Thoughts to Words: A Case for Journaling

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When I turned 13, my parents gave me a blue-flowered notebook as a birthday present. With that notebook as a catalyst, I began recording my thoughts, wishes, and experiences. My topics were erratic and impulsive: I’d write about everyday experiences, abstract musings, and my impetuous future plans.

At the time, I wasn’t sure that anything would come of my occasional writing: I was a fickle young teenager, and I tended to adopt and drop hobbies at whim. But something about journaling stuck, and now, several years later, I’ve filled almost a dozen journals, using them to document my thoughts, prayers, and theories about reality.

So, for anyone with some initial skepticism, here are just three benefits I’ve seen through the years of journaling.

1. Moving From Thoughts to Words

Popular psychologist Jordan Peterson says writing is one way to become more articulate, and he’s right. Writing requires consideration, tenacity, and often complex thought. By consistently moving ideas and events into the realm of words, we can gain consistent discipline in organizing and presenting our ideas.

In particular, journaling forces its adherents to take things that are important to them (thoughts, events, or even just casual moments) and translate them into words. The complexity of inner emotional and social life must be prodded into the realm of simple words, and the practice of simplifying can help us articulate ourselves in meaningful yet understandable ways.

2. Cultivating the Art of Writing

Recently, I began to read through my early journal entries, looking again at the writing which marked my first word adventures. At the time, I had only a vague sense of rhythm, and my syntax was often clunky and repetitive.

Now, after several years of writing consistently, even my impromptu musings have improved, and I can express myself without nearly as much editing, stress, and general confusion.

Writing by hand has given me a better sense of the rhythms of natural speech, allowing me to smoothly summarize and explain my ideas. And, as writing is helpful for success in any area of life, methods for improving it are usually worth pursuing.

3. Learning From the Past

One thing that strikes me almost every time I read through my past journals is my own internal continuity. Over the course of the past few years, I have struggled and thought through the same general issues and concepts. While my outer reality certainly has changed—I began journaling in high school, and now I’m near the end of college—my structure of thought has remained the same. My personality predisposes me toward certain vices, and—whether 14 or 40—I must fight these wrong inclinations and desires.

Journaling is helpful, then, because I can use my recorded life lessons to “reteach” myself in the present trial. I use journaling to remember what strategies I’ve used to cope with different aspects of my world, and in my notebooks, I can record the advice that others have given me around those struggles.

Journaling helps me remember what I’ve learned before, and that prior learning almost always correlates to something I’m working through in the present. Journaling gives me past lessons with which to navigate present reality.

Making Journaling Practical

For those intimidated by the thought of writing, starting small can make the practice approachable. Write down a sentence: What thought did you have standing in line at the grocery store? What do the trees outside your apartment window smell like? If there were another person in the room, how would you tell them about your day?

Journaling doesn’t need to mean writing some long and complicated discourse about our internal states or what we did today. Some of my journal entries are only a sentence long: a random thought I had, a belief I’m contemplating, or a prayer for strength as I move into my day. It doesn’t have to be fancy; rather, it’s about being in the habit of recording our thoughts and experiences. Our future selves will be thankful we did.

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