Writing to Learn and Learning to Write
By Wendy Priesnitz
Keeping a personal journal is a great way to
develop and practice writing skills, organize thoughts, process
experiences, and get to know oneself. Journaling is a powerful tool for
building self-awareness and practicing self-reflection because it puts
the writer in communication with himself or herself via a piece of
No matter what the age of the writer, regular
time spent with a journal also creates a permanent record of learning,
which can be helpful in reassuring both the learner and others about the
progress of their education.
For many writers – including me – a journal acts
as a compost pile. Unlike a diary, which is a chronological account of
occurrences, a journal includes a whole bunch of “stuff,” which sits for
a while so it heats up, and eventually turns into rich compost, from
which stories can be written. This “stuff” varies from writer to writer,
from memories, opinions, snippets of overhead conversations, quotations
from other writers and newspaper articles, to accounts of actual
experiences or dreams.
Aside from writing regularly, there are no rules
to keeping a journal. Write as often as you like, or as seldom as you
want (but repetition is important to improving writing skills, so more
is better than less in this context).
You can write in or on anything that pleases you,
from a dollar store scribbler to a lovely leather-bound book filled with
handmade paper. You can write thoughts, visions, dreams, poetry,
letters, or lists.
Like any other desired behavior, modeling it will
encourage others to join in. In our family, my daughters and I often
wrote in our journals at the same time, sometimes in a cafe (my favorite
place to journal), sometimes snuggled under blankets in front of the
Even very young children can participate in
journal writing. Initially, they can draw pictures or their entries can
consist of illustrations plus a few words. Eventually, illustrations
will be replaced by words. My eldest daughter, who is now a professional
writer, credits my gift of her first journal as one of the things that
shaped her life and career.
Here are some other tips for journal writing to
get you or your child started:
Do not judge or censor your writing – or that
of others. Editing is best done later, if ever; once you start
writing, just keep your hand moving, as Writing Down the Bones
author and journal writer Natalie Goldberg says. Let this be a time
when punctuation and spelling don’t count. Both will improve with
practice rather than criticism. And the love of writing will remain
Make journal writing a habit – something done
at the same time each day, either when you first wake up, or just
before you fall asleep. I find that writing first thing in the
morning is helpful, while my dreams are fresh and before my internal
critic wakes up.
Privacy is important to effective journal
writing. Respect others’ privacy and ask for that favor in return.
Make sure that everyone has a safe place in which to store their
journal so that they feel free to write whatever they want. Learning
happens when people feel safe. (Many teachers use journals in their
classrooms, but more often than not they read their students’
journals and provide feedback; I don’t think this is productive or
Don’t worry if you or your children don’t
feel like writing sometimes; either sit down and just start writing
about whatever you see around you, or walk away and realize that
something may be brewing inside you that’s not yet ready to be put
down on paper.
Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg (1990, Bantam Books)
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (1986, Bantam
The Writer’s Journal – 40 Contemporary Writers & Their Journals
edited by Sheila Bender (1997, Dell Publishing)
Keeping a Nature Journal – Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the
World Around You by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth (2000,
The Creative Journal for Children by Lucia Capacchione
(1989, Shambhala Publications)
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's editor, the
thirteen books, a veteran unschooling advocate, and the mother
of two adult daughters who learned without school in the 1970s and '80s.
She has been journaling regularly since she was sixteen. You can learn more about her on her website.
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