Writing in a Journal: A Short Course on Journal Writing for 2023

Do any of the following statements or questions sound like you?

  • “I don’t have time to write a journal!”
  • “I don’t know what to write about!”
  • “How do I get started?
  • “I’m a lousy writer!”
  • “HELP!!”

If so, then this short course on journal writing is for you! Here are five easy steps to get started with writing, eight suggestions for new journal writers, and 14 writing techniques for your journal.

How to Get Started with Journal Writing

It’s Easy to W.R.I.T.E.

Just try these five easy steps. You’ll be writing in no time!

W – What do you want to write about? What’s going on? How do you feel? What are you thinking about? What do you want? Name it.

R – Review or reflect on it. Close your eyes. Take three deep breaths. Focus. You can start with “I feel…” or “I want…” or “I think…” or “Today….” or “Right now…” or “In this moment…”

I –  Investigate your thoughts and feelings. Start writing and keep writing. Follow the pen/keyboard. If you get stuck or run out of juice, close your eyes and re-center yourself. Re-read what you’ve already written and continue writing.

T – Time yourself. Write for 5-15 minutes. Write the start time and the projected end time at the top of the page. If you have an alarm/timer on your PDA or cell phone, set it.

E – Exit smart by re-reading what you’ve written and reflecting on it in a sentence or two: “As I read this, I notice—” or “I’m aware of—” or “I feel—”. Note any action steps to take.

In summary….it’s easy to W.R.I.T.E. !
W hat topic?
R eview/reflect
I nvestigate
T ime yourself
E xit smart

Looking for free journaling workshops?  Check out our on-demand courses including “J is for Journal: A Short Course on Writing for Healing, Growth, and Change,” with seven lessons containing a total of 68 writing prompts!

Eight Suggestions for New Journal Writers

1. Protect your privacy.

Store your journal in its own special place so that the temptation for others to read is diminished. Ask for agreement with your housemates that your journal is private. Reserve the first page of any new journal for your name and phone number or e-mail address, along with a notice: This is my personal journal. Please do not read it without my permission. If none of that would stop whoever might read your journal, get a shredder. Find a creative way to protect your privacy, such as a new gmail or yahoo account, freshly passworded, from which to write yourself at that address. Or keep your journal on a flash drive. Make your privacy an intentional act.

2. Start with an entrance meditation.

Nearly every journal technique benefits from a few minutes of focused quieting. Use visualization, soft music, candles, deep breathing, stretches, whatever works for you.

3. Date every entry.

If you only establish one habit in your journal, let it be this one! Dating every entry allows you to chronologically reconstruct your journal by date. It also lets you hear the silence between your entries.

4. Keep (and re-read) what you write.

Often the writes that feel like throw-aways contain the seeds for future insight. Keep it, re-read it later, and surprise yourself with how much you knew that you didn’t know you knew!

5. Write quickly.

You can outsmart dreaded “journal block” by writing so fast that the Internal Critic and the Internal Censor can’t keep up. Keep your pen moving!

6. Start writing; keep writing.

Start with the present moment (“What’s going on?”) Or start with a feeling (“I’m so mad I could bust!”) Or start with a story (“Today the weirdest thing happened….”) Once you’ve started, don’t go back to edit or rewrite. And don’t think too much. Let it flow.

7. Tell yourself the truth.

Your own truth is not your enemy. Don’t try to talk yourself out of knowing what you know or feeling what you feel. Give yourself permission to tell the truth. Also give yourself permission to pace yourself. If the truth seems too bright or harsh, then slow it down.

8. Write naturally.

If there is one inviolate rule of journal writing, it is that there simply are no rules! Do what works. Don’t worry about what you’re not doing. Give yourself permission. Let yourself enjoy the process!

14 Writing Techniques for Your Journal

1. Sentence Stem.

A sentence-completion process. Fill in the blank with a word or phrase. May be very universal (Right now I feel———-) or highly customized to an individual’s immediate question, problem or interest.

Start with the beginning of a sentence:

  • Today I will—
  • Right now I feel—
  • The most important thing to do—
  • I want—
  • I need—-
  • What I wish I could say to you—
  • If only I could—
  • I wonder–

—and finish it with a word, a thought, the rest of the sentence.

Boom. You’re done.

2. Five-Minute Sprint.

A timed writing process designed to bring focus and intensity in short bursts. Excellent for those who are resistant or aversive to journal writing, or who are uncertain about how to start, or who state they do not have time to write journals.

It’s a two-step process that couldn’t be more simple:

  1. Set the timer on your phone or kitchen stove. Stop writing when signaled!
  2. Keep your pen or fingers moving the entire time. It’s only five minutes. It goes fast.

Ready? Set your timers–and WRITE! Start with this prompt: What’s going on?

3. Inventory.

An assessment of life balance in major areas of living (health, family, home, work, spiritual/religious, emotional well-being, etc.) Gives a quick picture of which life areas might need attention.

4. Structured Write.

A series of Sentence Stems grouped and sequenced to reveal consistently deepening layers of information and awareness.

structured write journal writing technique example

5. Clustering.

Visual free-association from a central word or phrase. Lines and circles connect key thoughts and associations to the central core. Work quickly to maximize results. A brief writing to synthesize findings may follow.

clustering example for journal writing technique

6. Lists of 100.

A list of 100 items, many of which will probably be repetitions, on a predetermined theme or topic. Repetition is an important part of the process. Topics can be about any current issue (for example: 100 Things I’m Sad About; 100 Things I Need or Want to Do; 100 Places I Would Like to See). At the end of the list, group the responses into themes and synthesize the information.

In this video, Kathleen Adams, Founder of the Center for Journal Therapy, shares what she likes about using short lists as a journaling technique.

7. Alphapoem.

Write the alphabet, A-Z, or any collection of letters, vertically down the side of a page. Then write a poem in which each successive line begins with the next letter. Excellent for groups as it promotes a high level of participation and sharing. Adolescents and reluctant writers respond well.

Check out this example of an Alphapoem:

An Alphapoem on Alphapoems  

by Kay Adams and Scribe (journal group members)                            

A nticipate a
B lossoming of                                                         
C reative                                                                         
D elight!                                                                         
E asy, really, once you                                                   
F ind the rhythm and the pace.                                                     
G ather up the thoughts you                                         
H old secret in your heart.                                               
I magine them                                                                           
J ust drifting out, a                                                                   
K aleidoscope of                                                                       
L etters                                                                                             
M aking words.
N o rules to follow–except the
O bvious one.
P erhaps you’ll find a poet inside?
Q uite likely!
R ead your Alphapoems; you’ll find them
S tartlingly
T rue–an
U nusual way to give
V oice to the
W himpers, wonderings, whys, wins.
X hilerating feeling to find
Y ou’ve reached the
Z enith of the poem!

8. Captured Moments.

Vignettes capturing the sensations of a particularly meaningful or emotional experience. Written from the senses with strong descriptors. Captured Moments of beauty, joy, blessing, calm can add balance, hope and perspective to a challenging time.

9. Unsent Letters.

A metaphoric communication to another that is written with the specific intention that it will not be shared.

10. Character Sketch.

A written portrait of another person or of an aspect of the self. Can also be written about emotions by personifying an emotion and giving it a characterization – an appearance, a style of dress, a personality and temperament.

11. Dialogue.

A metaphoric conversation written in two voices. Anyone or anything is an appropriate dialogue partner. There is no constriction by time, space, physical reality or literal voice.

On the page, it looks like a script:

Me: So how do I do this?

Dialogue Partner: Just ask me a question, and I’ll respond.

Me: Seems a little silly.

D.P.: Just make it up! Write the next thing in your head.

You can write a dialogue with anyone or anything: Your Wise Self, your spouse/partner/child, your job, your body, your feelings, your dreams and desires – anything goes!

12. Perspectives.

An alteration in point of view that provides a different perspective on an event or situation. Through magical realism, we can jump time, compare alternative realities and walk a mile in another’s moccasins. The writer experiences a new dimension of time, place or voice.

  • A different time: Using imagery, time-travel to a date in the near or distant past or future. Write that altered date at the top of the page. Imagine who you are, how you feel, what is different, how a problem got solved or an issue resolved. Write in the present tense, as if it were that time.
  • A different place: When faced with a tough choice or decision, jump time and write Perspectives entries in the present tense as if you’d made each choice. One man, conflicted about applying to medical school or a psychology program, saw himself miserable as a psychiatrist and fully engaged as a psychotherapist working with veterans and their families. See what nudges forward from your subconscious mind!
  • A different voice: Write in someone else’s “I” voice, in the present tense, as if that person were writing in a journal about you or a disagreement (argument, conflict, painful difference) the two of you are experiencing.
  • Another different voice: Alter your own voice by writing in past tense, in the third-person voice (s/he, her/his), about your own experience. This pulls back the camera lens, puts you in the role of omniscient  narrator/compassionate witness and allows useful distance and objectivity. This is particularly helpful if you are working with difficult stories that can create intense emotional states.

13. Springboard.

A free-write with a prompt. Starting a free-write with the smallest structure of a question, thought or topic can focus and frame the writing session.

Here are some sample springboards:

  • What’s the next thing to do?
  • A year from today, I will ….
  • Why don’t I … ?
  • I’m sorry I didn’t….
  • What am I avoiding?
  • If I knew I would succeed, I would ….
  • I want to overcome….
  • Where am I going?
  • What do I want?
  • If I weren’t scared….
  • What’s the best thing? What’s the worst thing?

In this video, Kathleen Adams, Founder of the Center for Journal Therapy, talks about using props to get started with writing.

14. Free Writing.

Unboundaried, unstructured, unpaced narrative writing. Useful for creative flow or spontaneous writing sessions. Can be structured by adding a time limit or page limit.

(c) Kathleen Adams. All rights reserved. For reprint permission please email us.