Developing Writing Skills Through Personal Journals

A few years ago, when I was studying English in an intensive English program, I asked my writing instructor what I could do to improve my writing skills. I had a hard time coming up with ideas, so I asked my teacher if he was aware of a writing exercise that would be both helpful and motivating. He suggested that I keep a personal journal. To be quite honest, I was a bit skeptical at first, but I thought I’d try it anyway. It worked! As I was developing a habit of writing my personal journal in English, I noticed that my writing apprehension was slowly disappearing, and most of the time I seemed to find topics to write about.

Sometimes my students experience the same problem, so I share my experience with them and suggest they try writing a personal journal. I tell them that personal writing has a great value—they don’t have to worry about being perfect or extremely imaginative. They don’t even have to worry too much about their grammar or sentence flow or using sophisticated language. Personal writing allows for a free expression of ideas, thoughts, and feelings because the writer is the audience. Here are some suggestions about writing a journal, which I learned from my own experience:

Consistency—Write on a Regular Basis

The secret of success in keeping a personal journal is consistency. Students should understand that it is much more helpful to write just a little bit a few times a week rather than to produce a long entry once a month. Also, I tell them not to worry about not having anything “worthy” to write about. They should remember that their goal is not to create a storybook for publishing! So although their ideas may not be interesting for other people, they can surely be meaningful to them. And of course there is a whole variety of things that they can write about. Some of them are:

  • An interesting conversation they heard
  • An article that impressed them
  • A person that influenced them
  • A piece of advice that they received
  • News that surprised them
  • A movie/book that made them think

In other words, their reflections or descriptions can be about mundane, commonplace, and ordinary things, or unusual, surprising, and inspirational things. They can also write about events that evoke certain emotions or feelings. It can be something:

  • Astonishing
  • Scary
  • Exciting
  • Motivating
  • Inspiring
  • Making them want to change
  • Making them angry
  • Making them thoughtful about certain things

When joyfully done on a regular basis, keeping a personal journal will become a good habit. And based on my experience, ideas often come during the process: As you describe one experience, another one may come up, and then you suddenly may remember another story that relates to these experiences, and before you know it, you are engaged in the writing process.

Just Do It!

I am a big fan of fishing. Oftentimes when you fish, you don’t know what’s in the water. So in order to find out, you just have to cast a line! You can’t just sit on the shore waiting for a fish: You need to make an attempt. To me, the same holds true for writing—you will never know what ideas will come to you unless you start writing. To help your students understand this simple principle, you can try a variety of free-writing activities in class and encourage them to apply this principle to their personal writing.

Don’t Make It a Duty

It is important not to put journal writing on the list of daily duties. If students consider it their homework, and if they blame themselves for not doing it as often as they think they should, it is not going to bring them joy. Therefore, they should remember to simply follow their inspiration and make it a pleasurable activity.

 Make Your Journal Visually Appealing

Pictures make everything look better, don’t they? So why not use them in personal journals? My personal journal is full of pictures. Because I enjoy hiking, I often include pictures of places I visited as I describe my experiences. When keeping their journals, students can include pictures related to the content of their entries. For example, if they write about good times spent with friends, they can add one or two pictures of the people they refer to in their descriptions. It’s fun, it’s visually appealing, it’s motivating, and it’s also memorable! This is certainly something that students can use to make their writing process motivating and enjoyable.

In my next blog, I will continue describing my other strategies for keeping a personal journal. Please feel free to share your ideas!

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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5 Responses to Developing Writing Skills Through Personal Journals

  1. Leticia says:

    Hi Elena! I’ve come across your journal post today and it took me by surprise reading you studied TESOL at BYU, just like me! 🙂 Please send me an email if you’d like us to meet. What an amazing coincidence!

  2. Maria Barreto says:

    Love it. I do the same. My students write journals. Now with internet we use blogs and cooperative writing Google Docs is a great tool for it. Sometimes I start a topic with a sentence, and there we go… some others I let them start . Other times I just tell them choose a topic and share with two or three more then they all work cooperatively.

  3. Claudia says:

    Thank you for the informative article. It was very useful. I have a question regarding assigning journaling for homework or letting my middle school students decide on their own when to journal. I fear if I let them decide when to write, they will leave it to the last minute and cram several entries into one night’s work. In your article you wrote that assigning journal entries will take the joy out of writing, but perhaps for my adolescent students, I will need to make it a daily or weekly assignment? Thank you again for the excellent article.

  4. Hi! This is so great, thank you.

    To Etsy, I think about those same things as a teacher. I usually give options, such as
    1. Respond to this prompt/question (I come up with one, or pick from “Table Topics”)
    2. Free Writing: tell me anything you want (a dream, a conversation, an opinion, a funny event, weekend plans, a favorite story you had growing up as a child, about your mother, etc.)

    Related to #1, if it’s a topic we’ve discussed in class or might be discussing, I’ll relate it to that. For example, we were doing a unit on education and I thought it would be great to ask them a question every day about their educational experiences. Or they could opt out and try #2.

  5. Etsy Nunes says:

    Thanks so much for the article. Sometimes my students said that they don’t have anything to write about. How can I motivate them to start writing? My class is false beginners classes.