Journal, Diary, What’s the Difference?

It’s a question I get asked all the time. “What’s the difference between a journal and a diary? A diary is a report of what happened during the day—where you ate, who you met, the details leading up to the kerfluffle in the office, and who took whose side. It’s a bit like a newspaper about you.

A journal is completely different. A journal is about examining your life. It’s a GPS system for your spirit. “I’ve made this mistake before. . . and I always make it when I rushed for time and feel panicky. But I feel panicky because I know I’m headed for the same mistake.” Journals lead to insight, growth, and sometimes, achieving a goal.hand made journal

You don’t have to set a goal to have a journal, I have a tendency to live in my head and like goals. You can just muse. You can put down the shifts in emotion, the goals you’ve achieved and how, to remember them. The shortest pencil beats the longest memory, says the proverb, and writing down your motives, successes, emotional pratfalls, helps you remember how you got there and why, not just that they happened.

You can keep a journal in anything that feels comfortable and that’s portable–a spiral notebook, a rollabind book you’ve put together with lokta paper, index cards held together with a rubber band. You can use a computer, keep a blog, although that doesn’t work as well for me. I believe things on the internet are simply not private, password protected or not. And I like the feeling of flipping through pages.

To keep a journal on paper, pick a time of day to write. Keep it regularly. It makes it easier. I never stuck to an exercise program because I never nailed it into my schedule at a certain time. Writing works the same way. First thing in the morning, last thing at night, while eating lunch at your desk. Write with a good pen that feels good and whose color you like.

In the beginning, you may have to set a time limit. Three minutes is good. Just write whatever comes into your head. No editing, no crossing out, no reading it in your mind in front of the committee who lives in your head and judges your writing.

Journal prompts are ideas or thoughts to get you started writing. They help you focus on a topic. You can use one over and over for a week, to see your different answers, or you can use a different one every day.

That’s it. It’s not complicated and it doesn’t take a lot of time. And yes, I teach journal writing courses. That’s how I learned about the GPS of the spirit idea. From my own journal. My website contains a schedule of classes and events on the tab at the top of the page.

Meanwhile, some prompts to get you started:
I couldn’t start my day right unless. . . .
If I could change one thing about my job, I would. . .
Before I get too old, I’d like to . . .

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach. (c) 2007. All rights reserved.

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84 responses to “Journal, Diary, What’s the Difference?

  1. Thanx, your article helped me clarifying the concept of journaling clearly.

  2. I think you’re definitions of journal and diary are spurious to say the least. Even newspapers (simile for diary) contains spiritual or subjective elements and journals reflect places, appointments and the like. Personally I keep a log of both events, meetings, etc along with thoughts and I use either term. I do, however, employ tags to identify facts as distinct to thoughts which is the closest I come to separation. As an example …. I was sitting in the dentists waiting room (an appointment in what might be called my diary) and was lost in my thoughts. As a result I speculated on the life of the dentist and started to create a story about a dentist and the life he might have. I noted those thoughts in what might be called my journal and tagged them as a book idea. Of course I recorded both in the same app.

    • Everyone is welcome to his or her own idea, use, enjoyment of whatever they create to record their thoughts. I’m not the journal police. I posted that opinion on my blog seven years ago. I’ve since come to use a Commonplace Journal, discovered Vade Mecum and other delights. Using “spurious” is a bit harsh, and possibly not the best use of the word. But have a wonderful day anyway.

      • Well said Quinn. I have only just come across your post through finding your book “Raw Art Journaling” and googling your name. I thought it would be cool to look down to see what others thought. Thank goodness not all are like this pompous person! I am grateful that you wrote about the differences between diary and journaling as I too have been a bit confused. I have a 5 year journal that I try to write in every day. At the top of each page for the day, there is a question to be answered – at the end of the 5 years, you have answered the question for that day 5 times (if that makes sense). I am not totally perfect at it having not being able to (or felt like) answering the question each day, but it is interesting to read back on my thoughts for the previous year. I may now try and use your example for journal writing and see where it takes me. My kids (6 & 7) will probably get a kick out of writing one too as we already try and incorporate story writing in their journals! Have a great day :)

  3. An interesting post. My diary is definitely a diary, but it has long journal-type parts. I started in August 1969 when I was 18 and I have not missed a day, which probably indicates that I’m OCD at least as far as the diary is concerned. Now that I am retired, I have been typing up the handwritten entries and have begun publishing them. The whole thing is probably about 5 million words, and it may be something only a crazy person would do. I suspect there are many not-too-creative journal/diary people and many creative people who would rather eat wood than write in a journal/diary.

    http://thoughtcatalog.com/richard-grayson/

  4. Hye Quinn !
    Can i mashup writing diary and journal in one book ?
    Like diary and journal come along in one reading..

    I hope u understand..
    Thanks.

    • Of course you can combine them–if you like the result. If you get an imbalance–let’s say too much to-do list and not enough self-exploration, you can always separate pages.

  5. Hi, your post is interesting to me also. I journalled for years and then got paranoid about privacy so I got them scanned and binned the actual books which I now regret. I keep a visual diary which I started last year which is more like a scrapbook with photos and writing but I have now decided to start keeping a journal aswell. I have bought a book and started writing in it today, it feels so good to write about my feelings again. I do see this as being separate from my visual diary and don’t want to merge the two,the visual one is more a record of events, the journal is more a record of my feelings and getting things off my chest with a reference to events if they are relevant in what I am writing about.

    Do you think they are better kept separately?

    • What really matters here is what you think. And it sounds like you want to keep separate journals and diary. And if that is true, that is what you should do. I keep a journal and then “distill” it to art pages. I enjoy doing that. No rules except what you get good results with.

  6. Hi,
    Your article about the difference between a journal and diary is helpful to me. I got confused between the two for a very long time. This frightened me from writing down my thoughts for many years. I don’t know who I can ask or if I ask, will I get any reply to my problems. I worry constantly when it comes to writing because I am afraid of making mistakes in my grammar and vocabulary. I am not sure if I write a diary, I need to be serious since there is less room for mistakes (grammar, vocabulary, etc.) while a journal, I could make some mistakes here and there. Is it true?

    • It’s your book, Alex, and your writing. If you aren’t showing it to anyone for grades, you can write whatever you want in your journal. Just write. You can always go back and correct, edit, and improve grammar, but getting your thoughts down is the important part.

  7. Hi Quinn, I just wanted to say that I found your article very interesting and informative. I suffer with a panic disorder and it was suggested that I keep a journal but I had no idea what to do… Now I let my pen go and the emotions flow into my journal and it really helps when I meet with my psychotherapist. Thanks :)

  8. I’m so glad I’ve found a research on internet that explain this difference! But I’ve gotten some questions while reading this post.

    I’m from Brazil, and here in my country, most people I know don’t have this idea of journal or diary well-separated from each other, at least I’ve never found someone who has it. But, what I’ve noticed from my researchs in blogs, sites, etc., is that here people who know the journal make it be a diary, writing down things that happened during the day. And who write in a diary writes about internal feelings, personal thoughts, etc. But that’s something I think could be explaned, since the word “journal” seems very like our portuguese word for “newspaper”: “jornal”.

    So, using this “logic” that a journal could be a newspaper about what you did during the day, people you talked to, goals you acomplished, etc., wouldn’t it be possible that journal is not about internal things, and it’s more likely a newspaper about you? And a diary is where you write how you feel, things you want to put out, etc.

    I got confused… If you could help me, I would be very thankful for that!

    Thanks since then!

    • The word “journal” is used to mean newspaper here, too. The Atlanta Journal Constitution is the name of a newspaper. But the difference between “journal” and “diary” is largely up to the person using it. I have a diary that shows what I do each day–notes on phone calls, appointments–things I do in my business dealings. My journal is more personal thoughts and art expression.

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  11. I keep two journals at the moment. One I forget to write in (my dream journal) and one that I like to write in 3-4 times a month. I can’t really write in a journal daily. I usually have to be in a certain mood to write, kinda like the feeling of having an epiphany. That’s when my thoughts really start flowing and I know what I want to put down and get across. I find that writing really gives me insight to who I am. When I look back I sometimes find little warnings to myself of things to come if I keep doing a certain thing or keep going down a certain road. Sure enough a few months later I should have heeded my own warning, though it was not clear in that moment. In addition it also helps show the progress I have made as a person and keeps me on track.

    • Your use of journals makes me nod my head and chuckle. I don’t write in a journal every day, either. I keep different journals for different purposed, and learn from all of them. Eventually. You do, too, and it counts!

  12. I use a journal to record my progress when working on a painting;
    color mixes, new things that I discovered, things and things I don’t like. Speaking of things I don’t like, I don’t like the snooping video
    of Jennifer that you have on your site. Everyone is entitled to some
    privacy especially when they are in their home.

    • Sounds like your journal is just the right thing for you and that you are using it well. I have no idea what you mean about a “snooping video” on my site. The only videos I post on my site are tutorials. I do know that because I use WordPress and it’s free, Google or WordPress places ads on individual blog posts when they are opened. I don’t see them, and I have no control over them. You can express your opinion to WordPress, though.

  13. Hi Quinn,
    I really, really, really love your blog! I wanted to start writing a journal, but what really stumped me was that I was soooo lazy to write. I write one or two pages, and that’s it. End of my diary. Then I open it after 1 week or something. The next thing is that I love writing stories and poems, and I often want to write it down somewhere, but my siblings somehow get hold of it. I wanted to get a place to hide it, but I didn’t know where. Anyways, your blog made me want to start writing again, and now I’m writing my journal on a daily basis. Thanks a lot! :)

  14. justanothergirlx3

    Personally, I have a diary and a journal. In my diary I write about what’s going on in my life. In my journal I write down lyrics, quotes, anything that really speaks to me, or makes me feel a strong emotion. I’ve never really written down goals or anything like that. I complain and rant in my diary, and I use my journal for thoughts and whatnot.(:

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  17. I have just covered myself a lovely book for creating my first journal. I am checking out some hints and tips here so it does not develop into a diary. I am not a scrapbooker but like the idea of a journal.

    • Journalers are often not visual, but would like to be (that why I wrote Raw Art Journaling). Scrapbooking is totally different from journaling. Try it all and settle in where you are comfortable. The most important thing is to feed the creative impulse!

      • Yes, I understand. I am an avid papercrafter and cake maker. I am just starting to sell some of the things I make and trying to get a balance with my family and doing this as well. I hope a journal will help me get straight in my head my goals and aspirations on all sorts of levels. I do just like pretty things so decorating the journal was important for me, too. Take a look at my Facebook page. x

  18. Hi Quinn,
    Thanks for this blog….!!! Keep it up..
    I have mentioned my hobby as “Writing Diary” in one of my interview forms where they heavily ask hobby related questions. So I request you to help me all sort of questions that can be asked in my interview and what all should I do to refine my hobby.
    Waiting for your reply.
    Sachin

    • What kind of interview asks about hobbies? Tell me more, and I’ll try to form an answer. My first opinion is “never change your work to satisfy an interviewer, change your work to satisfy yourself.”

  19. Dear Quinn,
    Thank you for such a wonderful explanation. The question has been there at the back of my mind for a very long time now. I’ve recently been experiencing a lot of emotional fluctuations given my hectic schedule. I’ve always had the inclination to write and I recently started writing what I thought was a diary. After reading your post, I now know that what I’m actually writing is a journal :D thank you.

  20. Hiya, I have recently began to write a journal, however I am still not sure whether I am doing it correctly. For example, I do not write a diary, because I do not mention what I have done that day, however, I do not follow exactly what you say is correct when it comes to writing a journal. For example, today’s entry in my journal was ‘Music’ and I will write around three pages on that subject and how much it means to me and transpires into my life. I will write about my own opions, and I shall write about all the positives and negatives that this enforces. I wonder if this also contributes to journal writing?

    • When I wrote that blog post, I never meant for it to become an instruction book for right or wrong. If you are writing to explore your journey, your interests, your motives, your emotions, then you are keeping a fascinating journal that will teach you much. I’m not sure why you chose Music as a word, but it sounds like you are exploring what makes meaning in your life, and that’s important.

  21. I purchased some Oberon blank books with the wonderful leather holder. I had them for years and never wrote a thing in any of them. They just sat on the shelf while I pondered this question of diary vs journal vs what I really wanted the books to become from myself.

    The conclusion I came to about defining diary and journal is that the definitions themselves are irrelevant. The word “diary” conjured cold fact stating, sibling blackmail, and other negatives. The word “journal” presented definitions from my past experiences like tracking details, exercising efforts, and very purposefully planned “point A to point B” ideas. Neither of those definitions worked for the books I purchased. That’s not what they were intended for. That’s not what they’d be. Those definitions were too narrow and too widely used. They could be misconstrued as something that was not included in my books and the terms are viewed by myself with a sense of indignation.

    So, I researched a word to share the idea I had for these books. It wasn’t until I self-defined the books that I could go forward with my planned frivolity, fun, conceptualizing, note jotting, comic strip drawing, painting, doodling, venting, magic, and everything else that I planned to allow into these wonderful Oberon books. I have reminiscences. I like the definition of that word from the dictionary:

    1. The act or process of recalling past experiences, events, etc.
    2. A mental impression retained and revived.
    3. A recollection narrated or told
    4. Something that recalls or suggests something else.

    All of those definitions fit what I wanted these books to allow me to create. My books do quite a bit of meandering about my soul, examining it from all different perspectives; each entry as different as the day they were writ. It’s easy for me to flip through my pages and recall subtle details of the event(s) I captured. Some of those events are attached to private experiences and the main concept I put on paper is simply a trigger for me to recall the hidden things of the day. Each page is a personal window for that day, containing clues to the things that were important to me on that day.

    Events that happened that are simply to painful for me to look at right now are simply a white page with a word or two inscribed at the bottom. Eventually, I’ll go look at those things. Until then, the page is simply white until I can let my emotions color it in.

    Journal and Diary are excellent words to describe their crisp functions. Each of them have their place and some of their concepts even find their way into my Reminiscences. Some days are simply crisp and full of details to fill an accounting of. Most days, however, are full of a desire to recall past experiences & revive what once was.

  22. Hi Quinn,
    Your site has made me notice the differences
    I also feel I should have journal – but Im kinda stuck on how to write one
    I have stuff to right, but when it comes to the paper I can’t actually present it

    • Writing a journal is incredible personal. Some people do “free writing”–writing down whatever comes to their mind on the topic. Some people write pros and cons–a list of ideas that they like/don’t like to solve a problem. Other people create art that helps them think about the problem. You didn’t ask for help, so I won’t offer any, but a journal is a place to explore and experiment.

  23. I have never really understood the difference between the two before reading this post. I have over the last 20-30 years tried to keep a diary and had some success at times sticking to the process. I was always fascinated with famous people from history that kept journals and or diaries and the accounts contained in them. I admit that I am a bit old fashioned but it saddens me that technology has all but done away with this art of expressing our thoughts in writing. Journals and diaries leave a personal account of the inner person most people never get to see. When a person passes on from life, it is my belief that this record is of the utmost value to the loved ones left behind! Your post has inspired me to begin a journal and I owe it to you!

    • I agree that hand-written journals are a precious gift to yourself as well as to those who come behind you. It’s simply not the same on a computer. I’m glad you have found journaling!

  24. A diary is a day to day experiences and feeling of your daily life, while a Journal is all that plus an outlet to reach your goals, and free your creative juices. With a journal everything goes from writing a short story sypnosis, to steps by steps ways to reach your goals, essays, letters, sketches, snippets and much more.

  25. Pingback: Difference Between Journal and Diary? |

  26. Thanks for the post.It’s useful,really.Anyway, can I include pictures and sketches in a journal?

  27. So a journal is like a memoir.

    Thanks for this.

    I just googled what’s the diff. between journal and diary because of the intro in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Despite the title, he seems to hate the idea of writing in a “diary”.

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  29. I feel that I should be writing a journal over a diary, because they seem more meaningful. I’ve recently started writing again by hand which is much different than writing in a computer journal/diary actually. I type faster than I write and I end up with a lot of drivel. My question is though that to an extent can a journal overlap with a diary? I write about what I did that day but I include how I felt. Is that still a diary?

    • What’s really important is that you are writing about what happened and your reaction. That’s meaning making–and the most important thing you can do. Journals and diaries overlap all the time. There are people who sketch, who write music, who paint in their journals and diaries. Many people keep more than one way to track information. No matter how you do it or what you call it, the important thing is that it makes meaning for you, not what you call it.

  30. Hi Quinn,

    There’s good motivation in this post, but the difference described between a ‘diary’ and a ‘journal’ is just not correct. There is no definition that would separate one from the other. All through the ages men and women described as ‘diarists’ are exactly what we would call ‘journalers’ today. Some still call themselves diarists while keeping notebooks of deep, rerflective material. Virgina Woolf, Anais Nin, Samuel Pepys, and others all used the term “diary” to describe their writings. You can hardly call Nin and Woolf’s works, especially, as simply “reports of what happened during the day.” They were deep, reflective, and intimate.

    I bring this up at all because your blog post has risen to the top of Google rankings for this question – and the answer is simply wrong. Based on history, literature, even technical definitions. It’s only because of different uses of the terms at different times in history (even simply different parts of the world) that “journal” is now used more often for deeper reflections, etc. But to say this is a right/wrong, “yes there is a difference,” kind of question – as this post does – is wrong.

    Thomas Mallon, who most consider one of the top experts in collections of diaries/journals, has said that they can be used interchangably and it’s nothing but an unnecessary barrier to suggest that one is different from the other. The point being, and why I think you should update, and correct, your post, is that what should be stressed is writing in the notebook — whatever one chooses to call it. And to address this question with a “yes, there is a difference,” is, in fact, a hinderance for some to begin writing at all.

    All the best,
    Mike

    • Thanks for the explanation, Mike. I write my opinion in this blog, I have never claimed that my blog posts are academic literary criticism or anything more than they seem to be–an online journal of the slips, trips and aha moments of the creative journey I call my life. It’s a big world with lots of room for different thoughts. In this blog, I was speaking to the people who keep both a daybook of events (a calendar) and a journal and asked me what I do. So I told them about my viewpoint in that context.

      Google isn’t research, it’s a popularity listing. If a student were to quote me in an academic argument, the instructor would be correct in taking the student to task about a basic lack of critical thinking and analytical logic.

      People who want to write, those who want to keep a journal will choose to do so or not do so on their own desires and intentions. I encourage you to write your own blog with your own point of view. I appreciate your telling me I am wrong, though, and for including your own expertise.

  31. Hi there! I just joined postaweek2011, and caught myself wondering what the difference between a diary and a journal is. Your blog was at the top of my search on Google – so thank you – I thought the same thing myself. I have attributed your post in mine :)

    • Thanks for the note! I hope you enjoy blogging. Can I charm you into becoming a handwritten journaler? You don’t have to do it every day or every week, just when you feel like it. There are a ton of journalers who read this stie. I’ve just joined the postaday2011 challenge, thanks to you.

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  33. I have a diary but now i think i will change to a journal. Theyare probaly more colourful and momental

  34. ok, well thats good advice(like always!):) would you be able to give me some suggestions of where to buy cute journals of all kinds for cheap? that would help alot!! :)

  35. well before i try,if you had a dream journal,would you want to doodle the dreams you had or just write them??thnxx

    • Well, in my dream journal, I write big words and little words and doodle a lot. In fact, i do that in all my journals. Supposing I have a dream about a shoe chasing me (I’m just making this up). I might write “Show” great big in the top center of the page, in outline letters and fill it with the smaller word “run” to fill up the big outline print. Then I’d write down parts of the dream I remember in blue ink in square shapes (I wouldn’t actually draw a square), and the ideas of what it might mean to me in green ink and connect the logical thread with purple ink arrows. I’d likely write in several directions on the page–sideways, upside down, right side up, lengthwise or crosswise. So I’d use a journal that wouldn’t have lines.

  36. dear quinncreative, thank you for all of the journaling advice and suggestions, i think i finally get the process of writing. just 1 more thing before i start writing!!!- for the dream journal, should i get a journal with lines or no lines for certain reasons??? thank you so much for your time!!

    • Lines or no lines is a much-discussed question. It depends entirely on what you will do. Will you just write? Will you draw? Collage? Paint? If you really love lined paper, that’s the way to go for you. If you like the idea of freedom–writing around the edges, coloring in some designs and doodles, then unlined may be your best choice. No matter what others say, choose the journal that feels good to you. (And come back and tell us what happened!)

  37. At long last i have the difference with me.I have never thought of writing one but i will try.THANKS FOR BEING OF HELP.

  38. dear quinn creative, yesterday i thought about what you had said,and remebered that a few days ago i was looking for cool journals online,and found a weird website that had odd journals,and when i scrolled down to the bottom of the website,i saw websites with peoples names and dream journals-for example- cheese’s dream journal. i thought wow!! real dream journals that i can buy!! and it reminded me of a movie i saw with a boy that wrote all his dreams in his dream journal,and it ended up coming to life. it was a very good movie lol but anyway what do you think about dream journals?? or would that be a little over board? thank you for your time and please let me know!!

    • There are many journals you can buy and love. You can even make your own. Dream journals are wonderful, whether you record waking or sleeping dreams. Here’s a tutorial on how to daydream: http://rawartjournaling.com/Tutorials.html No journal is too far over the top, if it holds your emotions and growth. If you do record your dreams, do it right after you wake up. Dreams fade faster than dark in the sky at dawn. The details of a dream last less than a minute after you wake up. If you want to capture your dream, that’s what you should do!

  39. dear quinncreative, I NEED YOUR HELP!!!! i have been buying notebooks for the longest now and can never find what to write in it. I once tried to write a diary but would write in it one day and then would write in it again 2 weeks later, and i dont just want to write a diary, i want something to come to me at once but nothing ever does. If u would be able to give me some suggestions that would be great!!!!!

    • Hi, Mia–thanks for writing. Let’s start easy. You can check out some previous posts I’ve done on what to write in a journal. Here are some general ideas, including collage and art. Not everything has to be words: http://wp.me/p2H1i-89 and one on using magic words, here: http://wp.me/p2H1i-2R And this post is about dong some random doodling and then writing around them: http://wp.me/p2H1i-1m5 OK, so WHAT do you write? First of all, write just one sentence. That makes you think more clearly. Write one sentence about what made you happy that day. Or what made you angry. Or what you had for supper. I would go stand outside in my middle-of-the-city backyard and listen for birds and look at the trees. I wrote down what I saw, along with the high and low temps for that day, and the phase of the moon. That filled a whole journal so I knew that even the desert Southwest has four seasons. I wrote down quotes from other people, and things I’d said that I thought were cool. My favorite is still pulling a word out of the magic word box, or opening a page in the dictionary, picking a word and writing about that. Let me know if you need more ideas!

  40. my teacher ask me on day what is the diffrenec of a journal and diary i told her there is a diffrenec hahahahahahaha

  41. I’d like to thank you for this clarification. I’ve just finished my first page of my journal and I intend to write in it once a day!

  42. Is it a good idea to write a journal at night, before your bedtime or anytime you have something pops in your head?

  43. Dear Quinn, I am SO glad I asked this question on the web … it’s been in my mind for far too many years!! I always ‘knew’ I wanted to do a journal & now not only have you answered the question, you have inspired & given practical suggestions how to do so. THANK YOU MUCHLY … btw I LOVE your website & have caught up with this year’s entries & will no doubt spend many a happy spare mo looking through past entries. Wishing you countless blessings for every day of 2010

  44. hi! yeah, I do believe that these two are totally different, but though they sound alike. Most people have the misconception thet these two are just totally the same.

  45. Pingback: “What should I write in my journal?” « QuinnCreative

  46. Oh, yeah. That committee in your head. They certainly are omnipresent, aren’t they. I’d like to put them out on the street for good, the nuisancy things! Seriously, though – I liked this piece. I never really thought about the difference between a journal and a diary before. I just kind of thought they were the same. And the prompts are interesting.

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