How Daily Journaling Can Help You Cultivate Good Writing Habits
Updated: Apr 20
Someone recently tweeted me to share they wished my career guide for writers contained a schedule to tell them how often they should write. My answer was simple: "If you want to make a career of writing, you need to write every day." The same goes for anyone who simply wants to improve their writing. You need to write every day.
Limiting your writing time only to the few emails you send while you're at work or the occasional tweet isn't enough. We can daydream about writing more all we want, but until we actually write, we won't make incremental progress. Even for someone who has always written for a living, words didn't always come easily when I didn't exercise my writing muscles enough out of the office.
That's where journaling comes in.
I've kept a journal ever since I was 11 and started blogging at 13. Being able to express myself through the written word was something I thoroughly enjoyed, even though I didn't always consider myself a writer. My main issue was consistency: I mostly journaled when the mood struck, and sometimes went weeks or even months in between entries.
I only started journaling daily when I moved abroad after college. At first, I mostly used it as a way of recounting the day's events, but I soon started using my journal to also document:
my emotional state
quotes from books I was reading (that year after college, I'd read close to 50 books)
errands I needed to run
lists of everything: goals, finances, shopping, reading
Journaling as a daily practice
When I got home, however, I slowly slipped back into journaling infrequently before stumbling upon a book called "The Artists' Way" by Julia Cameron. In it, she expounds on a concept she calls "Morning Pages", which are "three pages of long-form, stream of consciousness writing" that one writes upon waking up in the morning. Since I write all day, the idea of writing as soon as I wake up is not tenable, but what I do instead is set aside time to write at various points during the day. My daily goal is to write three, full pages, no matter what. Some days, the words flow easily, and I fill up 4 or even 5 pages; other days, getting to page 2 is painful.
But keeping in mind how I journaled years ago, I aim to be flexible with my journaling. On the difficult days, I focus on my mental and emotional state, or I expand on things I've been mulling over for a while. Sometimes, I fill pages up with phrases and words instead of full sentences. On difficult writing days, this is helpful; if I don't have much to say, or am too tired to write, I distill my feelings, events, and thoughts down to phrases and keywords. This exercise is particularly helpful if you want to develop a habit of finding different ways to convey the same message, or simply want to write more concisely.
Concepts that began as journaled ideas have turned into blog posts (like this one), and even feature pieces I've placed in different publications.
Letting the words flow
What's great about journaling is that you can write freely—and badly—without having to worry about an audience. When we write a blog post, we're always thinking about who's going to read it. When we write an email, we think about the recipient on the other end. In these instances, and in many others, we must absolutely keep the reader in mind. But keeping the reader at the very forefront before you commit to writing down a single word can make it harder to get started, or worse, it can block you.
Journaling teaches you to get the words out on the page first. It teaches you to be okay with writing badly as long as you're letting the words flow. It gives you the space and permission to embark on the first stage of the writing process with confidence. (I don't reread any of my journals, but I know for a fact that the writing in those journals isn't "good", or polished. And it's not meant to be!)
If you're intimidated by filling up the empty pages of a notebook, I recommend buying a so-called guide planner (also known as a success planner or action planner). They differ from daily planners in that they include action- or goal-oriented questions or challenges, and they give you the space to fill in your answers to those questions or prompts. This let's you write in a more focused way.
If you're ready to take on a blank notebook, try the morning/daily pages concept for size. Decide on a minimum number of pages for daily journaling and stick to it. Allow yourself to discover different things to write about, or different ways to write about something. Use your daily pages for brainstorming or for listing things that are important to you. Break free from whatever unconscious beliefs you have about journaling and writing in general.