The reasons to start a journal, the topics contained in a journal, and the journaling techniques available are as diverse as the humans in the world. But your unique journaling idiosyncrasy might draw inspiration from how other people journal.
Journal Types (or Themes)
These are ways of keeping a journal around a topic or theme. While in general they are used as single-purpose journals, there’s no reason you couldn’t mix any of them together in your own journal.
Diary or Personal Journal
The most common type, this is just you writing about you. It’s probably the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about a journal.
You could think of it as tabula rasa, a blank slate that you can transform into anything. The types below are more specific about what or how you should write (or draw or record or glue).
Basic orientation: Write every day about your day, whatever comes to mind. The only rule is that it should be a daily habit.
"A gratitude journal is a diary of things for which one is grateful." (Wikipedia)
The idea is that you focus on what's positive in your life. Things, people, circumstances, luck, the divine, the small things, anything that you are thankful to have in your life and happening to you.
Basic orientation: Write at least once a week and explain what you’re grateful for, and try to discover why those good things happened to you. You can use lists, write at length, or even draw.
This is for the artists! Not necessarily professional ones, of course. It’s dedicated to registering the art you produce. It usually takes the form of drawings or poetry, as those are the arts that are better suited for the medium — if you are using a paper journal. If you are using Quid Sentio, you can sing!
It can be either for practice, like a sketchbook, a concept book, or an ideas book, or for personal thoughts and feelings. It’s similar to a regular personal journal, but you use art to record thoughts about your day.
The Japanese Poetic Diaries are a particularly distinguished variation — actually more of a literary genre of their own.
Basic orientation: Reserve a time for your art practice, create the habit and do it in your journal. But only your drafts, experiments, and concepts. Real art should go elsewhere.
Not much of an artist, but still into drawing? Try a doodle journal! Doodles are those drawings done while your mind is elsewhere — a phone conversation, a math lesson, a lecture. If you are keeping a journal of them, it’s not so absent-minded anymore, but you can keep the same unpretentiousness and inconsequentialness to it.
Doodling mostly requires physical journals, and while a whole journal of doodles might not be so attractive, they can be a good addition to your regular journal.
Basic orientation: Doodle without shame in whatever type of journal you decide to keep.
A notebook where you add photographs, tickets, small objects, letters, cards, and anything else that can be held among paper pages. Digitally, it could add video, audio, and web links. It can have a theme — your children, a friend, a particular hobby — or it can be about your life in general.
Scrapbooking tend to be less about writing or creating, and more about collecting and preserving. You are placing your memories there that have emotional significance for you. If you write, you write as a label, or description to what you added there. Scrapbooks have the power to create beautiful, meaningful, personal collages.
Basic orientation: Identify important moments, facts, and events that happen in your life, and save (or create) some memorabilia for them. It is different from a regular personal journal in the sense that doesn't have to be a regular habit, and actually, it shouldn't. You go back to your scrapbook when you have something that you want to preserve and remember.
Write down your dreams while you remember them. Opinions might diverge about the meanings and the interpretations of dreams, but it is undeniable that they have rich imagery. Your conscious mind doesn't even take notice of most of your dreams, so why not make an effort to record those that are still there when you wake up?
The exercise of transforming into words the images of your unconscious mind is a great exercise in itself. And years from now, you can read the very weird and colorful details of past dreams and draw new interpretations, or just find entertainment.
Basic orientation: Every single day that you wake up and remember a dream (or nightmare), write it down in detail as soon as you can.
As a traveler, you have a very unique point of view. A lot of what you see is new, while also maybe oddly familiar. It is a great opportunity to write down your observations of the world, as every little detail will stand out because of its different environment, different geography, and people from a different culture.
It is also one of those techniques that it's a literary genre in itself — not that you need to write it with any form of publication in mind, or even share it with anyone.
Basic orientation: Write down what stands out about what you observe while traveling. Don't procrastinate until after the travel is finished. You will miss, or misremember, a lot of interesting details.
A more straightforward and explicit self-help approach to journaling. You write your goal or goals and track your progress toward them every day. The idea is that you keep yourself accountable and always have your goal at the top of your mind.
It can be reflexive, but it suits better to a less free form of writing. It is supposed to be pragmatic and critical. You are seeking to achieve a specific goal.
Basic orientation: Write your goals, with very clear ways to measure success or failure. Then, every day, write if you are making progress towards the goals. You can write how and why you are progressing or failing to progress.
That's one for the old times. By "old times" we mean "Roman Empire old times".
Commentarii are notes to assist the memory. They were common in the Roman Empire as public accounts from public men about their perspective on important events, like wars and other things men do.
Even though you are probably not a Roman statesman, it can add color to our more mundane observations of the events of our lives. Writing down an account of events in a little bit more structured way can be a great way to remind yourself what really happened back then. Our memories can be transformed by our emotions, and reading your own past description can help uncover perspectives that you may have forgotten you held.
Basic orientation: Something important happened in the world? Write a structured narrative of the events. It can (and will) be from your subjective perspective, but try to include the facts. Write as clearly as possible, as a total stranger could read and understand in totality — not because you are going to share it with a total stranger, but because years from now you will be a total stranger to your current self.
We are starting to drift away from what we generally understand as journaling, but I want to add the last broad category before moving to writing techniques: organizers.
It can be a very methodic task organizer, like a bullet journal, or more activity-focused, like a gardening journal, a sleep diary, a diet diary, or many other types of logging and task lists.
Basic orientation: Each type of organizer has a different method. A bullet journal is actually a whole journaling method of its own. Overall, they tend to be very pragmatic and specific in what to write about your tasks and not a good place for rambling and feelings, so probably not a journal at all in the way we mean it. We just added them here because they have "journal" or "diary" in their names, so it’s worth clarifying.
Wow, that was a lot of journal types. "Paradox of Choice" notwithstanding, there are still a lot of ways you can write in a regular, typical personal journal.
These are suggestions you can use when you feel a sort of writer’s block. You can have these styles mixed together in your journal, which can be as diverse as you are.
Free Form writing
Your mind is constantly full of thoughts, even if they are half-formed ideas, untranslatable feelings, and intangible sensations. Free form writing is transcribing thoughts into words without putting much thought into it. It’s writing without the need to make sense.
When free form writing, you just start writing — anything, start with any word or sequence of words. It doesn't have to be coherent or cohesive; it actually doesn't even have to make grammatical sense. You don't filter, you don't edit, you don’t worry about using the right words. You just write fast and continuously.
It is a good technique if you are facing a writers' block, or struggling with too many thoughts and emotions at the same time that are hard to describe in words, or for when you just don't want to think anymore, just vent a little bit through writing.
It is not a good technique if you want to write about an important event in your life as a memory for your future self or others.
Sometimes you want to properly translate your thoughts into words. In reflective writing, you more deliberately describe a situation and always add a personal reflection on the meaning of what you just described.
It requires and reinforces a more structured thought process. Clarity is paramount. A good way to write is following these three steps in order: description, interpretation, and outcome.
You start by describing what are you going to analyze. If it is a fact of your life, you describe what happened. If it is an imaginary situation, you describe the scene. If it is about a concept, you explain the idea. Then you interpret the meaning of what you described. Why did that happen? What does that fictional scene symbolize? How do you react to this idea? You try to extract meaning from the world and, last step, extapolate that meaning into learning. How is your reflection contributing to your personal development?
It is a good technique for those days when you have a sharp mind, are opinionated about something, want to dig into the real meanings of things, and have to time to write something properly and do a few revisions to improve your text.
It is not a good technique for when you are mentally tired, emotional, or in a hurry.
One Line a Day
A worthy journal is a result of habit. You are not always that inspired or motivated to write in your journal while you develop and maintain that habit. That's when this technique comes to aid.
There is not much to expand after its self-explanatory name; you just have to write one line a day in your journal. It doesn't matter the topic, it doesn't matter the time, just make sure you never skip a day without writing a minimum of one line. The objective is to create the longest possible streak of journal keeping.
It is a good technique to develop and maintain the habit of journaling, for when you are starting to journal, or for those days you are in a hurry or completely uninspired.
It is not a good technique when you have the time, the will, and much to say. One line is the minimum to write, there is no upbound limit to it.
Lists are powerful for their simplicity. Writing a coherent and cohesive prose requires more effort than just listing bullet points. Sometimes, you just want a quick brain dump, that you may or may not expand upon later. Some topics might present themselves better in lists, like talking about your favorite movies.
Lists are also great for your memory: you exercise your memory while creating the lists and activate your memory quickly while reading old lists later. You don't write a poetic prose to remind yourself of your to-dos.
It is a good technique when you have lots of thoughts around one topic and you want to write them down as quickly as possible, or just want to remember your favorite things for the future.
It is not a good technique when you want to go deeper into your thoughts, extract meaning and reflections from it, or when you need to explain nuances and subtle details of a topic.
Imagine you are writing a letter for someone without holding anything back. You write how much you love or hate them. You mention unforgivable sins you have committed and unpublishable thoughts you had. You make accusations without worrying about consequences. You write apologies as if complete forgiveness is the only possible outcome.
The only way to write such an honest, raw, unfiltered, uncensored, intimate, exposing letter is to know from the start that you will never send it. But you do have to write it as an actual letter (or email); a small level of role-playing is important to get the benefits of this technique. It can be a confidential draft for a real correspondence you are planning to write, or you can just let it live forever in your journal.
It is a good technique when you need to gain closure, clarity, or confidence about a sensitive subject related to a specific person.
It is not a good technique when your emotion is not in the context of a relationship with a specific person.
This is a fancy one, for the literarily or philosophically ambitious. You write your thoughts and concepts through a fictional dialogue among two characters. Even if you position yourself as one of the characters, the idea is to not describe an actual dialogue that happened — that would be a regular narration or reflective writing. The power of using a fictional dialogue is in diving deeply into complex, and maybe contradictory, concepts you want to express.
You don't have to be Plato writing Socratic dialogues, but it does require some effort to make your writing an interesting clash of ideas.
It is a good technique when you want to explore the nuances of complex concepts that can be legitimately interpreted with different meanings.
It is not a good technique if you just want to describe regular events or explore your own feelings (and not ideas).
We designed Quid Sentio in a way that each entry is its own card, even if you want to have multiple entries a day. That's well suited to experiment among different techniques and journal types in your journal.
Sign up here and give it a try on each of the techniques above that piqued your interest! :)
Here are the other parts of this guide on journaling: