Illustration by Sid Estelle in article about journaling

4 Journaling Techniques That Will Help You Put Pen to Paper

Have you always wanted to start a journal, but didn't know where to begin? Try one of these simple techniques to get started on your daily journaling journey.
August 12, 2020
8 mins read

Many people have taken to the internet to sing the praises of consistent journaling. Bloggers compile lists of how journaling has benefitted them and YouTubers boldly exclaim that their daily journals have changed their lives. It is as if there is a club of enlightened writers whose existence has been elevated by paper and pen. It’s easy, they proclaim. Just sit down and write!

But if you have clicked on this article, there is a good chance that you, like me, know it’s not so simple. I cannot count the number of instances that I have adamantly insisted this was the time I would begin regular journaling, only to break the habit after a month or so.

However, within the past few years, with the help of specific journaling techniques, I have transformed into a regular journaler. Do I claim to be some super version of my past self? Am I part of an exclusive club? Not quite. But these techniques have enabled me to carve out a time of day for myself to explore my thoughts and emotions with paper and a pen.

Using the following methods, I was finally able to break the cycle of on-and-off journaling.

1. Morning Pages

Morning Pages is not a new idea. The technique comes from Julia Cameron’s 1992 book, “The Artist’s Way,” which explores the cultivation of creativity. At its very core, it is quite simple: Write in a stream-of-consciousness style every morning. In other words, write whatever is on your mind and try not to stop. The writing doesn’t need to make sense or be cohesive. Take the phrase “mind dump” literally.

Some people may be turned off by the many rules that accompany Cameron’s original concept. It includes writing in three 8.5-by-11-inch pages every morning after waking up, in a journal set aside for this particular use.

This may sound like a lot, especially for those not used to journaling. If this is so, modify the practice to fit you. Perhaps you want to start with just one page of writing. Maybe you would prefer to write evening pages. In the words of Cameron herself, “There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages — they are not high art.” Take that phrase to heart and develop your own writing routine that retains regular stream-of-consciousness writing at its core.

Why is the stream-of-consciousness style so important? According to Cameron, by writing without expectation or direction, the uninhibited mind can go wild. Writers can work through their thoughts, goals, dreams, fears, etc.

I find this journaling technique to be particularly useful because it allows me to shed expectations of recording everything perfectly. Furthermore, the specific type and amount of writing creates a measurable and attainable goal. This is useful in the development of a journaling habit.

2. Writing Prompts

The blank page can intimidate the aspiring journaler as much as the aspiring novelist. Perhaps you open your journal and then have no clue what to write. This is where a journal prompt list comes in handy.

Prompt lists with different themes exist across the internet. Perhaps you want a list with prompts that relate to a specific season, or one that will aid in self-growth. These lists provide you with guided questions to answer, or ideas to explore every day.

Maybe you’ll just answer the question, or maybe the prompt will get the ball rolling and you’ll write more. Either way, journaling is made simpler. All you have to do is write what comes to mind. Prompt lists help new journalers hold themselves accountable.

My current favorite prompt list comes from Jo Franco, a YouTuber, writer and founder of the travel company Shut Up and Go. You may be familiar with her popular YouTube channel, Damon and Jo. At the beginning of quarantine, she started a journal challenge and posted the 30 Day of Journal Prompts, which has since grown to 60 and then 90 days.

Her prompts are introspective and thoughtful. For even more fun, check out her Instagram to see what she and other people have written in response to these prompts.

Instagram will load in the frontend.

3. Four-Square

I was first introduced to Lynda Barry and her four-square journaling technique in a college writing class. To some of my classmates’ chagrin, we were required to fill a journal with daily practice of this technique. I, however, fell in love with the method.

Barry is a cartoonist, writer and teacher whose creativity and journals never fail to inspire me. She shares her visual and whimsical journaling on her Tumblr, which I highly recommend checking out. Her four-square technique will have you emulating her whimsy in your journal in no time.

The technique is quick and simple. Divide a page into four sections. Title them “did,” “saw/noticed,” “heard” and “drawing.” Then fill in each section accordingly using bullet points.

Under “did,” list how you spent your day. For “saw/noticed,” record the visuals you encountered. For “heard” — my favorite — eavesdropping will come in handy. You will find yourself remembering some hilarious conversations. Finally, include a little sketch that relates to your day.  Do not worry about the quality of the drawing. Just have fun!

If this feels intimidating, set a one-minute timer for each section and fill in what you can. The exercise may feel awkward at first, but it will become second nature. In fact, this is my favorite journaling technique on the list.

Keeping a four-square journal was fun and easy to fit into my day. It gave me a record of how I spent a full semester, and reading through the conversations I overheard never fails to make me laugh. Not only that, but Barry’s technique taught me to be more observant throughout my day. Even if this technique sounds strange to you, I urge you to give it a try.

4. Lists

For those who have a hard time fitting journaling into their schedule or are especially daunted by the prospect of daily journaling, list writing is the perfect alternative. Some may push list writing to the side, discounting the technique as too simple. But, there are no rules for journaling. Full sentences are not a requirement. Lists are fast, fun and helpful.

What type of lists am I referring to? It can be anything. You can create a list of things you want to bake, places you want to travel or places you have been. Be creative. Do not constrain yourself to the basic to-do list. You can even decorate your lists with little doodles.

Lists will get you writing in a painless way, and they are guaranteed to be enjoyable. They are low stakes and low stress. Not to mention, they are amusing and, at times, helpful to reference them in the future. They are a great way to get you accustomed to writing and to develop the habit of consistent journaling.

These journaling techniques will help you develop a ritual that you enjoy and are excited to do. Creating this habit inevitably requires a degree of discipline, but starting small, perhaps with lists or using specific writing guidelines, will aid you in doing so.

Make your journaling sessions pleasant and consistent. Perhaps you can sit outside or make yourself a big mug of tea beforehand. Maybe you can write in a special journal or with your favorite pen. Soon enough, journaling will become a part of your day that you look forward to. Maybe you will even reach journal-led enlightenment.

Renee Cantor, University of Pittsburgh

Writer Profile

Renee Cantor

University of Pittsburgh
English Literature and Fiction Writing

I’m Renee, a rising junior at the University of Pittsburgh studying literature, fiction writing, and Spanish. Aside from writing, some of my favorite activities are reading, hiking, baking, and playing with dogs (of course!).

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