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Effective Journal Writing

by ahmad aftab 11 Nov 2021

"The unexamined life is not worth living," wrote Greek philosopher Socrates, and the personal or professional journal may be one of the principle ways to do so.

Although it may not be classifiable as a literary genre, it could be the most important one, since it enables a person to intimately connect with his inner voice and discover his personal truth. Pursuing a hectic schedule, with little time for thought or reflection, the writer can consider his journal both a place and an act that enables him to converse with self and commune with soul, enabling him to sort out, process, understand, and accept what he transfers from his head or heart into his book, often reaching parts of him he never could. For this reason, journal writing can be considered thinking on paper.

To capture something through the written word is to give it form and make it real, and the journal can be the stage on which its spotlight can be shone. It can become an anchor in a person's life storm and the dock to which he can return after each day's drift.


Unlike other literary forms, which are dictated by specific rules and formats, journals are personal, highly individualized collections of writing, contributed to at a frequency that serves the author. Nevertheless, it can serve numerous purposes.

Because most people negotiate life at a hectic pace, with little time to intellectually or emotionally process what occurs to them, journals can serve as their pauses, during which they can digest everything-or opportunities to 'catch up" on what may have proven only cursory abilities to interpret and accept.

They can provide gradual understanding of who they are, particularly on the inside.

They allow them to examine their past and set courses for their future-that is, where they have been and to where they need to go.

They can foster organization and structure in both their personal and professional lives.

They can serve as archives or histories, documenting and preserving what memory may not always easily recall.

They can be used to develop ideas and demonstrate learning in classroom settings, replacing traditional exams.

Their entries mark the milestones of their life journeys.

They can serve as life management tools.

They can lead to writing fluency and increased speed, and serve as the thresholds to other writing genres.

Finally, they can be considered methods by which the writer communicates with the self and communes with the soul.


There have been several published journals throughout history, including the Chinese historical documents of 56 AD, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, The Diary of Anne Frank of 1952, and the countless electronically-accessible blogs (web logs), which have served as personal memoirs or autobiographies to record their authors' lives and provide the insight resulting from them to their readers. Whether the present-time journalist elects to keep his work private or publish, it remains within his will.


Because of the personalized nature of a journal, which is not restricted to or molded by other genre parameters, the frequency with which an author contributes to it, the formal or informal writing style he uses, the deliberate elimination of conventional sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation, the inclusion of doodles and/or sketches, the employment of a purposefully purchased diary or plain spiral notebook or computer application such as Microsoft word, and its length are all author-chosen to facilitate his goal for undertaking the project.

Since most people have multi-faceted lives, they may elect to create several separate journals, such as those for his personal, student, and professional life aspects. Intended to enhance, they cannot be equated with any amount of right or wrong-only usefulness-and can be designated by any number of identifiers, including "journal" itself, "diary," "log," "notebook," or "workbook."

"(Nevertheless), we define a journal as a sequential, dated chronicle of events and ideas, which includes the personal responses and reflections of the writer (or writers) on those events and ideas," according to Dannelle D. Stevens and Joanne E. Cooper in their book, "Journal Keeping" (Styles Publishing, 2009, p. 5).

There are, however, several writing techniques.

1). Conventional: The conventional method adheres to standard sentence, spelling, grammatical, and punctuation rules, but can require more time to create and express through pauses between lines or entries.

2). Free-writing: Because the relaxed, less structured, free- or stream-of-consciousness writing eliminates pauses and the obstacles inherent with more traditional grammatical usage, the journalist may be less inhibited in his attempts at expression. He can, for instance, continuously write for varying time intervals without ever lifting his pen from his paper. There are many benefits to this technique.

a). It frees and unclutters the brain.

b). It can serve as a warm-up for later, more formalized literary expression.

c). It is idea- and thus self-generating, almost like a rolling snowball.

d). It establishes the person's voice.

e). It fosters fluency of expression.

f). It can develop ideas in their raw, unedited form. Although their value may not be immediately apparent, the process provides a method of capturing them. "First, original ideas are often hard to find, yet free-writing, with its lack of constraints, encourages, supports, and even cheers the production of words in whatever form," noted Stevens and Cooper (ibid, p. 80).

3). Forced free-writing: Employing the same literary rule-disregarding, uninterrupted-session style, forced free-writing differs in that it is intended to "force" the journalist to explore a very specific topic or subject, such as, "Why am I finding it difficult to be positive today" or "What are my feelings about resigning from my job?"

4). Creating lists: Some journalists find it easier to avoid sentences altogether and express ideas, thoughts, observations, and feelings in list form, leaving explanation in greater depth for a later time. The person contemplating a resignation, for instance, my list "scared," "unknown," "unsafe," "no money," "something new." Lists can additionally skirt the fringes of an issue he does not have the time to delve into or express with more formalized structure, and serve as the key points he may wish to explore in the future.

5). Dialoguing: A journalist may employ the dialogue method to converse with himself or parts of himself he cannot necessarily connect with, making them "other" or "separate" until he can reclaim them. He can also use dialogue to practice what he perceives will be a difficult or strained conversation with another person. Both methods employ objectification.

"When we objectify an experience, a relationship, our feelings, our worries, and our obligations, we gain some control and we can look at them from a different perspective to understand them anew," according to Stevens and Cooper (ibid, p. 89).

By providing this separation, the journalist is no longer at the center of unresolved feelings, fears, or anxieties, enabling him to assess them through the written word without being overtaken by them. Writing reroutes the experience through the brain.

6). Other expressive methods: If the journalist employs visual skills, he may augment his entries with any number of doodles, diagrams, sketches, drawings, and emoji's.

While there is no standard, journal-writing format, the conventional, rule-devoid, and dialogue-based ones are the most frequently used, examples of which appear below.


My flight from Aruba landed at about 2:00 this afternoon. Then, after waiting for some time at the baggage belt, I picked up my suitcases and called a taxi. It was actually cheaper than leaving my car in the long-term lot for ten days. Since it was still pretty early, there was no rush hour traffic, so I made it home in 20 minutes.

My apartment seemed different somehow when I walked in. The first order of business was to unpack. This is the least favorite part of any trip. But it was worth it, because the trip itself was enjoyable. I feel more relaxed. I got a little suntan. Maybe I'll go back there next year.


Oh, no! Like the movie Groundhog Day. Started all over again. Janet. Ugh! Ugly-the feelings. Broke up with her three months ago. No, not again! Million people in this city! Had to run into you today! Keep walking, you... Out! Out! Give me a break!


I This isn't the first time it's happened.

Me: I know.

I: But why?

Me: You know why.

I: No, I don't. If I did, I wouldn't be asking you now.

Me: Well, you know. If I know, then you know. You just don't want to remember.

I: I don't know what to make of that. Anyway, everyone seems to enjoy going to parties and I'd like to be one of them. But every time I try, I feel such anxiety on the inside.

Me: I know. I'm the one giving it to you.

I: But why? What purpose does it serve?

Me; Do you enjoy going to parties?

I: No, I just told you I don't.

Me: Does anxiety keep you away from them sometimes?

I: Yes, of course! I just said that.

Me: Then maybe that's the purpose-to keep you away.

I: What're you against me or something?

Me: No, we're the same person.

I: So why do you stop me and why do I want to go?

Me: Do you remember that bad incident you-we-had at your party when you were ten?

I: No... wait! It's just coming back to me now. I'd forgotten about it.

Me: Well, I haven't, because you never dealt with it. Do you want that to happen again?

I: No, no, of course not!

Me: Then by me sending up anxiety, it keeps you away, so it'll never happen again.

I: I'd completely forgotten about that! But what makes you so sure it will happen again?

Me: Because, until you fully deal with what happened the first time, there's the possibility that it will happen a second time.

I: Then how do I turn it off, once and for all, so I can enjoy parties again?

Me: Deal with it! Process it! Don't just push it away and pretend that it never happened, because it did. Reduce it. Take the anxiety off of it until there's none left to feel. Then we'll go together, in harmony, not in conflict, and really enjoy the experience.

I: Then we really are one!

Me: When you deal with this, we will be.


While journals reflect the author of them and therefore serve his purpose, they can be associated with six aspects.

1). Written or recorded: Information, ideas, thoughts, observations, questions, feelings, emotions, and musings, along with any applicable visual entries, such as doodles, emoji's, sketches, and drawings, are all recorded on paper or electronically, saved in a computer hard drive or on a USB stick.

2). Dated: Since journal entries document and preserve snippets of a person's life, they should be dated to maintain sequential ordering, enabling the person to later gauge his growth and development in terms of his personal and professional interactions, abilities, insight, and strengths. They can facilitate his understanding of how and why he developed as a result of them.

3). Informal: Informal entries, thoughts, incomplete sentences, and phrases should facilitate ease of expression, avoiding restrictions more structured writing may impose. How much the journalist endeavors to adhere to standard language usage depends upon his writing skill and need.

4). Flexible: The journal provides the greatest degree of choice and flexibility in terms of composition, purpose, format, length, and type of entries, including with whom the author elects to share them.

5). Private or public: As indicated, the journalist may decide to keep his work under lock and key, share it with close friends, read portions of it to other students, or hand it in to a professor in the event that it is used as part of a course's grading system. Celebrities and political and sports figures may earn significant sums of money by publishing their journals.

6). Archival: As a person progresses through life, earlier journals can serve as preserved archives and can be instrumental in the recall of events and his understanding of his self-development. While entries are important, the silent intervals between them may also be revealing. "Historically, journals have been quite important in understanding and examining daily life," noted Stevens and Cooper (ibid, p. 7).


Although there are numerous benefits to maintaining a journal, there are eight primary ones.

1). They foster clear thinking and understanding.

2). They facilitate personal growth and development.

3). hey enable the journalist to process and integrate difficult life events.

4). They enable him to explore and sort out sometimes difficult and not clearly defined feelings and emotions.

5). They enable the person to learn from his experiences and potentially adjust his attitudes and behaviors toward them.

6). They facilitate the charting of future actions and strategies.

7). They improve his communication and writing skills.

8). They can emotionally unburden him and improve his mental, emotional, and physical states. "(An) ancillary benefit of journal keeping is that reflective writing decreases stress and improves health," according to Stevens and Cooper (ibid, p. 15). "There is solid scientific evidence that journal writing improves both emotional and physical health with benefits accruing to both healthy and unhealthy individuals who write regularly about troubling or traumatic events in their lives."


While journal writing, as already discussed, can serve many functions, it can be reduced to two fundamental ones-that is, record and reflect. The first, the documentation of a person's endeavors, activities, actions, interactions, and feelings, is self-explanatory, but the second may carry more importance than is initially apparent.

"The function of reflective thought is... to transform a situation in which there is an experienced obscurity, doubt, conflict, (or) disturbance of some sort into a situation that is clear, coherent, settled, (and) harmonious," wrote Stevens and Cooper (ibid, p. 21).

Reflection, moreover, enables a person to examine, contemplate, and review an experience and then gain some degree of learning or modify his future actions based upon it.

Although there are several methods of reflecting, the journal facilitates it by providing concrete evidence of a person's evolving thought processes, resulting in valuable, but often fleeting glimpses of understanding. As a channel to self-knowledge, it can be considered a significant life-evaluation tool. It enables the journalist to reconstruct prior experiences, derive meaning from them, and make pertinent corrections for the future. In essence, it enables him to record something that occurred outside of him and then reflect upon how it affected something on the inside of him.


These examples illustrate the fact that there are two fundamental types of learning and that the journal can be instrumental in one of them.

1). Informational learning: The acquisition of facts, knowledge, tools, and skills by means of reading, studying, teaching, and training methodologies.

2). Transformational learning: The reflection about experiences and the ability to learn from them, sparking changes in thoughts, beliefs, feelings, perspectives, and behaviors.


As a useful tool, the journal can serve as a stepping stone to numerous goals. There are three significant ones.

Personal Development:

Personal development can be considered the progression from a simpler, lower life stage to a higher, more complex one, one of whose signs is the journalist's ability to reflect upon an experience and construct a new sense of self as a result of it. The mark of this shifting perspective is the person's refocus from what others believe he should feel, think, and want to what he himself believes he should, without regard for their opinion or approval of him. Tantamount to this process is the identification of the thought systems that prove resistant to change.

"Reflecting critically on the assumptions that underlie beliefs and behaviors energize adult development," according to Stevens and Cooper (ibid, p. 33). "Journal writing is a powerful tool for adults who seek to make meaning and to critically reflect on their lives."

Expressing this dynamic on a deeper level, Piper said, "Growing our souls could be defined as the steady accretion of empathy, clarity, and passion for the good... Our lives are journeys toward a certain kind of wisdom... "

Process Adverse Experiences:

"... Inhibiting traumatic events and feelings over time acts as an ongoing stressor, undermining the body's defenses," according to Stevens and Cooper (ibid, p. 16). Yet writing about them, particularly in a journal, enables a person to convert disorganized, chaotic, and fight-or-flight adverse experiences into linguistic form, which creates new mental pathways, desensitizes and processes them, and sheds new light and understanding on them. This process can bridge the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind, enabling the person to reclaim gaps or lost memories.

Compose Letters:

Journals provide the opportunities for people to write letters to others, enabling them to express conflicts, hurts, and feelings they could not if the addressee were present, thus promoting the resolution of issues, a sense of healing, and creating possible closure. "Even if never sent," according to Stevens and Cooper (ibid, p. 150), "letters written to others unburden you by saying the things you want to say, but never would or could... " They can also be written to parts of yourself, your child self, your inner child, your teenage self, your current self, or your future self.


Because journal entries are highly individualistic, there is no right or wrong regarding their content, style, length, and format. Nevertheless, there are numerous topic possibilities. Here are ten of them.

1). What's on my mind?

2). What did I learn today?

3). What did I do well today?

4). What could I have done differently?

5). What are my feelings?

6). Why am I angry, frightened, sad, depressed, excited, elated?

7). What would I like to accomplish next week, next month, next year, when I retire?

8). What can I do to grow as a person and challenge myself?

9). What do I value and why?

10). What am I grateful for?


Because journal writing can be considered an unedited thinking process, it can serve as the foundation for or catalyst to other genre writing, as follows.

-It can be published in its existing form.

-It can form the basis of a short or full-length memoir or autobiography.

-It can provide excerpts for a memoir or autobiography.

-It can furnish ideas for articles, flash fiction stories, short fiction, novels, poems, and/or creative nonfiction pieces.


While journals can serve many purposes, the following quote may capture its ultimate one.

"My journal is like my link to my past activities," concluded Stevens and Cooper (ibid, p. 211). "With my background as an archaeologist, I know that the past is very important in my present. The journal is the historical link to my life. (It) represents life unfolding, days rolling one into the other... My family, my children, even my nieces and nephews, will see who I am and what I did with my life."


Stevens, Dannelle D., and Cooper, Joanne E. "Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight, and Positive Change." Sterling, Virginia: Styles Publishing, 2009.

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