The first time I ever kept a journal occurred during my senior year of college when I was taking a course in Art Appreciation. The professor forced us to write in our notebooks every day because he wanted us to notice the beauty that surrounded us, and he wanted us to think about beauty and write about it. At the time, of course, I thought the journal was a stupid idea, but, gradually, I came to realize the benefits of free writing on a regular basis. Four major benefits come to mind.
Freedom to Express Yourself. One of the major benefits of writing in a personal journal is that no one has to read what you write (unless, of course, you want to show your journal to someone). When you don’t have an intended reader, you can be completely honest, and you don’t have to worry about offending anyone. You can write exactly what’s on your mind, and you can explore thoughts and feelings you didn’t even know you had. To paraphrase a familiar quote by British author E. M. Forester about a benefit of writing, “How can you know what you’re thinking unless you put your thoughts down on paper?”
Freedom to Explore. You may have a hard time expressing yourself because you want to be perfect. You’re so worried about misspellings and errors in grammar and punctuation that you stifle your own creativity. You’re afraid to take chances with your writing. In a journal, of course, you don’t have that problem. You can experiment with words, phrases, and ideas. You can break all the rules and not be penalized for it. A journal may be a liberating experience for you, one that allows you to express yourself more easily when you return to the confines of a standard essay.
Freedom to Edit. If you’re not in the habit of writing, you may struggle to write 250–300 words for a one-page assignment. You may view a one-page essay as a monumental task. As a result, you probably turn in the first 250–300 words you write without editing any of them. If you are used to writing in a journal, however, you might fill up two or three pages rather easily. Consequently, you can edit out your weak writing and turn in your best 250–300 words. If you can discipline yourself to write regularly in a journal, you’ll probably become both a better editor and a better writer.
Yes, keeping a journal requires discipline, and when you first start keeping a journal, you’ll be tempted to skip a day here or there. Try to resist that temptation. Even if you only write one sentence in your journal each day, that’s better than not writing at all. And what you’ll probably find is that you can’t write just one sentence. One sentence will lead to two which will lead to three and so on. The hardest part, obviously, is writing that first sentence. If you can write that first sentence every day, you’re likely to fill up that journal in no time.
Freedom to Excel. Writing well — like playing a sport or playing a musical instrument — requires practice. Yet, if you practice writing only when your instructors request an essay or a term paper, you may never really excel. If, however, you write regularly in a journal or diary, your skills will naturally improve, and you’ll become more comfortable with the whole writing process. “Practice” will, indeed, “make perfect.”
Ever since I kept my first journal in college, I’ve used journals at various times in my life to record special moments or experiences. For instance, I kept a journal during my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica and during the first few years of our two daughters’ lives. Though I don’t go back and read these journals often, I know that they have helped to make me a better writer, and I know that they are priceless souvenirs of my life. My former art professor would be pleased to know that some of the beauty in my life has been captured in those journals.