Gini Dietrich

Keeping a Journal: The Power of Daily Writing

By: Gini Dietrich | February 4, 2016 | 

Keeping a JournalBy Gini Dietrich

When Batman came out, Michael Keaton was on David Letterman to promote the movie.

Apparently he spoiled the plot of the movie during that interview, but that’s not what I remember.

What I remember is the story he told of his son who got on a fight on the playground.

They were doing the typical kid thing, “Yeah, my such-and-such is better than your such-and-such.”

The kid he was arguing with said, “My dad is better than your dad. He’s an accountant!”

Michael Keaton’s kid grinned and said, “Oh yeah? My dad is way better than your dad. My dad is Batman!”

And….mic drop.

It’s funny that I remember that. I mean, it wasn’t just yesterday. I had a face full of zits (my poor cheeks were a mess until well after college) and I was teasing my bangs so they looked like I had run into a wall.

I don’t remember who my favorite teacher was or what we were studying. I don’t remember who my crush was or what mean things the girls had said (and there were a lot…particularly of meeting me after school to beat me up). I don’t remember what crazy things my brothers had done (just that they were crazy). I don’t remember the dances or the football games.

But I do remember that story Michael Keaton told…because I wrote it down in my journal.

For some reason, it stuck with me and, to this day, I can picture where I was sitting, what I was wearing, and with whom I watched it.

The Power of Daily Writing

That’s the funny thing about keeping a journal. It doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t even have to follow some chronological order. It can be whatever is on your mind—good, bad, or ugly—when you sit down to write.

In “The Power of Daily Writing,” the Wall Street Journal tells a story of a 78-year-old man who began to write in 1964 because he had long dreamed of writing a novel, but…well, life.

So he opened a notebook one day and wrote:

I have decided to be a writer. I will it, thus: I am a writer. Now—by definition if for no other reason, writers are distinguished chiefly by the fact that they write. I must write—two hours a day until I finish school.

Today, he has nearly 30 million words that he’s written about things as mundane as a trip to the Goodwill or things that could be hurtful to his family should they read it after he dies.

(He claims he’s going to go through and clean all of that up before he dies so no one is hurt when they read it all.)

But he writes every, single day and, kind of like brushing your teeth, he feels not-quite-right if he skips a day.

James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of several books including “Writing to Heal,” says that is because writing every day is very powerful:

Taking 15 or 20 minutes to write freely about emotions, secrets, or upheaval can be a powerful tonic. Writing privately about traumatic experiences, even for as few as four consecutive days, can reduce stress, help people sleep, and improve their immune systems.

A Journal Reduces Stress

I presented a little foreshadowing in the comments of yesterday’s blog post on the fear of failure.

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That resonated with Karen Wilson, who said she’s been keeping a journal recently and has seen a big shift in her mindset.

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The experts say that is due to the practice of keeping a journal and she’s experiencing something that is not only stress-reducing, but is very powerful in how she approaches challenges in her life.

Blogging Doesn’t Count

The experts also say that blogging doesn’t necessarily count because we choose the right words and the right stories because we know it’s going to be published for the rest of the world to potentially see.

The real magic comes when you write whatever is on your mind and keep it to yourself.

It’s embarrassing to look back and see what you wrote about when you were 15. Man, life was so simple, but it seemed so hard!

It’s embarrassing to look back and see what you wrote about even a year ago, when you thought you’d never be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going.

But it’s also very, very powerful to do that.

Because you did pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going…even though how you felt at the time still gives you a knot in the bottom of your stomach.

It’s also kind of amazing to read some entries and think, “I remember feeling like that was a terrible year—and it was, but look at where we are today because of it.”

The practice of getting your thoughts out of your brain is powerful enough, on its own, but also take the time to read some of what you wrote so you are reminded of what you’ve overcome and accomplished.

Now the floor is yours. Do you journal? Have you ever done so? And, like my Michael Keaton story, what memories are conjured when you go back and read some of the things you wrote?

image credit: shutterstock

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I love this post. I don’t keep a journal but I feel like going out and buying one today.

    • You don’t even need to buy a journal. Just keep a document on your computer called “Journal” and write there.

  • Hey there miss,

    Been looking forward to this since you teased it, didn’t know it’d be here so soon. Woot!

    I don’t agree with the “blogging doesn’t count”. It’s a generalization that bloggers produce a sanitized version of the words they want to share.

    Business bloggers need to be sanitized, perhaps, given they’re trying to attract business, or do some weird “personal branding” thing.

    But that’s why so many business blogs have become bland, corporate crap.

    But then you have the bloggers that bleed rawness on the page. Whose words make you cry. Whose prose hit you like a jackhammer.

    Look at our mutual friend Nancy Davis, and her stories of her homeless battle, or the abuse she suffered on previous relationships.

    Looking at the bloggers that are talking about their very personal battles with demons, and how every day is a battle to just live.

    Bloggers always – always – get short drift whenever the topic of writing comes up. They should be recognized more.

    • You can disagree about blogging not counting, but that’s what the experts say. They say it’s because the point of journaling is to get everything out of your head…bad feelings and all. And, when we blog, we choose our words much more carefully and it doesn’t have the same effect.

      I do agree about people like Nancy, and I thought your comment here yesterday was very powerful. But the experts say that isn’t quite the same as if you’re writing just for yourself.

      Now, if you’re writing daily to become a better writer, then blogging DOES help. But that’s a different beast.

      • “The experts” is such a misnomer. Any expertise is immediately limited because it’s specific, and – often – outdated at some point.

        Experts told us the earth was flat. Experts told us we’d never fly. Experts told us space travel was a pipe dream. Experts told is a woman’s place is in the kitchen and not the workplace.

        The funny thing with most “experts” is they failed at their craft, so now they can only offer their “expertise” on the subject.

        I’ll stick with those who make me react emotionally, whatever medium that’s on, versus the views of “experts” who often are simply reaching against their own failures.

        • I love that you argue, whether you have expertise in a topic or not. It what makes you lovable. I do agree that people who make you react—Nancy’s story, your comment about being in private school—are very good for blogging. But I’m willing to bet Nancy holds some things back. In fact, I know she does. Because not everything is meant for a public audience. Sometimes we need to write for ourselves…and that’s where journaling comes in. It’s private. No one else will read it and you can be very, very, very honest without fear of hurting anyone’s feelings.

          • Wait – did you just diss me? 🙂

            But now we’re talking about two different things. Because everyone/anyone can hold something back. Even someone writing a “private journal” may not write everything they want, because of the fear a husband or wife might find it, or something comes out by accident.

            The original premise by “the experts” is if it’s blogging it doesn’t count.
            And that’s bogus. They’ve just discounted Nancy’s baring of her soul as “not real”. They’ve just discounted the blogger who shared their suicide attempt and the pain it cause as “not real”. They’ve just discounted the activist blogger sharing the true horrors of Syria as “not real”.

            Let’s take one of the most famous journals in the world, that of Anne Frank. OK, it’s a diary (I know how picky you can be, Princess slipper correcter!), but a diary is a personal memoir. So, essentially a journal.

            Let’s also say blogging and the web had been around then. Do you think Anne Frank would have kept her journal private, or do you think she may have used a blog to be a voice against Nazism, much like Syrian and Iranian bloggers are today?

            That’s why I don’t buy into the “it’s not real writing” spiel from so-called experts, because many have failed to move with the times and recognize writing is no longer limited to print and prose.

          • Oh, I don’t think anyone is saying it’s not real writing. The point is that when you journal all of your thoughts in a private way, it’s much more therapeutic than if you cleanse them a bit for public blogging.

          • I think the distinction here is that a blog post, for the most part, is typically (not always!) an edited document with the purpose of making a statement whereas journaling (free writing, etc.) is typically about the process of defining a statement or belief. It isn’t the “finished” piece.

          • To a degree, I’d agree (man, that looks weird grammatically). But what if you blog like Hemingway wrote, or at least the equivalent.

            Many bloggers (myself included) write a post as it comes out. We then have a very quick scan to see if something has been spelled incorrectly, then hit Publish. It’s only afterwards that a friend (or, in my case, usually my wife) tells me I’ve left some messed up spelling in there, so I go back to correct.

            But the essence of the post remains – written as the idea came to me (like my post over at Pure Blogging today), with little thought to how edited it is (ir isn’t).

          • I think this just proves that you’re odd.

            I mean, an outlier. Is that the nice way to say it? 😉

            Also, considering your opinion of “experts”, I think Gini was complementing you by calling out your lack of expertise.

          • Wait, have I just been dissed twice on the same day in the same comment thread? I’m not really sure how to process this – I’m off for ice cream. 🙂

          • Mmm… ice cream. 🙂

          • Please. He gave me his free ice cream just this morning.

          • Compliment.

            Darn it.

        • I’ll also add this: There are some things you CAN’T write about publicly. There is something I have been keeping a journal on that I will eventually choose from to write about publicly, but there are certain restrictions that prevent me from doing so right now.

          • But isn’t that counter to the point about it being a journal? Knowing that it will be public at some stage? Because, for me, that would probably taint the content much like public blogging is meant to taint its place in the writing realm.

          • Oh no. Not for me, anyway. I am not holding back in my journaling. There will be certain things that don’t make it to the public, but in my journal, there are no holds barred. I have no qualms talking about how bad the legal system is here, but I would scrub that a bit for public consumption…or at least remove the swear words.

  • I’ve done a bit of travelling. I spent two years on the road in a mid-career break in which I visited Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Almost ten years later I spent 20 weeks backpacking around South East Asia. I kept a travel diary during those trips which I love to read today…they help me remember details of my travels especially the people I met along the way. I’m so glad I kept this record and recommend this practice to all travellers.

    On a completely different track, my grandfather kept a daily journal until he died aged 95. These diaries later surprised and hurt many family members who, upon reading them, learned of his infidelities and other objectionable behaviours. I recommend not journalling every sordid detail of your life because nothing about you or your life (or your death) is ever just about you alone.

    My two pennies worth.

    • That’s what the guy in the WSJ article said…there are some things he’s written about that could be very hurtful to his family so he plans to go through and delete all of that. I hope he has a chance to do so before he dies!

      • This – the what I write may hurt someone, is what keeps me wanting to pen my thoughts…. The over thinker/over analyzer that I am always has a nagging voice in my head saying “what if someone were to read this”…
        hence, blogging always seemed like the default (write what you’re comfortable with everyone out there reading). It’s certainly something I hope to overcome as I can see how therapeutical and beneficial it can be.

        • It’s a big responsibility..putting some stuff down in black and white. And I suggest, the promising yourself that you’ll go back and delete is fraught with risk. Errors and omissions could be made. Extreme caution is recommended.

      • A) The thought of finding someones “redacted” journals cracks me up.
        B) Why would he even put that in to begin with? He could get hit by a bus tomorrow and let’s say, for the sake of storytelling, he doesn’t die. Instead he’s comatose and his loved ones find the journals, read them for comfort and then he wakes up and has to explain all those statements… 🙂

        • I think for the same reason any of us write…to get things out of our heads. I mean, I had some terrible thoughts about a family member a few years ago. I don’t feel that way any longer, but if she found those journal entries, she’d probably dig my corpse up and burn it.

          • Point noted.
            Of course, that’s where the “Burn all journals” note in the will is important.

  • kaitfowlie

    Journalling is my lifeblood. Literally. (Lifeblood? Is that right?) I essentially journal the majority of the day. For realz.

    • Do you hold anything back, for fear of hurting someone’s feelings if they get a hold of it?

  • Hi Gini,
    How could I NOT come by when you were talking about journalling!??!
    My first “Diary” was a five-year one with five small lines per day. It was my first foray into journalling so I wasn’t very good at it. Some days I simply wrote “Paino” or “I forget” I did, however, attempt to write each day!

    My journalling style has changed over the years. At one point I purged my home of old journals (burned them, I hope). I have since accumulated a large stack of new ones. The best gift someone can give me is a pristine, opening-flat, beautifully bound journal, but I digress. Saying whatever you want to say – therapeutic? Yes. Leaving instructions in your will that all journals be immediately burned? Hell yes!

    By the way, I love how you and Danny are arguing here! And am really enjoying the daily reads/discussions!


    • We were just talking internally that someone needs to be designated to burn (or delete) your journals when you die. It’s not a bad practice. Someone who can be trusted.

      And…two days in a row! You’ve made my entire year! xoxo

      • That’s so strange Gini because your emails only started showing up in my Inbox two days ago. I thought you’d stopped blogging and were only now starting up again (perish the thought, but I was subscribed!)
        I’m glad to see what you’re doing these days. Feels like old times! (Where is Griddy!?!?!)

        • You know, I’m glad you said that. We just switched platforms so I’ll bet it shook out all of the dust.

  • Caitlin

    I kept a diary daily from eight years old to last September. Having a newborn meant that I didn’t get to journal as much. And oddly, it’s the time when I could journal the most.

    • Having a newborn puts EVERYTHING on hold. You have about nine more months and then things start to go back to your pre-baby routine. But it is kind of sad you’ll lose a year or more of journaling…when it’s probably the best time to do it.

  • I was a pretty regular journaler (not a word, but journalist isn’t quite right…) all through school and then, a few years post-graduation, I dropped the habit. I’ve picked it up here and there, but for some reason it hasn’t been sticking. I’ve been trying this year to use a spot on my daily calendar for a quick bit of journaling to rebuild that habit. Still spotty, but getting better.

    • I wonder if you did it very first thing when you get up…or very last thing before you go to sleep. Would that work?

      • Are we still talking about writing?

        • Either writing or things that need to be redacted from journals. 😉

          I like the idea of writing in the morning, kind of like morning pages, though I’m not really a morning person. I think I’ll have to keep a notebook by bed and see which one, morning or night, works best.

  • Sherree

    I love this post. I’ve been journaling on/off since I was a kid. There’s no “inner editor” when I journal, as there is when I blog. When I was younger, journaling was a lifesaver. I could pour my heart out while writing – it was safe there. Still is!

    • Sherree! Hi, gorgeous! So there’s been some discussion about pouring your heart out and having someone find it later. Do you worry about that?

      • Sherree

        Hi Gini! What a great discussion this post has generated.

        No, I’m not worried. I’ve been married so long that I don’t think there’s anything in my journals that would surprise my husband. Also, those that really know me would understand what I’ve written. Those that don’t, well, too bad. I don’t write for others in my journal, I write for me. The slightly less extreme (or emotional) version is on my blog.

        With that said, I think it’s an interesting idea to have them destroyed if the writer was worried about hurt feelings when s/he passed away. It never crossed my mind to do that.

        • I go back and forth on having them destroyed. There is a lot of history in those journals!

  • What a wonderful, alive discussion. If my day had not been such a cluster of meh-ness, I would have already commented. Hopefully I’ll make it back to do so! You people are all pretty awesome!

    • Does this not count as a comment?

      • Um – let’s go with an allegory: Paula saying “I wish I could comment” when she rally wanted to write ALL THE THINGS is to real commenting what the idea of “blogging is close enough to journaling” is to real journaling. 😉

        • **An analogy I mean. UGH.

        • Before I started reading the studies about how transformational journaling is, I always thought this blog was a good journal. I mean, I write every day. But it’s not so much therapeutic as it is just starting a conversation. So I can understand what the experts mean when they say it doesn’t count.

          • I can too, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since reading the post yesterday morning. Although my blog started out as a way of “flexing my writing muscle” and I think I am pretty candid/honest/transparent, there are some things that I need to process that I simply can’t or won’t via the blog — too delicate/private/likely to hurt the people involved.


  • Does anyone keep a writing journal? I took a creative writing course once where I learned this can be useful for longer projects. But I’ve not done it.

    • I do! My writing journal has a bike on the front. Someday that novel will be finished.

  • Hanna Knowles

    To chime in a day late – I have kept a journal on and off since elementary school. I don’t turn to it very regularly, but always grab it when I am feeling overwhelmed. Putting it down on paper and out of my mind definitely helps me think clearer. Even though I don’t regularly journal, whenever I travel I journal religiously! I won’t go to bed until I have recorded the day’s adventures!

    I recently was cleaning out some boxes and started flipping through a journal from third grade. The big adventure of the day was building forts in the backyard. I enjoyed reading these entries because it served as a reminder of where I come from and what makes me, me.

    To pick up the conversation of someone else reading it – totally concerned! There are some strange thoughts amongst those pages that are even hard for me to read over. This fear doesn’t hold me back from writing it all down though. We have to have some sacred space for decompression.

    • Building forts! We should all go back to building forts.

  • I had a daily journaling habit for YEARS and loved it. I got out of the habit, started blogging and social publishing and that sort of scratched the itch but not quite. I’m trying to get back to a regular journaling habit now after finding a wonderful online course called “Just F*cking Journal” (you can google it – run by a life coach out in CA – highly recommend it and her). Journaling is therapy, it helps me think clearer and overall makes me a better person. I love it!

    • Ohhhhh. I’ll check it out! Thanks for the mention of it. Like you, blogging sort of scratches the itch, but not quite.

  • Josh Stoodley

    This post reminded me of something that one of my instructors taught me back in school: if you look back on a piece of writing that you did years ago and find it too embarrassing to get through, this is a sign that you’ve matured as a person, or at least improved as a writer.

    • Oooh, I like that! Saving for future reference, cheers!


    • I felt exactly like this when I went back and read my first blog post last week. I really hope I’ve improved as a writer in the past 7 years.

  • I didn’t have time to come read and comment when you first published this!! What a great post (yanno, cuz I’m quoted and all)!

    I have to say I agree with the experts about blogging not counting and I agree with Danny that it does. Sometimes. I think some bloggers really don’t hold back. They lay it all out there – or they put out enough that it may as well be all out there. I have a friend who has been writing about her daughter coming out as a trans female at 10/11 years old after years of struggling with depression. The story has been open, honest, raw, revealing, and healing for many who are going through similar struggles. I’m sure that Amanda holds back details, but she and her daughter are incredibly open, so I don’t think there’s much.

    We all have our comfort level. The guy from the WSJ clearly isn’t even 100% comfy with his own musings on paper. I’ve come close to journaling as a blogger when I’ve shared (in the past, because I don’t talk about my son nearly as much anymore) what it was like when we were going through the process of getting my son’s autism diagnosis. I definitely hold back, though. My son isn’t old enough to truly consent to details being shared, so I can only tell so much of my side of the story publicly.

    I should mention that I have used Day One for journaling for a few years now, but the whole electronic journal connected to the internet still makes me feel vulnerable even if it is “private”. I didn’t really feel the benefits of journaling using Day One like I do now that I’ve been putting actual pen to paper.

    • Poor M. He’s been forgotten as a blog subject!

      • Nah…he’ll come up from time to time. I just don’t get to tell embarrassing stories about him anymore. 😉

    • Seemingly one of my posts gave Gini goosebumps the other day. For “not a real writer”, that was a nice validation. 😉

      • That post was amazing. I didn’t comment about them, but I had the goosebump experience too.

  • Emi Nguyen

    This is really interesting. I’ve been writing journal a lot recently. It helps me focus and increases my self-awareness. And I have to say I completely agree when you say that blogging doesn’t count. I write different when I’m blogging vs when I’m journaling. Blogging is something that I put out there for the public to see and critic, while journal is something that I keep for myself. I can write journal in English today and have it switched to Chinese or Vietnamese tomorrow, just whatever I prefer, and that’s one of the best things about journaing. Everything is for you to read, and for you ONLY. Thanks for another great post Gini!

  • I definitely relate with this post. I find that when I do remember to write things down, I end up remembering them for much longer than if I don’t. On top of that, it usually clears my slate of feelings if it’s something I’m stressing about.

    My question is: Do you think this is applicable to writing on a computer? I’m a big fan of hand-drawn brain maps and charts and I consider those writing sometimes, but what about just writing to write in a blank word document? Do you think it offers the same effect?

    • I personally think so. I write much more quickly and more creatively when I type. I imagine it differs for everyone, though. I also love to draw in my notebook, when I need to think something big through.