Developing English Writing Skills Through Personal Journals

A few years ago, when I was studying English in an intensive English program, I asked my teacher what I could do to improve my writing skills.  I had a hard time coming up with ideas, so writing fluency was my problem.  My teacher said that the best way to overcome that challenge was to practice writing.  Not a surprise, right?  I certainly already knew that.  My problem was—I didn’t really know what to write about!  So I asked my teacher if he was aware of a writing exercise that would be both helpful and motivating, and he suggested that I kept a personal journal.  At first, I was a bit skeptical—How is this really going to improve my writing skills?  But I thought I’d try it anyway.

I have to admit that I found it extremely interesting, and—soon enough—I developed a habit of keeping my journal in English on a regular basis.  I realized that personal writing had a great value—I didn’t have to worry about being perfect or extremely imaginative.  I didn’t even have to worry too much about my grammar or the flow of sentences.  I knew that I was writing to myself; therefore, I could allow myself to openly express my thoughts and feelings in the language I was learning.  Therefore, I was not afraid of not using sophisticated language or making mistakes.  In addition—and this was probably the most rewarding part—I noticed that my writing apprehension was slowly disappearing and most of the times I seemed to find topics to write about.

In what

follows, I would like to share some ideas about keeping a journal.

Consistency—write on a regular basis

The secret of success in keeping a personal journal is consistency.  I am truly convinced that it’s much more helpful to write just a little bit a few times a week rather than produce a long, albeit interesting, entry once a month.  Don’t worry if you don’t seem to have anything “worthy” to write about.  Remember that your goal is not creating a storybook for publishing!  Your ideas may not be interesting for other people, but they can surely be meaningful to you.  And of course there are a whole variety of things that you can write about.  Some of them are:

  • An interesting conversation you heard
  • An article that impressed you
  • A person that influenced you
  • A piece of advice that you received
  • News that surprised you

In a word, your reflections or descriptions can be about mundane, commonplace, and ordinary, or unusual, surprising, and refreshing things.  You can also write about events that evoke certain emotions or feelings.  It can be something that:

  • Astonished you
  • Scared you
  • Excited you
  • Motivated you
  • Inspired you
  • Made you want to change
  • Made you angry
  • Made you think, etc.

Writing in your journal should become a good habit that you will enjoy doing on a regular basis.  The truth is that ideas frequently come during the process: as you describe one experience, another one may come up, and then you suddenly remember another story that relates to these experiences, and before you know it, you are engaged in the writing process!  So write consistently and make it your good habit.

Just do it!

I compare this process with fishing.  Oftentimes you don’t know what kind of fish is in the water and whether or not there is fish down there in the first place.  So in order to find out, you have to cast a line into the water.  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 whether or not you are able to come up with the ideas unless you start writing.

Make it visually appealing to you

leaves on the ground

Pictures make everything look better!  In my personal journal, I like to include pictures related to the content of my entries.  For example, when I write about good times spent with friends, I add one or two pictures of the people I mention in my descriptions or activities we had together.  So I suggest that you try to make your journal more visually appealing by including a few pictures here and there.  I hope they will make your writing process motivating to you.

Experiment with genres

Your journal entries don’t have to follow the same model.  In fact, there should be no model at all!  Since this type of writing allows your creativity to come out, I suggest that you experiment with different genres.  For example, one day you can write a humorous story, another day you can try writing in an academic style.  You can also try writing in a form of a letter, a report, or a memoir.  Switching genres is a lot of fun and it will help you discover your writing abilities you were not aware of.

Do not make it a duty

Do not include keeping your journal in the list of your daily duties that you must accomplish.  This is not your homework!  Keeping your journal should bring you joy!  Do not blame yourself for not writing in it as often as you would like to.  Follow your inspiration and you will make it a pleasurable activity.

As I mentioned above, there are lots of different things that you can describe and reflect on in your journal.  I would like to share three ideas that I myself found to be the most motivating to me.

Girl eating the cake

Describe places that you went to

Did you recently have a great trip to a National park?  Or perhaps you went to Disneyland for the first time?  Those are wonderful experiences to write about!  Describe the place, the people you met there, your impressions about the place, and fun things you did.  I personally like to visit National Parks; every summer I try to go to a new National Park.  There is so much to see there and of course lots to write about.  And just because I usually take an incredible number of pictures during my trips, I include them in my descriptions too.  They make my entries more interesting and lively and make my trips more memorable.  Trust me, several years later you will have a great time reading those entries!

Share experiences about the food that you try—also with pictures

I have a friend who posts on Facebook pictures of every meal he eats during his travels!  When I saw him doing this, I first thought it was a bit funny—I could almost imagine him taking pictures of his food before eating it.  But I also thought it would be such a great idea to make “special food entries” in my personal journal—to describe food I eat when I go on trips and to include the pictures of the different meals I try.  I tried to do this a couple of years ago, and by now, I have several dozens of such entries.  Believe me, I always have such a good time reading those entries and remembering my experiences—both positive and negative.  I also realize that it’s so easy to forget about those experiences if I don’t write them down.  Plus it’s a great English practice too!

businesswoman with a note-book in a cafe drinking coffee

Describe your learning experiences—learning a word, reading an interesting article in English, etc.

When you describe your learning experiences, not only do you practice your written English, but you also develop your self-reflective abilities and notice your own learning styles and strategies.  And by doing this, you become a self-regulated and more successful English learner.  By the way, have you ever wondered what kind of learner you are?  Do you know, for example, what strategies work for you to memorize English vocabulary?  Or are you aware of your reading skills?  Or can you confidently list your strengths in writing?  Do you know what skills you need to improve to become a better user of English?  Without reflecting on your learning processes, it’s hard to monitor your language development and thus it’s practically impossible to set goals for further growth.  Therefore, your journal can become an excellent venue for practicing your reflective skills and becoming acquainted with your language learning strategies.

I suggest that you describe your learning experiences in your journal whether they are positive or negative.  For example, let’s say you had a successful experience memorizing an interesting English expression and using it in a conversation with your native-speaking friend.  What a wonderful experience to describe!  But try not only to describe what you did but also reflect on the experience.  Why do you think you were able to memorize it effectively?  What or who helped you?  What was the context?  Do you think that you can use the same strategy in the future?  These are all important questions to reflect on and to write down in your journal.  After several of those entries, you can make a list of the strategies that work for you and a list of the ones that you believe are not effective.  Try to do it and see if it helps you become a better English learner.

Going back to what I said at the beginning, writing apprehension is a common challenge, not only for English learners, but also for native speakers.  I used to have this problem too, but I managed to overcome it by keeping a personal journal in English.  I suggest this strategy to you too, and I hope it will help you become better writers.

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