Posted on

Why start a writing journal?

If you’re having trouble getting serious about writing in the new year after all the holiday time away, consider a writing journal. It’s an almost painless way to sneak back into writing and a longstanding writer’s tool to record and develop ideas, work out projects and plots, and save meaningful aphorisms and perfect overheard phrases. Whether you’ve kept a journal for decades, or have never started one, a journal not only can help you write more but also make your writing more effective.

Oh, No—Handwriting?

Granted, the computer is wonderful for writing, with all its automatic editing and saving features (and fingertip access to stalling strategies). But for your journal, consider writing by hand. Many writers recognize its benefits. Natalie Goldberg in her classic Writing Down the Bones (1986) observes: “Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart [than typing]. . . . You are physically engaged with the pen, and your hand, connected to your arm, is pouring out the record of your senses” (pp. 6, 7, 50).

Julia Cameron (1992) prescribed block-breaking with a daily journal she calls the “morning pages.” In The Artist’s Way, she specifies they must be “three pages of longhand writing” (p. 10). And credits them with leading “us out of despair and into undreamed-of solutions” (p. 15).

Longhand has other, possibly less dramatic, rewards. Lee Rourke (2011) quotes novelist Alex Preston:

I composed my first book in a computerised blur; for the second, I wanted to be more scrupulous, more thoughtful. This is the pace of longhand. . . . watching the imprint of pen on page reminds us that writing is a craft.

Preston reflects further:

For me, writing longhand is an utterly personal task where the outer world is closed off, just my thoughts and the movement of my hand across the page to keep me company. . . . It’s a deep-felt, uninterrupted connection between thought and language which technology seems to short circuit.

British novelist Ian McEwan agrees: “I write in a large notebook in longhand. I find a certain kind of freedom. . . . It’s a way of unearthing things slightly below the surface of conscious thought” (Jones, 2022).

Science corroborates, and I quote only one of several articles. Olson (2016) reports that handwriting increases the neural activity of several sections in our brains; sparks creativity; activates areas responsible for thinking, language, healing, and memory; and “forces us to slow down and smell the ink,” especially in our age of instant everything.

Without even knowing the brainological benefits, I too love longhand. It’s like drawing—and meditating. You think, you muse, you scrawl, you admire. Amazingly, often as I’m writing a new idea or answer to what I’m wrestling with springs up, and I know it’s right.

How to Do a Writing Journal?

  • Choose a physical instrument for your journal that pleases you most—a crisp, yellow-lined legal pad, loose sheets of bright-white paper, or an old-fashioned school notebook. Or treat yourself to a gorgeous fabric-covered journal book with blank pages.
  • Write in pen. You’ll take yourself more seriously.
  • Be consistent in format. Decide where to put the date and time—upper right, upper left, in the middle. And number the pages, consecutively throughout the month or by individual entry. Such details may seem annoyingly mundane, but when you establish consistency you gain a sense of order and self-respect.
  • Decide on a minimum number of entries a week (you don’t have to follow Cameron). Schedule them and keep your promise to yourself. Shut the door, turn away from the Internet gossip, ignore the texts on your phone.
  • Choose a place to write that you love, where you feel nurtured and safe. Later, you’ll be able to “carry” this space with you anywhere.
  • Before you start, close your eyes for a few minutes and take some deep breaths. Tell yourself, “I trust my perfect flow of words and ideas.”
  • Remind yourself that your journal is for recording anything. You can always cross out your words or tear up the page. And no one else ever has to see your entries.
  • Feeling stuck with a writing project? Scribble down how you’re feeling right now. Ask yourself questions on paper. If you can identify your paralysis with a specific project, write out the question: “Do I need more backstory?” “How do I get Thatcher out of this mess?” “How should I introduce the research questions to show the groundbreaking nature of my study?” “What should I really highlight in the Conclusion?”
  • If a personal problem or situation is interfering and  revolving endlessly in your head, spill it all out in your journal. Insights may bubble up, and even resolutions.
  • If you’re sure you have nothing to say, just wait. I often repeat the sage words of the American poet Richard Wilbur (1969): “Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind. Something will come to you.”
  • If you need a boost to begin today’s entry, read the previous one and comment on it. Or remember Cameron’s (1992) formula to get going: “I can’t think of anything to write . . .” (p. 12).
  • Trust your mind and what it wants to write. Listen and obey.
  • Remember that the journal is your friend, your confidant, your private therapist, your secret, cherished self.

Why To Do a Writing Journal?

Do you need more reasons to start or continue your journal? Do you still think it’s an emotional indulgence, an empty exercise, or an unproductive activity that takes valuable time away from “real” writing? Here are a few more reasons.

  • Journaling gets you to write regularly. Daily is best, even for fifteen minutes. This regular discipline will ingrain itself in your mind/body/psyche/brain and become a habit that you can transfer to your major writing, especially if you’ve been having problems sticking with it.
  • Journaling gives you practice in “freewriting.” This technique, taught in English and language arts classes in many schools, asks you to choose a subject, maybe one of those life-challenging situations or insurmountable writing quandaries grinding around in your head. Start with whatever comes to you and allow each idea to flow into the next. Soon you’ll have at least a page and probably be ready for more.This kind of writing can lead to all kinds of glorious results—the surfacing of important ideas to incorporate into your latest project; a new exciting idea, subject, character, theme, or realization; or the key to a seemingly unyielding problem in structure, sequence, or content.
  • Regular journal entries get you to loosen up in your writing. Some writers don’t feel they can touch certain subjects. Writing colleagues have admitted they shy away from writing about sex, binge eating, and physical abuse. One writer won’t touch compulsive shopping and never uses mall scenes. In academic writing, you may have avoided writing a strong opinion piece opposing an editorial or article or starting a study about snide journal reviewers. In your journal, especially when you know no one else ever has to see it, you can explore previously self-imposed forbidden topics.
  • You begin to experience literary gold. The more relaxed you get, the more your natural creativity bubbles up. As you keep writing, stunning similes, magnificent metaphors, and superb turns of phrase will spring up full-blown on the page, like Athena from the head of Zeus, ready to do battle with legions of blank lines.
  • You start to admire your writing. Maybe you glance sideways to see if anyone’s watching, but now you dare to give yourself credit. You whisper, or even say out loud, “Hey, that’s great! ” That soaring, matchless feeling suffuses you, and you know you’re finally on the right path and doing what you were meant to do.
  • You gain precious confidence. With this newfound feeling, you’ll resume or attack the writing you’ve let languish, have avoided, or felt stymied with. Your self-discoveries will give you the assurance to renew your commitment to yourself, and you’ll be raring to go, not only with to your next journal entry but with all your other writing projects.With continued journaling, whatever stage you’re at, you’ll undoubtedly find more to appreciate and learn from. Your journal is a wonderful tool for understanding yourself, generating and testing ideas, and growing emotionally, intellectually, professionally, and spiritually. And it’s an instant, almost effortless record of your progress and commitment to your writing.


Cameron, J. (1992). The artist’s way: A spiritual path to higher creativity. Tarcher/Putnam.

Goldberg, N. (1986). Writing down the bones: Freeing the writer within.

Shambhala, pp. 6-7, 50. See also Julia Cameron (2002), Walking in this world: The practical art of creativity. New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam, 2002, pp. 7-9.

Jones, A. (2022): The WD interview: Ian McEwan. Writers Digest.

Olson, N. (2016, May 15). Three ways that handwriting with a pen positively affects your brain. Forbes. 

Rourke, L. (2011, November 3). Why creative writing is better with a pen. The Guardian.

Wilbur, R. (1969). Walking to sleep. In Walking to sleep, new poems and translations. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 1, lines 3-4.

© 2023 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at