Getting started

Journaling for Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide

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How to start a journal as a beginner? It can be an intimidating task.

Which notebook should you use?

What should you put in it?

What if someone finds it?

How do you keep your journaling up for more than a day or two?

This guide will answer all those questions and more. Journaling is supposed to be fun and interesting, not scary!

Why should you start a journal?

A blank journal is a world of possibilities. You can use it to keep important information relating to a hobby, for setting and managing goals, or for keeping memories of travels, events or just life in general, to name a few.

Journaling is scientifically documented to reap powerful benefits. It can help you manage anxiety, reduce stress and cope with depression. It also benefits those who don’t suffer from any kind of mental health problem because it promotes clear thought, creativity and emotional stability, which is useful for anyone in all areas of life.

One form of journaling, called expressive writing, has been shown to improve mental and physical health for people who wrote about stressful or traumatic events for 15-20 minutes, 3-5 times. That’s improvements in both mental and physical health for about four hours of writing in total.

If you need any more convincing of the benefits of journaling, I go a bit more in-depth on the topic here.

Is it too late to start journaling?

Of course not!

Listen, journaling doesn’t have to be an account of your life from birth to death. There’s no time limit on this. You decide what the purpose of your journaling is: If it’s record-keeping, there will be some details you’ll have forgotten. But you remember the turning points in your life, and you can always write about those.

Besides, going forward you will want to turn your eyes to the now and beyond. Are you still a growing, learning, living human? Assuming the answer is yes, the question of whether it’s “too late” is completely moot.

Why wouldn’t you be able to start writing about the life you’re living right now?

What will I need to start journaling?

Two things:

  • Paper to write on
  • Some kind of writing instrument

That’s it. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. There are no standards you need to live up to, no rules you have to follow.

However, if you’re the type to be motivated by attractive supplies, by all means go and get yourself a Moleskine and a fountain pen and get cracking. I’m just saying it’s not by any means needed, and if you’re at all anxious about doing things “the right way”, those attractive supplies might be more intimidating than motivating.

Bonus story: When I was 15, my cousin gave me a gorgeous green satin-y hardback journal for Christmas. I thanked her profusely and never used it.

That’s what I get for being a perfectionist. I never got over the fear of that particular journal, but I tear into everything I buy now (so long as I’ve found a use for it).

What if someone finds my journal?

My solution for this is to never bring a journal anywhere I’m not sure I could keep it safe. I also never bring a journal containing anything I’d feel ashamed of people seeing. If I’m out and about without a journal and need to write down private thoughts, I just use my phone. I can always copy important things into my journals.

You could also just use a good ol’ Word document for journaling. To make it easier to navigate you could make a new document for each month of the year or separate your entries in another way that makes sense to you. Password protect the document so no one can get at it.

Or, if that sounds too inconvenient…

Online journaling

Online journaling seems to have exploded in the last few years. I’ve used Journey quite regularly since 2016, and it’s one great service among many others. Here are 10 contenders for the best online journaling apps in 2018. Some of them, like Journey, have desktop versions. (I’m not paid for saying this. I just like Journey.)

Some people sign up for WordPress or Blogspot or a similar service and maintain a private blog there. Although I have tried it, I personally couldn’t get comfortable with this option. While nothing bad ever happened, it just felt weird keeping sensitive details on a platform ultimately meant for sharing.

It’s easier to relax when you know there’s nothing you could accidentally fiddle with and end up compromising your privacy.

How should I start my journal entries?

With the date, pretty much. From there it all comes down to what you want to do.

If I’m just writing a general entry about my day, I’ll typically start with the most important-seeming thing, like an accomplishment or good experience. Or an important-seeming failure, if it’s that kind of day. Then I just let my brain take over and let it all rush out.

If nothing’s coming out, try setting a timer for three minutes and writing absolutely whatever, no holds barred. Once I made myself laugh for ten minutes writing like that. It’s called freewriting, and it can potentially both get you over a block and give you some interesting ideas.

What should I put in my journal?

Picture of a journal page

Anything you want. There’s no “should”. Try to think of journaling as less of “putting things in a journal” and more as “putting my thoughts into words”.

There’s no sense in overcomplicating it, just write a page about your day or how life’s been recently. It’s a start. As you get more used to journaling you’re likely to find a form you’re comfortable with. Here’s a snippet of what I’d write about my day so far:

“Woke up at 5.30 today of my own accord. Spent about an hour in bed on my phone and then got up to make coffee. I was hungry, but I seem to function better when I wait a few hours or more before I eat, so I’m thinking of trying that for a while now.

Playing with Callie in the morning seems to have worked, she’s been more calm today. I’ll start putting in playtime before breakfast and lunch, I think. I should maybe order another rod though, just so she has some variety. I think she’s getting bored of this one.

Spoke to Hanna today, she’s in the middle of exams and is stressing out a bit…”

You get the point. Is it exciting? Not particularly. Does it keep me on track and give me a sense of continuity from day to day? Absolutely. (Oh, and Callie is my cat, in case you’re wondering what weird shenanigans I get up to in the mornings.)

But I seriously have no idea what to write!

Okay, try journaling prompts. Here’s a good list from Thought Catalog. You’ll find tons more just by searching for journal prompts on Google or Pinterest.

You could also check out my post on different types of journals for more ideas.

It doesn’t feel like I’m being honest in my journal

First, make sure that your journaling conditions are optimal. If you’re scared of someone reading your journal it’ll be much harder to open up, so it’s important to be relaxed.

Consider online journaling or even just a Word document if you don’t trust a physical journal to be left alone.

All good? Okay, a few other ideas to help you open up:

  • Remember that the point of journaling is not to make you look good. You can do that if you want, but it will likely not grant you new insights. To open up and be honest, you need to be willing to accept reality as it is for you right now. What you write is not truth; is just a truth, subject to change as everything else. It will not harm you. All it will do, if you open up to it, is allow you to make changes.
  • Give it time. “Yeah, yeah”, I hear you say, but if you’ve never journaled before, it will feel new. You can’t expect anything else. If you feel safe that your words won’t be read, the only person you’re hiding your words from is yourself. That will take a little time to change, but it will be worth it.
  • Try drawing when words fail. Some things we aren’t always ready to put into words. If you still want to express them somehow, drawing may help. Focus on how you’re feeling and let that guide your pen.
  • Burn or delete the page after writing it.

How do I stay consistent?

Okay, let me stress the absolutely most important point here: Do not make rules and beat yourself up for not sticking to them. That only leads to a sense of pressure and guilt, which is exactly the opposite of what we need for productive journaling.

Instead, make a guideline that shouldn’t be too hard to follow. Five minutes after you wake up or before you go to bed, for example. You spend more time in the bathroom each day – you can do five minutes.

1. Stay realistic, understand your ups and downs

If you’re excited about journaling it might be tempting to promise yourself to always write as much as you feel like writing right now. But trust me, the days will come when you don’t want to journal. And that’s no problem, you don’t have to, but you will not like that promise you made to yourself.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone to commit to extensive journaling come hell or high water. It really is fine to let your journaling ebb and flow in tune with the rest of your life. I do it all the time.

2. Make your journal visible

Put it somewhere you’re likely to see it. It’s so simple, but it’s probably the most effective way of remembering there is. If you’ve opted for an online journal, set a reminder on your phone to journal or write a post-it note and stick it somewhere visible.

3. Know your whys

Something drew you to journaling. What was it? The promise of emotional clarity? The thought of looking back on your memories? Simply the tactical sensation of writing? Whatever it was, I suggest writing it down somewhere and reading it before you start journaling.

Our brains are fickle things – they don’t like doing things that don’t seem fun. Your whys are the most powerful reminders you have of why this new thing actually IS fun. Your brain will need to see proof of this for a while before it concurs and starts playing ball.

Journal page

One of my whys: Flipping through densely written journal pages.

But what if your whys turn out not to be true? What if, after giving it an honest attempt, you don’t enjoy journaling as much as you thought you would?

Then I have two questions for you:

  1. What about journaling have you enjoyed?
  2. What about journaling have you not enjoyed?

Your answers to the first question is what you want to consciously do more of.

Your answers to the second question is something to explore a bit further.

Let’s say you hate writing about your day. Okay, that’s easily fixed: Write about something else. Look for ideas and topics you find more interesting.

Or maybe you’d rather write about your goals? Then search for “journaling goals” and find a technique that looks interesting.

Journaling just for journaling’s sake is pointless–you want it to strike a chord with you in some way.

You can try new writing techniques, new voices in which you write, new notebooks, new pens, new places to write in, new topics to write about.

Everything can be tweaked.

The trick is to stay awake to your own experience so you can put into words what isn’t working, and then find a way to change it.

I find it hard to imagine someone who would get absolutely nothing out of journaling, but they must be out there. If you discover you’re one of those people, congratulations: You’ve freed your brain to start looking for the things that will give you what you want.

And for everyone else: I hope you enjoy your new journaling adventures!

Did I miss anything in this guide? Please let me know in the comments!

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  1. sheilandc says:

    You have lots of good ideas here. Thanks for sharing. I am Lost sometimes and don’t know what to write, what to say. This is something i need more practice on and learn to just let fo of myself through writing. I think the surrounding or environment makes a big difference on  setting my mood for writing.

    1. Miriam says:

      Hi there, and thanks for your comment! Environment absolutely does matter for setting the mood. Who can write when they’re distracted? Also, if you want to let go more, maybe try freewriting or journal prompts. That usually gets my words flowing.

      Have a great day!

  2. Alisha says:

    I honestly have never thought of journaling quite like I do after reading this. I would have never of thought of the benefits, specifically for reducing anxiety. It really seems like a great way to organize my life and brain quite a bit better than I do. This is something I need to start doing for the mental health benefits mainly but in stating that, it does have an intimidating side to it. Thanks for the great article!

    1. Miriam says:

      Hey Alisha, thanks for your comment. Journaling does indeed have many great benefits, so if you’re curious, I encourage you to try! It doesn’t have to be intimidating at all if you keep an open mind and try not to judge yourself in the process. Good luck with your future endeavours 🙂

  3. Great tips! These days my favourite way to journal is more goal orientated. I like to play ‘make believe’ in my head in that there might be a goal I have in mind and I write down what it would FEEL like to achieve this goal. I try and stay in this feeling before taking some kind of action towards the goal, and this somehow makes the action easier to take. I also like to write lists of things to do towards a certain goal and tick them off as I go. When I was in my teens and twenties my journals were more focused around sorting out emotional struggles, and these days (in my 40’s) I use a journal mostly for the purpose of positive life creation. it is interesting how journalling can change as you get older. 

    1. Miriam says:

      Haha, as someone in my twenties I definitely relate to journaling to sort out emotional struggles… But it’s interesting that you’ve gravitated more towards goals and creation now – surely that means a really positive growth? Maybe when I reach my 40’s I’ll look back on my journals and see a similar transition. Journals are so great for appreciating how we’ve evolved over the years.

      I’ve tried ‘make believe’ as you so aptly put it before, and I agree that it gives a great push! Should probably do that more, actually. Thanks for the reminder, and thanks so much for the thoughtful comment!

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