The Action Corps

5 Suggested Ways to Journal

Some call it journaling. Others just write. Whether it’s addressed “dear diary” or it’s free-association, people have been writing stuff down for centuries. Some write to have a record of their life and things around them. Others write to make money. Through the ages, the consistent writers wrote because they were driven; they were simply moved to write and really couldn’t help it.

This is about writing that’s simply therapeutic—it builds your well-being. Having something down on paper keeps it from bouncing off the inside of your head so much. It remains stationary on the page, and you don’t have to keep thinking about it, tracking it, reviewing it from different angles.

Writing Media

The most important aspect of writing is the physical writing itself. Therefore, I suggest you attach little importance to how (or if) the writing is stored or preserved.

Even though the medium you write on makes little difference, I suggest several different ways. Maybe that’s why there are so many options—precisely because it doesn’t matter.

Many people get a formal leather-bound journal to write in. And many don’t write at all because they find bound journals to be too intimidating. So other people write in a small diary. It’s more compact, and they find it easier to throw in a bag and take with them.

Spiral notebooks work well for people who don’t want to worry about legibility or formality. The notebooks are cheap, too. And now we have access to several digital notebook apps in which we can write with a stylus right on the screen. Two apps that I like include Penultimate (now owned by Evernote) and Upad.

I even encourage you to write on random scratch paper or a roll of paper towels. As long as you write, it doesn’t matter what you write on.

What should you do with your writing?

Again, the most critical part of writing is the writing itself. So it matters very little what you do with your writing. Don’t worry too much about how (or whether) you preserve this self-care writing (your professional stuff or your hobby-creative writing is a different story—make sure to preserve that well). For your therapeutic writing, you can:

  • Keep it under lock and key
  • Store it at the office
  • Shred it
  • Line the hamster cage with it
  • Burn it
  • Frame it and display it on the wall
  • Or anything else you feel moved to do with it—because it doesn’t matter

Forms of recording

This is about HOW you write. It’s quite simple. Typing on a keyboard is better than not writing at all. Manual printing is better than typing on a keyboard. And handwriting in cursive is better than printing by hand. Why? Because handwriting contains your personality. You’re putting part of yourself on paper when you write in cursive. It’s how you personally and uniquely express yourself, and it includes your present mood. The more fully you express yourself when you write, the more fully you experience the moment and become aware of yourself.


Now we’re talking about different ideas for writing (what you write about) so you’ll find here several sub-suggestions. The most common form of journaling is free association. Just write whatever comes to mind, whatever happens to come from your pen. This is done almost without thinking.

In case you get bored writing the same old way all the time, mix it up. Try writing segments of letters that you’ll never send. Without worrying about dating or starting the letter, start somewhere in the middle. You don’t have to worry about ending it, either. Just write something to someone. Who would you write to right now? Here are some suggestions to get you going. Write to

  • Your spouse (or a future spouse)
  • Your ex-spouse
  • Your absent father
  • A childhood playmate
  • Your favorite teacher in school
  • The brother (or sister) you never had
  • God
  • A loved-one’s boss
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Hannibal Lecter
  • Jane Eyre

You can say anything to them. Ask them a question, confess something, berate them, or simply reminisce on memories you share with them. Who would you add to that list?

Write stuff down (it’s cheap therapy)

Another idea is to write a middle section of a novel or short story. You don’t have to set up the scene or introduce characters—that’s already been done earlier in the “story.” You just start writing in the middle. See where the action goes, what the characters say, or the themes that get fleshed out. And because you’re jumping in at the middle, there’s no length requirement. You could pick it up the next time you write or just leave it as a paragraph or two.

Remember this about fiction-excerpt writing: because your purpose is only to process your current thoughts, you can allow the characters to say (or feel) things for you. They could set things up so another character can address something you’d like to deal with but may not know how.

The Disclaimer

Include a disclaimer at the beginning of whatever you write (top of the page, inside cover of the journal, first page of the digital file, etc.). You might say something like this:

“This is a writing exercise. Anything written here may have lost its validity after a year, a month, a week, a day, or before the ink dried . . . it is simply free association and/or experiment in how thoughts morph when they’re written down. Nothing here may be believed to represent what I think, hold dear, or intend. It’s just a writing exercise.”

Finally . . .

If you want to write so that it serves you, make sure it’s never a chore. You don’t have to write. You’re writing because you want to (we tend to do what we want to more than what we have to). You can follow whatever format you want or no format at all. You won’t be measuring production.

And because there’s no assignment here, you can continue or stop any time you want. Try the experiment. See what you learn. Discover how you feel.

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About the Author

Kevin is the director of The Center for Counseling, Recovery, & Growth in Torrance, California where he serves as therapist, receptionist, interior decorator, graphic designer, HR manager, light bulb changer, poet laureate, company spokesman, and CFO.


  1. The Fluffy Gentleman
    Posted on August 18, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Pen pals are a fantastic way to write and record your life. Real pen pals, real letters, real postage (okay, maybe if you work together or go to college with them you can pass them like notes as if you’re in middle school… It’s cute). At first it might be slow, you may only be able to write a page, but you’ll start looking at your life with the lens of a letter. Suddenly everything you see, everything you touch, hear, taste, or smell can become part of the story you’re recording for your friend (and yourself) through a nearly dead, yet intense form of connection with another human being. It’s a form of intimacy you don’t know you’re missing in your life, something personal and beautiful that you can’t possibly get from an email, text message, or instant messaging service. It’s something you’ll cherish for your entire life, even on your death bed.

  2. Paul
    Posted on August 18, 2015 at 6:25 pm

    Interesting idea.


  3. Pat Mothner Says :
    Posted on August 20, 2015 at 8:05 am

    I love your writing ideas. You have offered a great prompt — start in the middle of the letter or story. I attest to the truth of writing as powerful. I used writing to process my way through a very difficult time. Once I recovered, I stopped writing. Mistake! Mistake easily rectified. You have reminded me that writing during the “good times” can keep you in touch with who you are and how you want to be in the world. Thank you.

  4. Patrick
    Posted on August 20, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    I started free writing about 3 years ago. I mostly write in the mornings as soon as i wake up. It helps to put down all of my jumbled thoughts on paper so that i can focus on my day ahead. Its a great tool and i don’t have to worry about correct spelling or grammar. I have heard of people writing before they go to sleep at night in over to release thoughts before the sleep as well. Most people say it helps them get a better nights sleep.

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