Thoughts On Organizing Your Journals

How do you find what you’re looking for? This is not a trivial problem – ask any librarian.

As we fill books and set them on the shelf, hopefully we’re going back and using what we’ve written. Finding that old recipe, notes from a particular vacation, or other tidbit can be just enough hassle to keep us from doing it and that’s a problem worth solving.

Here are some thoughts on organizing things so they’re easier to find.

  • Scan the pages into Evernote or something similar, and leverage their OCR technology to make them searchable. This is a very attractive solution, and for many it seems to be working well. There are notebooks with special markers on the pages to help with the scanning process. Personally I’ve not been able to sustain this for a couple of reasons.
    • There’s no prompt to photograph the pages and get them uploaded. It’s way too easy to tell myself I’ll do it later.
    • When I’ve gone looking for things in the past I’ve found they’re not always found because of handwriting or spelling issues. If I’m going to end up looking by hand anyway, why bother?
  • Keep a table of contents in each book. This doesn’t need to be neat, in alphabetical order, or in the back or the front. It’s just a consistent place where you jot down the notable things – “Awesome guac recipe – 9/12/2005” – in the book along with their dates or page numbers. A good habit to get into is to jot down inside the front cover of the book the location of anything you’ve gone looking for, and looking there first when you open a book.
  • Date entries, and make the delineation between entries clear and obvious. I start each entry with a bold line across the page. Place the date on the same side of the page, so you know where to find it.
  • Page numbers help, but in my last book I didn’t have them, didn’t bother to add them, and haven’t suffered much. Most entries don’t span too many pages so dates work well enough.
  • Organize books by volumes so that finding earlier or later material is easier. By volume I mean a contiguous time period of entries. If I wrote the first ten entries in a book, it is volume one. If I switch to another book for another batch of entries, that book becomes volume 2. Going back to volume one and adding more entries makes it also volume 3. If you have two books where you were writing more or less alternately between the two books, it may make sense to give them the same or adjacent volume numbers. I don’t do this too literally – a single entry in another book isn’t likely to earn it a new volume number.
  • Make each book different. I often know where to look because I know it was a little book, a large one, the leather one, etc. Here a fickle taste in notebooks helps. If I had used a single brand of identical books it would be tougher to find things. It's also one of the reasons I put stickers on my books now.
  • Consider making a master index if you reference your books frequently. Each time you go looking for something, jot it down in an index notebook along with the locations where you found relevant material. I suspect this will be of most interest to people keeping books full of research rather than life notes.

What Do Your Journal Entries Look Like?

A new reader contacted me with a question about format: Did I write entries like a letter to someone?

I don't have a specific format that I use, although I don't start entries with "Dear…" I suppose I do have a few different ways of doing it though.

  • If I just make an entry, not for anything specific, it's generally in a prose, story-telling kind of style. "Today was ok, work was fairly boring, Susan picked the girls up from camp. They didn't want to leave the place, so much for worry about their homesickness…"
  • If I'm recording an idea then it might just start with a brief heading, and then the idea. "Idea for website: Dorkwagons.com – let people post pictures of silly-looking or badly parked cars."
  • I might do a drawing or a bunch of doodles. Not related to anything, except that I just decide to do them. 
  • When I write a long entry and I'm changing subjects, I'll write a squiggly line between the paragraphs – not all the way across – to denote that I'm changing subjects. Otherwise it reads very strangely later!
  • When starting a new day I draw a heavy line across the page under the last entry, then write out the date. If there's a holiday or some other event, I write it next to the date – Happy 4th of July!

The only bad format is one that makes you unhappy but that you feel obligated to use. It's your book that you're writing, so write it how you want to. 

If you have some old entries to read, go back and read them and see what you think of them. Writing in a journal provides half the value, reading old entries is where the other half comes from. As you read them, you'll quickly develop a sense of what works and what doesn't. The trick is that it takes some time to create enough distance between now and an old entry to read it on it's own merits. I'd say weeks rather than days. 

There is a bit of a knack to keeping a journal. Sometimes you'll do very well, sometimes not. It's ok. The book won't judge, and you'll learn and adapt and make it better.