Journaling vs Keeping A Diary – What’s The Difference?

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on October 15, 2020
Expert Content

What’s the difference between journaling and keeping a diary?

On the face of it, these two practices may seem similar or even almost identical.

However, they are actually quite different.

We asked a group of selected experts to explain the difference between journaling and keeping a diary.

Here’s what they said.

A Journal Is Used To Reflect, A Diary Is Used To Record

Lisa Roulette, Certified Professional Life Coach

The primary difference between a diary and a journal is that a diary is meant to be used as a record of events, whereas a journal is used for reflective purposes.

Diaries tend to be objective, not influenced by feelings. Even though a diary might detail how the writer felt at a particular time, they are linear accounts of the past.

Journals, on the other hand, are a compendium of thoughts and feelings. A journal provokes the writer to explore the psyche and is a powerful tool that can help access the subconscious and unconscious minds.

Many journalers, myself included, use journal prompts to break through into more profound thoughts and feelings.

We might use shadow prompts to help us explore the darker aspects of the psyche for healing work.

Other times we use Buddhist type journaling, which combines mindfulness and meditation with writing.

Both diaries and journals can be excellent tools for building self-awareness but for those who want to heal, expand, and push through to higher levels of consciousness, journaling is preferred.

How To Start Journaling

Journaling can be a powerful daily practice (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Journaling And Keeping A Diary Are Both Beneficial Practices

Lara Zielin, Founder and Lead Storyteller, Author Your Life

Both diary-keeping and journaling are beneficial reflective practices. Both provide an opportunity for an individual to take time to consider their inner and outer worlds.

By definition, a diary may have more of an emphasis on external, day-to-day happenings. It’s more of a record, sort of a here’s-what-happened account.

This doesn’t have to be the case, but just by its design – a diary being a book arranged usually by dates or some other measurement – it tends to lean toward being more of a log.

A journal, on the other hand, is much more open-ended. Journaling can go deep into the inner world and can be about the past, the present, or even the future.

It’s tempting to get hung up on how to begin journaling, but the truth is that the how is sort of the B plot.

The A plot, and the hardest part about journaling, is actually meeting yourself on the page – being willing to take an honest account of what’s happening in your internal life and how you’re feeling.

The truth is, our culture tells us to run from this at every turn. Feeling sad? Buy new shoes! Anxiety about your job? Scroll through TikTok videos! So when people have journaler’s block, it’s usually because actually encountering themselves is possibly foreign and even scary.

Once folks have made time for stillness and have decided to connect with themselves, there are myriad methods for how to put pen to paper – or even type on a screen.

Journaling methods such as Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages invite people to write in a stream-of-consciousness manner. Scripting or Generative journaling invites people to imagine their future and write about it as if it’s already here.

Apps such as Penzu or Journey allow users to log their inner lives on their phone.

Journaling Guide

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

The Process Of Writing Is More Important Than The Writing Itself

Susan D Sharp, Author of Mid-Life Wisdom: A Journal to help you survive and thrive in Mid-Life

A journaler is a reader turned writer – reading the prompt and writing in response to it.

So the difference between journaling and keeping a diary is in the specifics-journaling is focused writing on a particular prompt and keeping a diary is free flowing writing and often summaries of a period of time, day, week, etc.

Journaling often combines reflection while looking forward to implementing new ideas for one’s life and goals where keeping a diary is generally only looking backward in reflection on life events.

The similarities between the two are that both allow for personal expression and the process of writing down one’s thoughts and feelings can be very healing and cleansing as is widely documented in literature ranging from Psychology Today to the Huff Post.

Another similarity is that the process of writing is more important than the writing itself. It’s not so much about reading what one has written as it is to work out things in the process of writing.

A wide-variety of studies on note-taking in college reveal that just the act of taking notes, even if they are never referred to again, cements a connection with the material and the same is true for journaling and keeping a diary.

For those that know writing is an important component of their development and mental health but aren’t sure what to write about or where to start, choose a journal with prompts.

I tell readers of my journal not to get hung up on semantics – if a word in the prompt is puzzling or stifling, change the word to something you can respond to.

Unlike traditional books, a journal ought to be seen as a fluid entity that can and should be personalized by the reader to work specifically for them.

If you already have a solid grasp of what you want to write about and are looking for simply a housing or organization of your writing, then a diary is the way to go.

Neither journaling or keeping a diary needs to be an expensive endeavour, either, and in fact both can be free. One way would be to use a Quote app that sends you a new quote each day to ponder.

Perhaps you sign up for dictionary.com’s word of the day email and simply ponder the word that appears in your inbox.

I use devotionals from The Bible App as a springboard for my own reflections.

Whether you journal or keep a diary, your writing is personal and captures moments, thoughts and ideas in a particular time frame and is a way to both reflect and plan.

How To Journal

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Journaling and Keeping A Diary Both Have Their Benefits

Sierra Hillsman, Licensed Associate Professional Counselor and Founder of Legacy Speaks

Both mediums are used for capturing experiences however, a journal is more exploratory in nature whereas a diary is more of a narrative.

Both are great coping skills because they use notebooks, tablets, word documents, and even phone notes as safe spaces for the many things we carry around with us.

Journaling and keeping a diary simply allow us to brain dump without judgment and have proven to be very helpful, especially for those who might not feel comfortable with verbally discussing what they have written.

There are differences in the writing style and approach.

Journaling provides individuals the opportunity to reflect, increase mindfulness, and develop a greater level of self-awareness in relation to one’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Journals help us to connect the dots by honing in on the cause and effect and increasing insight on cognitive-behavioral patterns.

On the other hand, a diary consists of chronological accounts of experiences and scenarios as they happen over a period of time.

The content in a diary is more facts-focused based on our perspective rather than subjective. This tool really doesn’t promote exploration of opinions or how a specific occurrence made us feel.

Simply put: A diary asks, What happened? Where? When? A journal asks Why did this happen, and how does it make me feel?

Both Can Have A Massive Impact On Your Life

Tamara Elmir, Certified Performance Coach

The primary difference between journaling and diary entries is that journaling is a guided writing method that’s designed to yield specific outcomes.

For example, a journaling routine can include the following:

• Three statements of affirmations (i.e. I am magnetic and will attract positive people in my life)

• Three statements of gratitude (i.e. I am thankful for having a strong support system)

The outcome that you’re receiving from your journaling is starting or ending your day with positive thoughts that will eventually manifest into reality because you are constantly reminding yourself of these things.

On the other hand, a diary entry is a method of book-keeping a day in your own life.

For example, your diary entry can contain what you did throughout the day, how you felt, and your inner most thoughts.

When deciding if you should start a journaling or diary routine, you need to ask yourself what you’re looking to accomplish.

If you’re looking to reach specific goals, start journaling. If you’re looking to document your feelings, start a diary.

In either case, having a written account of meaningful, relevant conversations with yourself is essential to your self-care.

You’ll have more clarity and direction in life. You’ll have a better understanding of your feelings and ideas.

In turn, you’ll be able to communicate with your family, friends, co-workers, and even strangers in a way that’s far more effective because you’ve taken the time to understand yourself.

If you don’t understand yourself, how can you expect others to understand you?

It’s also important to know that a journaling or diary routine only needs to take a few minutes to make a massive impact on your life!

How To Be More Organized At Work

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Journaling Can Help You To Press ‘Reset’ On Your Life

Gabrielle Hartley, Divorce Attorney and Author of Better Apart, The Radically Positive Way to Separate

Many years ago, I took a trip to Ireland with my aunt and grandmother during which time I kept a journal. At the end of our adventure, my aunt asked me to make a copy for her. I bristled at the request.

Then, it occurred to me that she has mistaken my journal (daily thoughts, musings, visions, reflections) for a diary (log of what we did, who we saw, what we are, etc.)

I explained this to her. She suggested that I should just take out the personal parts and give her the copy.

Fast forward, for my book, Better Apart, The Radically Positive Way to Separate, I did some digging on the values of journaling and positive psychology.

I found both through that the brain dump of the negative followed by a clear restated positive vision for a new present can be a powerful tool to press ‘reset’ on your life.

On the other hand, writing in a diary is a wonderful way to create a chronicle of your life and to remember the smaller details of a time, place or experience.