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Journaling: Writing to Learn and Learning to Write

Writing to Learn and Learning to Write
By Wendy Priesnitz

Keeping a personal journal is a great way to develop and practice writing skills, organize thoughts, process experiences, and get to know oneself. Journaling is a powerful tool for building self-awareness and practicing self-reflection because it puts the writer in communication with himself or herself via a piece of paper.

No matter what the age of the writer, regular time spent with a journal also creates a permanent record of learning, which can be helpful in reassuring both the learner and others about the progress of their education.

For many writers – including me – a journal acts as a compost pile. Unlike a diary, which is a chronological account of occurrences, a journal includes a whole bunch of “stuff,” which sits for a while so it heats up, and eventually turns into rich compost, from which stories can be written. This “stuff” varies from writer to writer, from memories, opinions, snippets of overhead conversations, quotations from other writers and newspaper articles, to accounts of actual experiences or dreams.

Aside from writing regularly, there are no rules to keeping a journal. Write as often as you like, or as seldom as you want (but repetition is important to improving writing skills, so more is better than less in this context).

You can write in or on anything that pleases you, from a dollar store scribbler to a lovely leather-bound book filled with handmade paper. You can write thoughts, visions, dreams, poetry, letters, or lists.

Like any other desired behavior, modeling it will encourage others to join in. In our family, my daughters and I often wrote in our journals at the same time, sometimes in a cafe (my favorite place to journal), sometimes snuggled under blankets in front of the fireplace.

Even very young children can participate in journal writing. Initially, they can draw pictures or their entries can consist of illustrations plus a few words. Eventually, illustrations will be replaced by words. My eldest daughter, who is now a professional writer, credits my gift of her first journal as one of the things that shaped her life and career.

Here are some other tips for journal writing to get you or your child started:

  • Do not judge or censor your writing – or that of others. Editing is best done later, if ever; once you start writing, just keep your hand moving, as Writing Down the Bones author and journal writer Natalie Goldberg says. Let this be a time when punctuation and spelling don’t count. Both will improve with practice rather than criticism. And the love of writing will remain intact.

  • Make journal writing a habit – something done at the same time each day, either when you first wake up, or just before you fall asleep. I find that writing first thing in the morning is helpful, while my dreams are fresh and before my internal critic wakes up.

  • Privacy is important to effective journal writing. Respect others’ privacy and ask for that favor in return. Make sure that everyone has a safe place in which to store their journal so that they feel free to write whatever they want. Learning happens when people feel safe. (Many teachers use journals in their classrooms, but more often than not they read their students’ journals and provide feedback; I don’t think this is productive or respectful.)

  • Don’t worry if you or your children don’t feel like writing sometimes; either sit down and just start writing about whatever you see around you, or walk away and realize that something may be brewing inside you that’s not yet ready to be put down on paper.

Learn More

Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg (1990, Bantam Books)

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (1986, Bantam Books)

The Writer’s Journal – 40 Contemporary Writers & Their Journals edited by Sheila Bender (1997, Dell Publishing)

Keeping a Nature Journal – Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth (2000, Storey Books)

The Creative Journal for Children by Lucia Capacchione (1989, Shambhala Publications)

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's editor, the author of thirteen books, a veteran unschooling advocate, and the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school in the 1970s and '80s. She has been journaling regularly since she was sixteen. You can learn more about her on her website.

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