Whether you call it a journal, a diary, a dream book or anything else (I’ll use the term journal here), keeping a record of your life can be a rewarding effort. The important thing to understand about a journal is that it should be written for yourself, because you will get the most use out of it.
“What is a diary as a rule? A document useful to the person who keeps it. Dull to the contemporary who reads it and invaluable to the student, centuries afterwards, who treasures it.”-- Sir Walter Scott
Even if no student from the future reads your journal, you will find it useful as a way to vent about everyday frustrations, to make note of little events and conversations that may be important later, or to explore your feelings in private. At the most basic level, a journal can help you remember details when you go back and reread things you’ve written in the past.
As an example, I keep a separate “hiking journal,” and each time I go out I add an entry for the day. Each entry will have the date, where I hiked, length of the hike, who was with me and other details about what the weather was like, what the trail was like, people I met, animals and/or bugs encountered, and if it’s an overnight campout, what the campsite is like. This way, before I go on another trip, I can reference my journal and see if there’s a particular trail I’d like to hike again, perhaps during a different season (i.e. Spring vs. Fall). Also, sometimes it’s nice to just read old entries because the words remind me of the hike and I recall details I might have otherwise forgotten.
There is no single correct way to write in a journal, and finding your own style may take a little time and experimentation. There are three basic questions you’ll need to answer for yourself, but don’t overthink and make it more complicated than it needs to be.
The first question is “when should I write?” The simplest answer is, “whenever works best for you.” The trick is to be consistent. Maybe you jot down a few quick lines before bed every night, or you write for a while each weekend on a quiet Sunday morning. Some people just journal whenever the mood strikes, sitting under a tree between classes, or in little short bursts throughout the day.
The second question is “what do I write?” Again, the simplest answer is, “whatever YOU want.” Whether you write quick notes, long essays, rants and ravings, song lyrics, stream-of-consciousness scribbling, poetry, list books you’ve read, draw cartoons or paste pictures into your journal, or even any/all of the above, there’s no wrong way to journal. Your personal style of journaling will evolve over time, in the same way that you yourself will change as a person over time. If this sounds like blogging, it is, or rather blogging is a lot like journaling except that blogging is journaling in public. On a blog, you’re putting yourself out there for everyone to see. A journal can be much more private and personal.
The third question is “what should I write in?” You can guess what the answer is. If you want to keep your journal using your laptop’s word processor, then by all means do that. Some people find that they’re inspired to write regularly by getting a really nice notebook and pen. Others find that a nice notebook is intimidating, because they’re afraid to scribble everyday things into a ‘special’ book (this is nonsense, by the way.) I know several people who use sketchbooks as a journal, and fill them with words and drawings on every page. There is a neat type of journal called a ‘five-year diary’ with 366 pages (leap year!), and each daily page is divided into five sections where you write a few lines each day. At the end of the year you start over with the same pages, and you can read your past entries as you write new ones.
You don't need a lot to start journaling. A few sheets of paper and a pencil will suffice. Give it a try, but make it an honest try. Don't give up after a few days. Make an effort over a week or two and it will become a habit. You will discover for yourself that it's useful and even somewhat comforting to have a regular time to sit quietly and write down one's thoughts.
If you do try, let me know. I'd love to hear how it goes for you.