Over the years, my journaling has shifted and evolved.
In the beginning, I simply vented. Over and over I’d write about how life was unfair, I was overwhelmed, and my lofty dreams for the future were still unfulfilled.
After a while, that became, ahem, boring.
Kvetching is just not that interesting.
As it turns out, boring myself was a blessing. Eventually I expanded beyond complaining and began to use journaling as an exploration. What could I learn about myself and the world? What could I notice?
Writing became a way to unearth what is really true for me. I used writing not as a way to repeat the narrative I already know, but to dig deeper–to reveal myself. Writing as a mirror to my naked self.
But honestly, writing for less profound reasons as well.
- Journaling for the sheer fun of it.
- Journaling because it’s a good habit.
- And sometimes, journaling to become a better writer.
For me, journaling isn’t a staid and stodgy practice. Nor is it narcissistic and self-indulgent.
Instead, it is an expression of my creative spirit. It’s organic–always changing and always growing.
If writing in a journal has become boring for you, try some of these techniques to spice it up.
1. Write without thinking
This technique is simple.
- Set a timer.
- When the time begins, start writing.
- Don’t stop until the timer rings.
When I write “don’t stop,” I mean it literally. Not stopping is the key to this technique. You keep your hand moving no matter what.
You can write big or small, neat or messy, full sentences or fragments–none of it matters.
Just keep your hand moving.
This technique is good if you don’t know what you want to write about. If you get stuck, write whatever comes to your mind. At times, I have written the sentence “I don’t know what to write” over and over.
When you keep your hand moving, you can bypass your inner critic–the voice that tells you that you’re dumb, stupid, or wrong (or that your writing is dumb, stupid, or wrong). The critic can’t keep up with your speedy hand and you sometimes write things that are quite surprising.
For years, this was my go-to technique. I filled notebook after notebook.
Basic Rule: Keep your hand moving.
Recommended Supplies: Basic spiral-bound notebook (this is probably not going to be pretty).
Uses: Venting, getting unstuck, warming up.
2. Write with prompts
Yes, I know. Prompts make you think of your middle-school English class.
But despite its humdrum reputation, writing with prompts can still be interesting.
The trick is to think outside the box with your prompts.
- Quotations. This is the classic technique. Why not spice it up with quotes you disagree with? Historical quotes? Quotes from movies?
- Random passages. Open a book to any page and read the first sentence or paragraph your eyes land on. Write about that.
- Images. Visit Unsplash, Flickr, or Pixabay. Find an image and write about it. For another twist, visit a museum site like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Rijksmuseum to view art and historical images.
- Music. Randomly select a song from Pandora or Spotify. Listen to it and write.
Release your expectations about what you’ll write. You can describe the prompt or your reaction to it. Sometimes I muse about it and end up writing something that is only vaguely related.
This technique is great when you’re in a rut and want to write new things.
Basic Rule: Find a quote, passage, image, or musical piece. Write.
Recommended Supplies: Your choice. Often I’ll use a pretty notebook for this. This writing can feel more “formal” or special.
Uses: Getting inspired, getting out of a rut, seeing things in a new way.
3. Art journaling
Sometimes, words aren’t enough to capture a moment. You need literary umami–colors, shapes, textures.
When this happens, try art journaling–when your journal becomes a sketchbook.
Get your favorite art supplies–colored pens, watercolors, stickers, glitter–whatever excites you.
Use your art supplies to illustrate and enhance your writing.
I like to put a wash of watercolor on several pages and let them dry. Then I come back and write.
The colors change my writing. They add mood.
- Draw the words. Write your words in big, bold block letters. Color them in so the shape of the word becomes part of its meaning.
- Single words. Experiment with writing a single word vs. a full passage.
- Write outside the lines. Turn the journal in all directions to write. Write in the margins, at a slant, outside the lines.
- Be messy. Let yourself be messy. In fact, give yourself the assignment of journaling the messiest page you can.
- Write out of order. Decorate pages from previous days. Decorate pages for your future days. Don’t restrict your journal to chronological order.
- Use different art supplies. Try different supplies for different effects.
Basic Rule: Use color, shape, and texture to enhance your writing.
Recommended Supplies: Typically it’s easiest to use a small sketchbook for this but you don’t need to limit yourself. If you use wet art supplies in a regular journal, your pages might ruffle. Consider that part of the charm. Use any art supplies that you enjoy. No need to get fancy.
Uses: Feeling creative, breaking out of a rut, discovering new ways to use words, expressing feelings that are hard to put into words.
4. Snapshot journaling
Sometimes I sit down with a beautiful journal opened to a clean, crisp page and I just don’t have anything to write.
This is a good time for me to put away my ‘jounaler” hat and put on my “observer” hat.
I ask myself, “What did I notice?”
I write 3 things I heard, 3 things I saw, or 3 things I noticed in the last 24 hours.
I do my best to be simply the recorder.
If I remember a conversation about how much I rushed a co-worker, I’ll write exactly what she said, “Are you trying to keep me from putting my pants on?” Her exact words. Exactly as she said them.
If I observe a dog cowering as she approaches a black bag full of leaves, I’ll describe the way her tail looped between her legs and her spine hung like a suspension bridge between her shoulders.
This is about the power of observation, taking a written snapshot of your day..
Basic Rule: Record events, conversations, and scenes you’ve seen in the last 24 hours.
Recommended Supplies: Any journal you enjoy.
Uses: Getting your writing going, improving observations, trying something new.
5. Gratitude journaling
Making gratitude journals have been around a long time but in my memory, Oprah was the one who really made them popular.
Following Oprah’s advice, I started by making lists.
Sometimes big and universal (health and family) and sometimes small and petty (appreciation that I didn’t run out of gas on the way to the gas station), I listed everything I was grateful for.
At first, this was stilted. Often my lists were the same from one day to the next.
But eventually, I started to look more closely. I had a lot to be grateful for. I began to fill entire pages with the gifts I have. It softened me and made me more appreciative.
But like all my journaling techniques, this too evolved.
Now I describe my gratitude in moments. I write about an African-american teenager with pants that drooped down his butt offering his seat on the bus to a young Muslim woman in a hajib. So sweet I can still tear up about it. How lucky am I to have witnessed this?
I write about the city workers who spent many back-breaking hours delivering, filling, and installing gigantic sandbags along the side of a bike path so it could stay open during a flood. I’m so grateful for those workers.
Whether a list or a vignette, journal about what you are grateful for.
Basic Rule: Write a list, story, or scene that you are grateful for.
Recommended Supplies: Pretty journals with your favorite pen.
Uses: Building appreciation, being observant, getting out of a bad mood.
6. Xerox journaling
Copy a passage you like.
Word for word.
The whole thing.
While this technically isn’t a journaling technique, I add this because it has many of the same benefits.
For starters, this can be quite meditative. You might notice that the yakity-yak of your mind settles down for a while.
In addition, this is a great way to become observant. As you copy, you’ll notice how someone else describes a mood. You’ll see how the words are put together. You may discover details that you never noticed before.
And eventually, copying someone else’s writing can peel back your own layers. You see things in new ways. You understand a new perspective.
I know someone who hand wrote an entire novel she admired. By the end, she understood that author better but also, she had new perspectives for her own writing.
Basic Rule: Find a passage you like. Copy it.
Recommended Supplies: Often a pretty notebook and a favorite pen is good for this.
Uses: Calming your mind, being observant, learning how to use language better.
What is your journaling journey?
In the beginning, my journaling felt like I was spewing–I firehosed my reader (who, thankfully, didn’t exist) with whatever petty impulse I had.
But eventually, my journaling became more about observing.
I took things in. I was quieter. Reflective.
And with this space, I had more room to learn about myself.
What is your journaling path? What is your favorite technique and how do you use it in your life?
If you don’t have a journaling habit, try these techniques and report back about how they work for you.