This is a different beast from the diary you might have kept as a child. Diaries record facts but journals do much more.
In a diary you might list where and how you spent the day. “Went to beach. Very hot. Rescued baby.” A journal entry might describe the same trip to the beach but it will be in very different terms. “The sand seeped up between my toes, so hot I raced for the water, shedding towel, thongs and bag as I went. The water lapped around me, so soothing, and on the beach a rainbow garden of umbrellas bloomed.” Or it might be something that grabs your attention. “I couldn’t believe it. This baby was crawling straight for the water and this is a surf beach. No sign of anyone looking after it either. I ran and picked it up just as a wave crashed down. And while I was standing there wondering what to do, this enormous man, all tats and dreadlocks, stalked down the beach, grabbed it out of my arms. “Don’t you touch my kid,” he snarled. You would have thought he’d say thank you. I was shaking for ages. How could they have just left the baby like that!” Same beach, same day but very different parts of the experience remembered in different ways.
Journals can include details of what has transpired but they also give us the opportunity to look deeper – into how we feel about what happened, how we might respond to a situation, a chance to vent. It's a place to express your innermost thoughts on any subject you choose in any way you choose. It's not meant to be shared unless you want to. These are your thoughts at that point in time. They may offend others. They may not even be representative of your usual thoughts. They may be investigating emotions or situations. Whatever they are they are yours and they should be honest. You don't have to explain or justify what you write – to anyone.
Because of this, commonsense will tell you not to leave your journal lying around where someone might pick it up and read it out of casual curiosity. I keep my journals discreetly in a place where they are not likely to be seen unless someone is deliberately looking for them. Still you should protect yourself. If something is particularly controversial you can, after you’ve finished, stick the pages together or rip them out. The benefit comes from the actual writing, rarely the rereading.
There are few rules. Dating each entry so you know the context in which you wrote it is desirable. Don’t worry about grammar rules, punctuation and spelling and do try not to correct or cross out hard though it is. Doing that breaks the flow and spontaneity of your train of thought and you won’t achieve the depth in your writing you otherwise could. Don’t censor yourself. This is a time to be honest even if it is painful – and sometimes it might be – but it will also give you the opportunity to work out how you feel about important happenings in your life. You can be yourself with no need to impress others.
You may or may not choose to write an entry every day although it’s not hard to devote fifteen minutes a day to journal writing. You may opt not mention any details of your life at all, you may use it to reflect on all your life or you may include only particular areas. You may write to triggers like poetry, songs or in response to what is happening in the world around you. You may just want to rant about something or someone. It’s your journal and you get to choose.
In our journals all we have to do is write. This is quite a gift. While we are doing this we learn – about ourselves and our past, to find solutions to problems, to recognise our joys, to understand others and how complex they (and we) are, what we want to write about and to develop our creativity and improve our writing ability.
In the end it’s the process of journal writing that’s most important. We may end up using some of what we write in other places but more than that we gain an understanding of ourselves and in that journey, we also gain an understanding of the world we live in – and our writing benefits.