Writing a Personal Journal

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A journal is a written record of incidents, experiences, and ideas. Also known as a personal journalnotebook, diary, and log.

Writers often keep journals to record observations and explore ideas that may eventually be developed into more formal essays, articles, and stories.

"The personal journal is a very private document," says Brian Alleyne, "a place where the author records and reflects on life's events. Knowledge of the self in the personal journal is retrospective knowledge and therefore potentially narrative self-knowledge (Narrative Networks, 2015).


  • "The writer's journal is a record of and workbook for your writing life. It is your repository for bits of experience, observation and thought destined for eventual use in one writing project or another. The entries in a personal journal tend to be abstract, but the entries in a writer's journal should be concrete." (Alice Orr, No More Rejections. Writer's Digest Books, 2004)
  • "All of us who keep journals do so for different reasons, I suppose, but we must have in common a fascination with the surprising patterns that emerge over the years—a sort of arabesque in which certain elements appear and reappear, like the designs in a well-wrought novel." (Joyce Carol Oates, interviewed by Robert Phillips. The Paris Review, Fall-Winter 1978)
  • "Think nothing too trifling to write down, so it be in the smallest degree characteristic. You will be surprised to find on reperusing your journal what an importance and graphic power these little particulars assume." (Nathaniel Hawthorne, letter to Horatio Bridge, May 3, 1843)

Poet Stephen Spender: "Write Anything"

"I feel as though I could not write again. Words seem to break in my mind like sticks when I put them down on paper. . . .

"I must put out my hands and grasp the handfuls of facts. How extraordinary they are! The aluminum balloons seem nailed into the sky like those bolts which hold together the irradiating struts between the wings of a biplane. The streets become more and more deserted, and the West End is full of shops to let. Sandbags are laid above the glass pavements over basements along the sidewalk. . . .

"The best thing is to write anything, anything that comes into my mind until there is a calm and creative day. It is essential to be patient and to remember that nothing one feels is the last word." (Stephen Spender, Journal, London, September 1939)

Orwell's Notebook Entry

"Curious effect, here in the sanatorium, on Easter Sunday, when people in this (the most expensive) block of 'chalets' mostly have visitors, of hearing large numbers of upper-class English voices. . . . And what voices! A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter abt nothing, above all a sort of heaviness and richness combined with a fundamental ill will." (George Orwell, notebook entry for April 17, 1949, Collected Essays 1945-1950)

Functions of a Journal

"Many professional writers use journals, and the habit is a good one for anybody interested in writing, even if he or she has no literary ambitions. Journals store perceptions, ideas, emotions, actions—all future material for essays or stories. The Journals of Henry Thoreau are a famous example, as are A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf, the Notebooks of the French novelist Albert Camus, and 'A War-time Diary' by the English writer George Orwell.

"If a journal is really to help you develop as a writer, you've got to do more than compose trite commonplaces or mechanically list what happens each day. You have to look honestly and freshly at the world around you and at the self within." (Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford University Press, 1988)

Thoreau's Journals

"As repositories of facts, Thoreau's journals act like a writer's warehouse in which he indexes his stored observations. Here is a typical list:

It occurs to me that these phenomena occur simultaneously, say June 12, viz:
Heat about 85 at 2P.M. True summer.
Hylodes cease to peep.
Purring frogs ( Rana palustris) cease.
Lightning bugs first seen.
Bullfrogs trump generally.
Mosquitoes begin to be really troublesome.
Afternoon thunder-showers almost regular.
Sleep with open window (10th), and wear thin coat and ribbon neck.
Turtles fairly and generally begun to lay. [15 June 1860]

In addition to their function as storage, the journals constitute a complex of processing plants as well, where the notations become descriptions, meditations, ruminations, judgments, and other types of studies: 'From all points of the compass, from the earth beneath and the heavens above, have come these inspirations and been entered duly in the order of arrival in the journal. Thereafter, when the time arrived, they were winnowed into lectures, and again, in due time, from lectures into essays' (1845-1847). In short, in the journals, Thoreau negotiates the transformation of facts into forms of written expressions that have entirely different orders of resonance . . .." (Robert E. Belknap, The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing. Yale University Press, 2004)

A Contrarian's View

"People ask whether I use a notebook, and the answer is no. I think a writer's notebook is the best way there is to immortalize really bad ideas, whereas the Darwinian process takes place if you don't write anything down. The bad ones float away, and the good ones stay." (Stephen King, quoted in "What's on Stephen King's Dark Side?" by Brian Truitt. USA Weekend, October 29-31, 2010)

Are Journal-Keepers Introspective or Self-Absorbed?

"Some people like to keep a journal. Some people think it’s a bad idea.

"People who keep a journal often see it as part of the process of self-understanding and personal growth. They don’t want insights and events to slip through their minds. They think with their fingers and have to write to process experiences and become aware of their feelings.

"People who oppose journal-keeping fear it contributes to self-absorption and narcissism. C.S. Lewis, who kept a journal at times, feared that it just aggravated sadness and reinforced neurosis. Gen. George Marshall did not keep a diary during World War II because he thought it would lead to 'self-deception or hesitation in reaching decisions.'

"The question is: How do you succeed in being introspective without being self-absorbed?" (David Brooks, "Introspective or Narcissistic?" The New York Times, August 7, 2014)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Writing a Personal Journal." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-journal-1691206. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Writing a Personal Journal. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-journal-1691206 Nordquist, Richard. "Writing a Personal Journal." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-journal-1691206 (accessed June 4, 2023).