Monday, August 13, 2007

Danae Truhart finds that when she journals in her English class at Howard University, she comes up with something she did not expect.

“Most of the time when I start writing, it ends up as something else,” says the 21-year-old rising junior. “It takes on a mind of its own.”

Kitty Ellison, director of the freshman English program at Howard University in Northwest, starts off her class with a discussion on current events, then asks her students to journal their reflections for 10 to 15 minutes.

“It’s practice for writing, because you can make mistakes in a journal,” Ms. Ellison says.

Amanda Alleyne, a rising sophomore in Ms. Ellison’s summer-term course, finds that when she journals on her own time, she writes about things she did not realize bothered her or were in her thoughts.

“I started journaling because I find that just putting it down on paper is therapeutic,” says the 19-year-old.

Journaling is more than keeping a diary, traditionally associated with young girls hiding their thoughts, secured by lock and key, under the mattress. It takes on a variety of forms, such as recording daily events, expressing or clarifying thoughts and ideas, working out personal problems, reflecting on current events and other topics, and freewriting.

Writing in a notebook or store-bought journal is a tool for self-discovery and recording a personal history, while online journaling has added a new dimension to the practice, says Bruce Ableson, founder of Open Diary(, an online journaling community. The site has been in operation since 1998, with 5 million diaries posted since its founding and more than 517,000 current members.

Online journalers often write for an audience, hoping to get a reaction from readers who can leave a note or comment at the bottom of their entries, Mr. Ableson says.

“People can offer encouragement and support and help along the way if someone is having a problem,” he says.

Online journaling provides an opportunity to vent and share experiences and emotions with others, says Christian Nikolaisen, founder and owner of My Diary (

“Most people want acceptance or validation of themselves, and with the Internet, they can develop and ‘evolve’ without the bias and judgment of the people they live around every day,” Mr. Nikolaisen said in an e-mail.

Journaling online began in the mid-1990s on individual Web sites, followed by group or community journaling in the late 1990s with the creation of sites such as Open Diary, LiveJournal, Diaryland and My Diary.

“You can still express yourself, but you also can get feedback and connect to other people,” says Krissy Teegerstrom, community manager for LiveJournal, a popular San Francisco-based online journaling community.

LiveJournal ( receives 200,000 posts per day and, since its founding in 2000, has opened 13 million accounts. Some of the accounts are for specific journaling communities focused around a particular interest, such as writing, music, science fiction and crafting. Some are private, or open to a limited number of people, such as family or friends.

“People communicate back and forth with friends online instead of instant messaging or over the phone,” Ms. Teegerstrom says.

The content in an online journal changes somewhat from a paper journal, since the journal can be linked to something else or items posted into it, says Andrew Smales, owner of Diaryland (, a blog-hosting and online diary-hosting Web site that has 2 million members.

“Some people use (online journals) to have a discussion, to write a little bit and to see what other people think,” he says. “It’s a social thing, really.”

Journaling has increased in popularity, especially among men, thanks to the new medium available, Mr. Ableson says.

“Men are more open to doing it online than keeping a book,” he says.

Journaling, whether online or on paper, is a tool used by aspiring writers to develop ideas for their writing and to get something written to fill the blank page.

“We believe the very best ideas come from free association, free play and spilling our guts onto the page,” says Julie Wakeman-Linn, associate professor of English at Montgomery College in Rockville and editor of the “Potomac Review” literary journal.

Ms. Wakeman-Linn encourages her students to keep a journal to record their thoughts, ideas and reactions as a first cut of writing, she says.

“Journaling helps gather thoughts, organize what you want to say and try new ideas,” Ms. Wakeman-Linn says.

Don Gallehr, associate professor of English at George Mason University in Fairfax, has his students keep both a personal journal and a learning log, which is a form of structured journaling that includes notes on the material they are learning, along with their reflections.

“It’s not just rote learning,” says Mr. Gallehr, founder and director of GMU’s Northern Virginia Writing Project, a summer institute that trains teachers in teaching writing. He holds a doctorate in English. “When they write, they reflect. It’s not just an experience or fact that happens to them. They can make meaning out of it.”

Journaling online through discussion boards allows students to see there is more than one way to think about a piece of literary work, says Erinn Harris, English teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield. She attended the Northern Virginia Writing Project in July.

Students can post their questions and thoughts in the discussion board, and other students can respond, Miss Harris says.

“It helps them if they’re quiet in class or if they’re not confident in what they’re saying or thinking,” she says. “It’s a way to express themselves and to get their thoughts into words.”

Tim Yorke, an English teacher at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va., uses journaling as a warmup exercise in his advanced composition classes.

“Because there are no constraints placed on them, they feel more comfortable to express themselves,” says Mr. Yorke, who also attended the Northern Virginia Writing Project.

Paths to writing

Journaling does not have to be limited to “Dear Diary”-type entries. Journaling can be used for multiple purposes, including:

Recording daily events or

keeping a personal history

Recording dreams

Tracking diet and exercise

Goal setting

Problem solving

Writing down and exploring

thoughts and feelings

Generating ideas for creative

writing or other projects


Choosing a topic and writing

about it

Responding to current events

Providing social commentary

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