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9 Tips for Starting Your Journaling Routine

Published: February 6, 2017

Read How Writing Could Save Your Life by Mark Matousek.

As Mark Matousek discusses in his article, “The Writing Cure” (in the January/February 2017 issue of the Post),  habitual expressive writing helps to heal wounds, both physical and emotional, in those who have experienced trauma and hardship. The purpose of expressive writing is to get to the heart of how, and why, you feel. You may find the idea of expressive writing intimidating, but there are many ways you can begin the journey. Here are nine tips to get you started:

  1. Pick your medium. You don’t need a costly journal with a leather-crafted cover to begin writing. You don’t even need a paper journal. There are several apps (like Penzu and Day One) that allow users to journal across multiple devices and back up their data. If you’d rather avoid electronics pick out a notebook that will suit your needs and keep it in a safe place.
  2. Set aside a time each day to gather your thoughts and write. If writing daily seems daunting, set a short-term goal of writing for 15 minutes each day for five consecutive days.
  3. Use clustering, lists, and pictures. Visual strategies can help you to see information differently. Use free-association to connect multiple words or phrases from a central idea. Work quickly without stopping to analyze or justify your notes. Similarly, you can make a list of items on a common theme. Try writing “25 Things I Am Grateful For” or “100 Things I’ve Always Wanted to Do.” Allow yourself to repeat or rephrase ideas as much as you wish. If you want to draw or use photographs in your journal, feel free. There are no rules. Visual representations can guide your memory and stimulate your emotions.
  4. Start with sentence stems. Use these phrases to begin statements about how you feel. If your answer strikes a chord, ask yourself more questions about why this is so.
    • I feel…
    • I wish I knew…
    • I am excited about…
    • I am upset by…
  5. Try a five-minute sprint. Timed writing can be a useful tool for those who find it difficult to get started. Allow yourself only five minutes to write about a specific focus, say, a past or present relationship or a moment from your day. You might be surprised at what is left on the page after you give yourself a strict time limit.
  6. Write naturally. Use your own voice. Don’t worry about sounding a certain way. You are writing for yourself after all. Maybe your goal in this endeavor is to find a natural writing voice. This will certainly come with honest depiction of your thoughts and feelings.
  7. Use writing prompts to engage in confessional writing. An important part of the healing process of expressive writing is the act of professing secrets or flaws that may be difficult to face. Allow your truth to reveal itself in your writing. As a rule: if you find that you are deeply upset, stop writing. Engage in confessional writing only when you are ready. Here are a few writing prompts that can help you get started:
    • Write about a time you wish you had known something you learned later. What did you learn from the experience? Were there any positive side-effects of the experience you were unaware of at the time?
    • Think about an unpleasant experience from the recent past (an annoyance or perceived slight), and write about it using third person perspective. Does this alter your view on the situation?
    • Write a very simple, benign fact about yourself that you have never shared with another person. It could be a silly habit you had when you were younger or an embarrassing experience. Does it feel better to articulate it?
  8. Reflect on your writing. It can be helpful to look back months or even years to gain perspective on your experiences. In what ways did your viewpoint change?
  9. Read more about expressive writing and find strategies and styles that work best for you. Memoirs from authors you find interesting or inspiring can help you understand how to document your own feelings. You can find resources for spiritually-focused writing as well as therapeutic journaling advice. The following books represent a range of expressive writing methods.
    • Expressive Writing: Words that Heal by James Pennebaker
    • Your Brain on Ink: A Workbook on Neuroplasticity and the Journal Ladder by Deborah Ross and Kathleen Adams
    • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
    • Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo
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  • Carmen VonTickner

    I have been writing for years because it nourishes my soul and enriches my thoughts. I recommend it, try it, you will love it.

  • Robert Smith

    I just returned home after spending 3 days and 6 weeks in rehab for an infected hip.I have always enjoyed writing letters and postcards to friends,but few people reciprocate with a written response. In the rehab center I listened to the health problems of fellow patients. They often were in worse shape than I was.I had a lot of time for introspection and took notes on a writing pad. The Post offers us an excellent idea. Thank you.

  • When my husband went into the Coatesville VA Hospital in the mid-1990’s. I was heartbroken because I knew he would not be coming home again. Shortly after that day, I read an article in my local newspaper by a psychologist about keeping a journal and writing down your life’s problems – and to be sure to include the good times. I began doing this and today I spend time every day writing in my journal. About 15 years ago, I joined a women’s writing group. Our facilitator was very inspirational – in time, I also lead a journal writing program for women in AA – there is something about putting your thoughts on paper that clears them out of your head. I believe writing down your thoughts – and including the main points of you day is incredibly helpful. And it is fun to pull out an old journal and reread the ‘stories of my life.

  • Joanne

    I have been writing for years. I love writing letters to friends on a fairly regular basis; several years ago I wrote my biography over my lifetime and have continued adding new chapters regularly. I thoroughly enjoy putting my thoughts on paper.