Lesson 1: How to Keep a Personal Journal


Have you ever taken up an activity just because someone in a book does it? Yours Truly Skye O’Shea made me want to play hockey, and after reading Anna and the French Kiss I started writing film reviews. But the best habit-from-fiction was starting a journal after reading the Amazing Days of Abby Hayes series as a kid.

Abby Hayes is a super-cool curly red-haired middle school chick whose room is covered in calendars (I started a calendar collection too, surprise surprise), and who loves writing in her journal with a purple pen.

The best New Year’s Resolution I ever kept was to journal every day. Throughout my childhood, I started journals, and kept them sporadically, but since about age 13, I’ve been writing every day, even if only for a sentence or even a clause.

Why Keep a Journal?

  • To be a better writer. Journalling is the singly-most useful thing I have done to improve my writing, whether academic or for my blog. To find your voice as a writer, first you have to free it. Separate the writer and the editor and let your creative self run wild. You can tame it later if necessary.
  • To find yourself. If you put pen to paper honestly and without filter, you’ll be surprised at the insights you can make into yourself. Does your head ever feel cluttered with thoughts? Mine does, and nothing cures it as much as an honest free write.
  • To motivate yourself. When I feel mopey and unmotivated, the best thing I can do is force myself to write on paper. Once I see the words “Uggh I don’t feel like doing anything waaaa” I realize how stupid I’m being.
  • To be a better artist. In The Artist’s Way, Julie Cameron recommends starting each day with a “morning pages” ritual.

How to Keep a Journal

First, find a notebook that inspires you. My first journal, at age 8, was a composition book. I’ve tried different kinds over the years (spiral, bound, lined, non-lined), and have settled on Molekine sketchbooks: unlined and bound, but shut with elastic. This last feature is important for keeping the journal private. I know it’s tempting for prying eyes, but they’re likely to be that much more restrained when faced with a barrier. I also like to keep books somewhat uniform. I adore Blair Waldorf’s matching set from Tiffany’s:

Lesson 1: How to Keep a Personal Journal

Next, choose a writing instruments. I write best with fountain and ballpoint pens, and am most studious with pencil. Middle school conditioned me.

Establish a routine. Write first thing in the morning, just after breakfast, on the Tube home, or just before bed. Pick one time of day and stick to it. Somewhere I’d read of a man who journalled only during spare moments before flights – a calm ritual for a frequent flyer. Set triggers.

Don’t let anyone read it. Not just so that you can divulge your deepest secrets, but also to free yourself from judgment. No pressure to be witty, eloquent, or brilliant. Be your unedited self and trust that it’s enough.

What to Write About

Put pen to paper. Force yourself not to stop. Keep writing, even if you include “uh”s and “…”s. At first your entries might just be “I don’t know what to write. This is awkward”. Stick to it and you’ll find your groove.

As a kid I felt compelled to introduce myself to each new book, complete with location and favourite colour. Do this if you want, but I don’t bother anymore. I used to also name my journals, since Anne Frank did. I don’t anymore. I just start each entry with a star and the date.

Start with just a sentence. Some of my entries are just the date and “I’m too tired to write”. It’s a start. I upped it to a page, and now I write at least four pages each morning.

Listen to music. Some background music can spark emotions or thoughts.

Journal in interesting places. I like to sit on the roof, or just outside, and am inspired by nature’s sights and sounds. You can also journal while people-watching in a train station, or in a cosy bookstore armchair – mix it up and see what comes to you!


What is your first step?

Is it picking out a journal?

Do you already have one, but you need to start a routine?

Share your progress in the comments! 

images: 1 2 3 4

  • I love this as a lesson. When I read Harriet the Spy, I started taking notes on things I saw in my neighborhood, but ultimately I think it was just the act of writing in a special notebook that stayed with me.

    • Xandra | Fashionably Light ★

      ooo that’s another great reason to keep a journal: to be a star spy! Thanks for reading and sharing 🙂

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  • I’ve started just keeping a little notebook in my purse to write down observations and, essentially, rough drafts of writings!

    • Xandra | Fashionably Light ★

      I used to have a sort of ‘doodles’ book that was for random notes and drafts. I’ve been meaning to start a ‘commonplace’ book like Klaus’s in A Series of Unfortunate Events too 🙂

      • Ahhh! I swear, I’ve had commonplace books on my mind since my sophomore year of college! I’ve always wanted to start one; maybe I’ll have to take the leap!

  • I’ve always tried to keep journals for as long as I can remember, but I often find that I have trouble sticking to it. I think I need to carve out a specific time in the day to fill up my journal. I write in a lined purple Moleskine. I’m not much of an artist, so the lines suit me better. 🙂

    – Sam, http://thelifeandtimesofsam.wordpress.com

    • Xandra | Fashionably Light ★

      My handwriting gets big sometimes, and writing on plain paper makes me feel like I live in a different century 🙂 Fitting journaling into your routine is the key! And starting small 🙂

  • Maggie K

    I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing in my journal every day. This is the prefect reminder to get back into it!

    • Xandra | Fashionably Light ★

      Yes! Get on it – you’ll feel great 🙂

  • Virginia

    I finally sorted out my journaling routine last month: after showering and dressing, a bulletproof coffee in my hand, I journal while I drink — about a page most days. I make sure to write a mantra for the day. I then do a 3min meditation on that mantra! It has really improved my mornings!

    • liesbeth

      This sounds awesome! I want to try that!

    • Xandra | Fashionably Light ★

      BEAUTIFUL! A mantra is such an empowering idea. Good for you for sticking to it! I’m sure the bulletproof coffee helps too 🙂 My morning cup of tea helps me get into my writing.

  • First of all, I have to aplogize if I make some mistakes, English is not my native language. 🙂 Ok, so I look forward starting a new junral. I’ve been writnig it since I was a young girl, but recently I’ve noticed that only write sad things and that I never feel any better after writing and so I’ve stopped writing. This is a fresh start and I can’t wait to see where will it take me. 🙂

    • Xandra | Fashionably Light ★

      If writing about sad things makes you feel sad, maybe you should write about happy things to feel happy! 🙂

  • Sierra Elmore

    I miss journaling! You’ve convinced me to start again after reading this. Amazing article! (And Blair Waldorf’s journals? Um, adorable!)

    • Xandra | Fashionably Light ★

      Yay! You should definitely journal, miss novelist! 😉

  • Foreign Geek

    I wrote a dairy for a year in 2012 but then I stopped. I am quite interested with the morning pages ritual, maybe I should start with that.

    I have a question, do you seperate your organizer and personal journal? If yes, why?

    • Xandra | Fashionably Light ★

      Yes, I do! My personal journal is just for my stream-of-consciousness thoughts. I like to keep it contained like that. I have a separate Moleskine planner that has dates already printed in it, and another notebook just for blog planning. I like to keep them distinct. In the Princess Diaries series, Mia sometimes writes algebra notes and homework assignments down in her diary, but I could never do that! Good luck getting started 🙂

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  • I just stumbled upon this amazing program you´ve created. And already the first lesson is great. I already have the journal, now all i need is to find that daily routine!
    I used to keep tons of diaries in my teens and write almost everyday. i love going back and reading them and seeing how the old me used to be, but somehow life got in the way as i grew older and i regret not keeping up that journaling because i feel like those years and stories are lost somehow as i will surely forget them over time….
    i´m determined to not let that happen again now!

    • Xandra | Fashionably Light ★

      Keep the stories coming! I am always surprised at how much I have matured (as in: how immature I was…) even one journal later!

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  • KittenH

    I have a horrifying story: I have been writing diaries since I was six but when I turned 14 I threw all my notebooks away in a fit of teenage angst! I carried on writing diaries continuously (if not every single day)…but I sure would like to know what six year old me used to write about!

    • Xandra | Fashionably Light ★

      oh no RAAAAGE! I guess you’ll have to pick up the story where you left off, and leave the earlier volumes to your imagination 🙂

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