeks.

    Your article just gave me a reason to put that narration on a page, and who knows? Maybe inspiration would strike during one of these sessions. Not that I’m lacking in that department currently, but it is best to keep trying new things lest the brain becomes dull.

    • It’s pretty danged amazing that you’re on a diet of few hundred words a day. I hope this keeps up for you the entire life.

      Oh yeah, like you said, the things you write in your journal could surprise you, and who knows what gems you could unearth from your word-vomit into a journal?

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Tanish!

      • Yes, barring Sundays, I’ve been writing everyday. Since I’m writing different things every day also helps me avoiding burnout. (A review today, a section of the chapter of my story, etc. etc.)

        I tried something like 2000 words early on. But I realized that something like that cannot be sustained for long-term. So, I brought it down to 500 words, and 1000 words if I’m feeling the energy that day.

    • Oh yeah! My insight is learning how things are STILL the same years later, and that lights a fire under my ass to actually do something to change, lol. Anyway, thanks for this post!

  19. I’m already trying to journal every day, but this post has just given me an extra Motivational boost to continue, thanks!
    I’ll definitely also try out the technique with writing in 3rd person, that sounds interesting and it would be nice to Gange the style up a bit

    • Aw yis. As crappy as it may feel sometimes (maybe you’re trying to squeeze a session in when all you want to do is hit the sack), I’ve never regretted having something to look back to. Thanks so much for stopping by, and wishing you all the best with your journalling goals!

    • Aw yis, mornings and nights are the best times to journal for me. The former is to dictate my day, and the latter is to take stock of what happened. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

    • I just listened to a Jewel podcast and it’s so timely to learn that she’d journaled as a way to deal with her kleptomania. It really is a powerful tool. Have fun journalling!

  20. Been journaling forever, even before I began writing fiction. In fact, I kept journals when I worked at Starbucks from 1990-1994. Somehow they survived over 20 years and became the backbone for my historical fiction novel, Tripio. Incidentally, don’t blame any barista for not putting whipped cream on your latte because whipped cream goes on a mocha…not a latte…otherwise, I loved this post!

    • Whoa, you learn something new every day, so thank you for dropping this knowledge on whipped cream and mocha! Those Starbucks journals must be a treasure trove, and it must feel pretty good to stroll down memory lane. How cool is it to have something from 20 years ago. Anyway, thanks so much for this wonderful comment!

  21. This is a fantastic post! I keep seeing numerous content across platforms on the benefits of journaling and well your post, especially section with the 3 questions to consider might just be the tipping point to get me going! Thank you for sharing, hope you have a wonderful day!

    • And as if that wasn’t enough, I just listened to Jewel’s life experiences on the Joe Rogan podcast, and she used writing to deal with her kleptomania too, so that was pretty cool. Thanks so much for stopping by, Jennifer!

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  25. Great advice. I keep a somewhat-journal on my phone in the notes app, because it allows me to jot things down when I’m out and about during the day. However, there is something special about pen and paper. So I’ll take your advice and hopefully begin a journaling habit. Happy writing !

    • I actually use Notion for my digital journalling, because it syncs really well between mobile and desktop, and yes, it’s much more convenient to jot down the things in your day on your phone than by lugging a notebook around. My pen-and-paper time is right before bed though, and my mobile entries really do help me recall anything I might’ve missed during the day. Thanks for stopping by, btw!

  26. This is a great article Stuart. I never thought my journalling habit was part of my writing habit weirdly. But journalling is an amazing tool I think more men should take up. It’s a great way to unbox how your feeling and what’s actually going well in your life. Releasing the minds thoughts and feelings on to paper is a must for me.

    • Oh yeah, and to take it one step further, I do morning pages, which I dispose of right after writing. That allows me to be even more honest, and that helps me ‘sweep’ the corners of my mind for the real thoughts that are bothering me. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate you!

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  29. Hi Stuart, This is a great post. Thanks! I totally agree with your sentence : ‘ There is magic in each and every day you just have to look for it’. I do find that most of the time it feels like your subconsciousness that is guiding your writing, you know what I mean. Sometimes I revisit my post and wonder about how I had formed some of those thoughts at one point. Yes ‘It’s not only fun for future you to read, but it’s also a great way to practise your style.’ This is true, except I can’t bear to read the journal I kept as a teenager. I did write some stuff in Chinese then. That’s a lifetime ago. There was so much angst and sense of self -righteousness then. Argh! I cringe as I read some of these entries and I’m tearing out the pages while still keeping some of the pages but I will discard them soon enough. Anyway, no TikToker would be interested. Guess those entries help me to remember school days and all that pain that comes with growing years…

    • Oh yeah, the subconscious thing is real. And I might sound like a broken record, but I had to prioritise my morning routine lately and stopped doing morning pages for a week or so. My writing suffered so badly that I had to restart my practice. I truly believe that morning pages help us tap into our subconscious, and it teaches us how to listen to it as well.

      Oh, you’ll never know. So many pre-war letters and journals have made the internet, and most of them are just commentary on their day. Your entries could be a discovery for some people someday. Too bad we’ll never find out because we’ll be long gone, lol. Anyway, thanks for this comment, and for sharing this moment in history with me!

    • Lol. And it doesn’t help that penmanship is something that you can’t really tell if you’re improving. I’ve been practising but the learning curve is steep for sure. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  30. Writing in third person seems like an interesting idea. I have become too lazy nowadays to journal. Have been planning since a few weeks now to start journaling again.

    • I think the problem with journalling is that we put too much pressure on ourselves by thinking we have to write something substantial every time we open the book.

      It’s easy for me because sometimes I just want to complain for a few sentences, and other times I write a couple of pages.

      Wishing you all the best with your journalling!

  31. I have to admit, I am terrible at keeping journals. Mainly because I tend to go reeeally long, which makes it harder to fit in. Maybe if I keep these tips in mind, I can finally make it work. It does sound like it could be helpful!

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