I’ve always organized my life in notebooks. I keep all of these things simultaneously: a few sketchbooks, a planner, a personal dream book, and separate notepads for things like to-do lists, overheard conversations, and meaningful quotations.

A sampling of my various journals.

I’ve found that all those notebooks express more of myself than the regular diary I kept until high school. My diary was random, depressing, extremely dramatic, and rather boring. It was a great way to vent frustration, but my writing in it didn’t feel constructive. I gave up on it and, under the huge influence of Ghost World, switched to a visual diary. Finally, I could express feelings too complicated or too intimidating for me to put into words. I discovered that I’m just better at drawing than I am at writing—my sketchbook was actually helping me figure things out!

I believe keeping a record, visual or written, is good for you. It helps you to clear your mind, develop your ideas, and know yourself better. It allows you to be emotional and honest as well as grumpy and pathetic. But if you feel thwarted in this process, like I did, or if you’re just looking for new ways to express yourself, let me share with you a couple of ideas and technical tricks that will help make your journal fun to create and to look at.


First, you need to find the medium that suits you. You have a few options.

Pick the perfect notebook.
Indulge yourself! Buy a fancy notebook. A good-looking book reminds you that you keep it for your pleasure. Also, it’s inviting, so it might motivate you not to give up on journaling. You can find a variety of great, unique designs and high-quality materials on independent online shops like Poketo and Little Otsu.

Or: turn an ordinary notebook into the perfect one.
The truth is, pretty and expensive notebooks never work for me. I’m so scared of ruining their pristine sheets with my shaky handwriting and messy drawings that I literally can’t put pen to paper! I always end up buying a cheap notebook and customizing the cover with some stickers or collages made from cut-out pictures or old maps or whatever, just to break the ice. With some loose sheets you can even sew/glue a notebook on your own, or turn a planner or an empty photo album into one.

My customized covers.

Easy as it seems, making a durable journal from scratch is not a piece of cake. A customized notebook, like the ones from Scout Books, can be a good solution for those with two left hands. If a white sheet of paper still triggers nothing but writer’s block for you, try boosting your artistic spirit with a “creative workbook” like Wreck This Journal or The Scribble Diary. They’re like coloring books for teenagers—in a good way.

If you don’t like writing/drawing on paper, just stick to your screen.
I won’t be talking about blogs, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., because, despite their many similarities to personal journals, speaking to the public usually brings a different quality to your work. Still, there are lots of apps and sites devoted to journaling, list-making, mind-mapping, and all kinds of thought organizers that can be an inspiration for your journaling routine.


Next, consider your approach. A few things to remember:

You don’t have to be a perfectionist.
Don’t judge yourself for poor handwriting or clumsy drawings—your diary is a space for trial and error, a secret place where pretentious poems and anatomically incorrect portraits of Harry Potter are equally welcome.

You don’t have to be organized.
Sometimes there’s just too much going on to keep your journal consistent, and that’s OK. You don’t have to write or draw in it every single day, nor do you have to stick to certain lengths or just one method of expression—I highly recommend trying different literary or drawing styles according to your mood and the amount of time you have for journaling. However, if you need order in order to express your thoughts, divide your journal into sections or keep a couple of notebooks for different things.

Find a good hiding place…
…unless you live alone and have absolutely no secrets. I was raised with respect for privacy, but I’m a middle child, so I know the reality of siblings’ curiosity. Sometimes it’s best if your family doesn’t know you keep a journal at all—this eliminates their temptation to find it. You can wrap your journal with a dust jacket of a normal book and keep it on the second row of a bookshelf. (I tried hiding my journal between folded T-shirts in my wardrobe, but nosy siblings also have a habit of borrowing clothes without asking.) If “privacy” is a flexible concept in your home, be clever. Maybe invest in a padlock.


Now it’s time to actually start filling your journal with your thoughts and ideas and emotions. Of course, there are standard diary entries, poetry, and creative writing, but the following ideas, a cocktail of drawing, writing, and mind-mapping concepts, should help anyone who feels unsure about what exactly you want your journal to be. I’ve tried all of these and adjusted them to my needs. Some have become a part of my routine for good.

Let’s begin with something easy and probably closest to the common idea of journaling. Try describing events as non-existent photos, like Michael Murphy of Unphotographable does, or writing down overheard conversations, like the illustrator Mark Smith does on his blog You Look Like the Right Type. These exercises in observation and description can be a good start to a more experimental approach.

This is time-consuming, but I find it really rewarding. Don’t get scared, I’m not talking about elaborate, marvelous graphics or complex autobiography in the spirit of Persepolis or Fun Home. My favorite comic diaries are simple in style and content. Gemma Correll, in her Daily Diaries, depicts ordinary objects and everyday events. Taylor-Ruth of Hanging Rock Comics focuses on thoughts and conversations. These entries don’t need to have speech bubbles or picture frames. Illustrator Giada Ganassin makes beautiful, mostly wordless calendars, and Rookie’s Marjainez has sketchbooks filled with clouds of song lyrics and doodles:

If comics seem too complex, try another kind of sketching diary. It doesn’t have to be narrative at all. You can think of your sketchbook as a collage, letting concert tickets, Post-it notes, and postcards fill your personal mini-museum. Abstract compositions, like Minna’s Dear Diary entries, carry as much emotion.

Sketchbooks are not always messy and chaotic. Have a look at Leanne Shapton’s project A Month of…, which is divided into specific categories. And how clean are the travel diaries of Carla Fuentes and Lehel Kovács?

A view from my room in Paris.

Daily activities
The simple practice of drawing (or photographing) everyday activities—what you ate/wore/bought/etc.–has caught fire on the internet over the past couple of years, for good reason. You won’t know why something like this is addictive until you try it yourself.

Graphs, lists, mind maps
There’s a chapter in Jennifer Egan’s book A Visit From the Goon Squad that’s meant to be a 12-year-old girl’s diary—and it’s written entirely in PowerPoint. The character used seemingly impersonal and corporate graphs and charts to depict the changing relationships between members of her family in few words but with great accuracy. Creating hand-drawn infographics, like the ones from Indexed, about your life can be more entertaining than solving a Sudoku. Not to mention lists. There can be a list for everything (as demonstrated in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity), and lists can be funny.

Everything else
Here you can find ideas for more than three months’ worth of intense journaling. After that you’ll probably have heaps of your own ideas. A diary told through playlists? Moodboards? Agent Cooper–style voice recordings? Since journaling is all about expressing yourself, there are as many possibilities as you have moods. So add, multiply, experiment, and have fun! ♦