I have one diary from my childhood years. It’s a collection of thoughts and stories from a month-long study abroad trip I took in high school. Every few years (usually when I’m moving and it needs to get packed in a box), I read through it.
And then I wonder what on Earth I was thinking. Yes, it’s lovely that I have a record of one of my favorite experiences as a teenager. But it’s so… navel-gazing. Even more than being your typical cringe-worthy high-school angst, it’s just more of me than I need to look back on.
This type of reflection is not something I find helpful, either in the act of creation or review. To me, it’s a lovely idea, but in reality, it doesn’t fit the way my mind works.
I have several lovely journals, either purchased in a fit of “it’s pretty so of course I’ll write in it” or given to me as a gift by someone who knows how much I love to write.
All those gorgeous collections of pretty paper bound by even prettier covers sit in a keepsake box stuffed somewhere in a closet, all empty.
I used to think I should get better at writing in a journal. I thought that it would help me track my daily actions, get my thoughts out on paper, and maybe even make me a better writer.
I thought all that because, while writing in a diary is considered a teenage activity, journaling as an adult is supposed to be different.
As writers, we are supposed to journal for our own good. To practice. To know ourselves. For personal development. To clear our heads.
Every time I read an article about how journaling will change my life, I cringe. Whatever they’re selling, I’m definitely not buying it.
Hi. I’m a writer, and I hate journaling.
I understand the point of keeping a journal or diary. It’s a good way to keep track of things, organize your inner thoughts, or practice writing, and I’ve learned a lot from some of the great diarists of our time.
Captain Picard taught me that it was a good way to keep up with both the official record of events and the analysis a leader needs to process those events. River Song taught me that a well-kept diary is the only way to keep up with your time-traveling soul mate, though it’s best to avoid spoilers. And the Mystic Falls gang taught me that sometimes writing a diary to your best friend is the only way to keep her up to date while she’s in a frozen vampire coma that can only be broken when one of her best friends dies.
That third thing probably doesn’t have a lot of real-world application.
With my background in history, I get that journals are important. They are a primary source we can study to see what happened in the past and learn from it. As a historian, there’s no such thing as a boring diary.
But in my real modern world, I can’t imagine writing down what I did every day in a notebook or journal. Besides, a giant portion of my life is already chronicled via social media. Life tracking, no effort required.
There are tangible benefits to journaling. Getting it all down on paper is supposed to free you from the day’s events and help you meet your writing targets. Journaling is also supposed to help you visualize and track goals, get you writing every day to create a habit, boost your memory, clear your head of jumbled thoughts, process trauma, create mindfulness, spark creativity, improve your writing, and foster world peace. (Right. Maybe not that last one.)
For some writers, these things are true. Journaling does help them.
But does it really do that for everyone?
For some writers, it’s more stressful to keep a journal because there’s pressure to get whatever we put down on paper “right.” Even as often as we remember that every first draft is shit, and journals are supposed to be for fun, it’s hard to write and not want to do it well.
There’s also pressure in the fact that you’re supposed to feel better after you write in a journal. It’s supposed to be a form of therapy—get all your angst and stress and anger and whatever down on a page and you’ll magically feel better.
For some people, that’s true. I don’t want to discount the practice because writing something down can absolutely be therapeutic. But not always and not for everyone.
If you’re one of those people who doesn’t find healing in journaling, that’s more than okay.
For some writers, seeing daily thoughts written down is stressful in another way. It’s reliving the day or over-analyzing thoughts and actions. Me, I live in my head all day anyway. The last thing I need is another way of over-analyzing my crazy brain (trust me, I don’t need any help doing that).
If you’re a professional writer, you’re writing every day already. Writing articles or blog posts, managing your brand on social media, drafting newsletters, striving to reach your word count on a chapter: Who needs to add writing in a journal to their job jar?
Putting another word-filled task on your to-do list is likely to cause more stress than benefit. And if you’re stressed out by the thought of sitting down to write, that feeling can bleed over into other writing tasks. If one kind of writing turns into something you dread, you may start to feel that way about writing in general.
And dreading writing hurts your ability to create sharp content.
Journaling isn’t for every writer. And that’s fine. Just like we all don’t need to be Martha Stewart in the kitchen (though I kind of aspire to be Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg together in the kitchen), we don’t all need to be dedicated journalers.
If, like me, the thought of journaling makes you break out into hives, I have good news.
You don’t have to journal.
It’s not a required thing, and if someone tries to make you feel bad for not journaling, shut ‘em down.
You’ve probably realized this fact by now, but I’m not a fan of arbitrary rule books. When someone tells me I should do something for my own good or because that’s the way it’s done, my first reaction is to do exactly the opposite.
I might be a bit contrary, I know. (Somewhere, my mother is laughing madly.)
If you’re feeling like you should journal, though, take a look at what goal you think journaling is supposed to realize. Are you hoping to become a better writer? Keep yourself organized? Clear your head and destress? Once you have a desired endpoint in mind, then you can figure out what type of writing exercise you can do instead.
So, what’s your goal for journaling? Let’s look at a few of the things we’re told journaling can help us accomplish, and then what we might do as an alternative.
Back in another career life, one of my responsibilities was managing metrics creation and reporting for my government agency. It’s possible I still have nightmares about four-hour monthly meetings where all the programs reported on the stop-light chart for their metrics. (Important, critical stuff—absolutely. Doesn’t mean I ever want to do it again!)
For multi-billion dollar spacecrafts, I appreciate the constant checking in on whether metrics like schedule, budget, and technology development are being met. For my own business, I follow the sage advice of some wise Southern rockers. As .38 Special says, “Hold on loosely. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.”
Tracking goals is good, but if you dwell on them every day, you may lose sight of what those goals mean.
Instead of journaling about your goals every day, try putting them in a list that you put aside somewhere. Then take that list out every month and see how you’re doing.
Today, I am thankful that January is over. Seriously, whose bright idea was it to have a month where it’s just cold and long? Poor planning, imo.
— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) February 2, 2018
To be honest, I love the concept of writing down things for which you’re grateful. Acknowledging the good things that have happened to us reminds us of the general good in the world.
I still don’t think you have to journal these items—at least not in the traditional sense. Parker Molloy uses Twitter for a “thankfulness thread” which is an idea that I adore in its simplicity and ease. Every night before she goes to bed, she thinks of one thing for which she is thankful and then tweets it.
This action is a little bit like looking at cute animal pictures; you’re redirecting your brain to think of something positive. If you’re a perfectionist (wait, isn’t that a synonym for writer?), then your brain is probably full of negative thoughts (my pitch wasn’t accepted, it must have been terrible; I didn’t reach my word count, I’m never going to finish; wow, that draft really was a piece of crap). Taking even a minute to be thankful for something points your brain back to the sunny side of the street.
I like the idea of using Twitter or some other social media platform because I think it builds a sense of community. We’re all in this together; if you see other writers being thankful, that’s positive reinforcement for your brain.
As a professional writer, you should already be writing every day (except for vacation days, which you should be taking). It’s hard to think about “practice” when your whole professional to-do list involves creating words.
So don’t journal for practice. Instead, craft a specific, directed practice. Whether that’s copying from master writers or sitting down every day to free write on a topic of the day, find something that lets you engage in a specific activity that allows you to learn and do.
You might find a class, either virtual or in person, or you might create your own practice. I belong to a writing group that posts writing prompts on our Facebook page, the idea being that we can use those prompts specifically to practice writing.
I’ll admit that one of my favorite tropes is that of the narrator voice-over providing some kind of exposition via reading from a diary. It’s a useful trick for television and movies, but nobody actually writes like that in a diary.
Or walks around reading aloud from it in public.
If your end goal for journaling is to get words out into the world, a journal doesn’t really help you with that. Yes, blogs were originally created as online diaries, and people do still use them that way, but if it’s a traditional diary-style blog, it’s probably still mostly an individual’s internal thoughts. If it’s an outwardly focused personal blog, it’s probably carefully curated and crafted, which defeats the purpose of what journaling is supposed to be.
As a child, Ann Handley decided that she needed to write a newsletter instead of a journal because she “needed to write to someone.” As she said: “What’s the point of writing things you already know to yourself? Day after day? Soooooo. Boooooring.”
If your goal is to get your words out into the world, pick a method that will let you connect and engage with people. Maybe it’s a newsletter, maybe it’s fan fiction, maybe it’s social media.
To me, journaling is the easy way out. It’s an internal document, meant for your eyes only. If you really want to speak to more than an audience of one, you have to write for other people and get your words out into the wide world. If you connect with people, in whatever written form, you’ll get feedback on your work and learn how to improve.
One thing I see pro-journalers advocate is how writing in a journal helps them clear their head so they can write more productively. I think that’s a great thing to strive for, and if it works for them (or you), fantastic.
My head is not that easy to clear, though, and maybe yours isn’t either.
I do write things down: the last line in a story I haven’t started yet, an idea for an article pitch, a thing my main character would definitely say in reaction to a situation. If you’ve got a specific reference or piece of dialogue burning a hole in your brain, writing it down might be the only way to move on to the actual project you need to work on.
Having a notebook (or an online document) to collect all these snippets, bits, and pieces is a good way to keep things organized so you can find them again. And lest you think, well, that’s a journal, since it’s not something you have to do regularly, I say it falls on the not-journaling side of things. (It’s the equivalent of Lorelai Gilmore’s box of random notes she jotted down when she and Rory weren’t speaking.)
Thinking through an idea can be the hardest part of the writing process. If you’d rather not use a journal as means of thinking through an idea, thinking out loud might be more up your alley. Sometimes it helps to talk things out (or diagram or draw pictures). Hearing your idea spoken or seeing a graphic representation of it can help you solidify your idea so that you can move into the writing part.
It’s also good to get away from writing in order to clear your head. Go for a run, walk your dog, listen to the Silversun Pickups’ Panic Switch very, very loudly — get out of your head in order to clear it.
If you’re into journaling, that’s great. Lots of people find it helpful. But if you’re not, that’s good, too.
There are a lot of reasons writers of all kinds might find journaling to be a lot of unnecessary pressure—everything from not wanting to dwell on past actions to too much other writing to do.
The important thing is to figure out what kind of end result you might get from journaling and then find another way to reach that same result.
You can use social media, a curated practice, or even not writing at all to get some of the same benefits as people find through journaling.
Finding your alternative to journaling will help you be more productive, motivated, and positive.
So if you hate journaling, too, then get out there and find what does work for you.
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.