How to Keep a Journal in Plain Text


If there’s one thing I’ve never been much good at, it’s keeping a daily journal. Why? Part of it’s laziness — often, I can’t be bothered to write something about my day. And part of it is that I don’t think most of my days, or my life in general, is interesting enough to keep a daily chronicle.

That said, I do try. Over the years, I’ve used a number of applications, both online and on the desktop, to keep a record of my life. The only times I’ve ever gotten into the journaling groove was when I used plain text.

Here’s a short guide to keeping a journal in plain text, based on my experiences.

Choose a Format

Your journal entries don’t need to be detailed. You can write your journal entries in longer form — full sentences over several paragraphs — if you need or want to. Many people, though, don’t have the time or energy to do that.

Instead, focus on the key points of your day. Choose three or four, and write them in point form as a bullet list. Those points can highlight good things that happened, a triumph, or something that didn’t work out.

Here’s an example of a recent entry in my journal:

* Launched the Plain Text Project. Still a bare bones, but that will change

* Heard from Mark. He’s still his acerbic self of old

* Got back to writing the HTML book

Nothing really earth shattering there. Most of my days are like that …

Don’t be afraid to mix things up. Maybe one day you’ll have a bullet point journal entry, and on another you’ll have a longer-form entry. It’s all a matter of how you feel and how much you want to write.

Daily or Weekly?

For me, there are two ways to keep a plain text journal. The first is the daily journal. That involves having individual text files for each day. Each file, as you’ve guessed, is a single entry.

A weekly journal keeps a week’s worth of entries in one file. You have five to seven entries (depending on how many days each week you journal) in a single file.

The advantage to using individual text files is that you can focus just that day, rather than worrying about what you might write in the next few days. On the other hand, you wind up with a lot of files to wrangle (more on this in a moment).

A weekly journal encourages you regularly jot something, anything down. If not, you wind up with a blank space in your text file.

It’s up to you, though. I prefer using individual text file because I journal infrequently.

The Structure of Your Journal Files

Don’t worry. You don’t need anything fancy. Just a text file. However, I do like to add a bit of structure to my journal files.

For a daily journal, I add a header to the file. That header contains the date of the entry and a note about my mood or the theme of the day. Here’s an example:

----
date: 2017-08-18
mood: Cranky, but focused
----

From there, I add a bullet list of the day’s key moments or thoughts. That structure is simple and easy to use. You can do without the header if you like.

For the weekly journal, I suggest having a heading for each day — that should be the date in whatever format you prefer. Have a space below the header for a bullet list or whatever you want to write. A dashed line separates the journal entries for each day.

Because I’m a nice guy, I’ve created a daily journal template and a weekly journal template. Feel free to download and use or modify them. I’ve released these templates under a CC0 public domain license that lets you do anything you want with the files.

Naming and Storing Your Journal Files

If you journal regularly, you’ll wind up with a number of files. Quite a large number of files. You’ll want a way to identify and organize them.

The name of your file can be important. Here are a couple of suggestions for naming your journal files:

  • For daily journal files, include the word_journal_ in the file name, followed by the date — for example, journal-2017-07-11.txt.
  • For weekly journal files, include journal in the file name, followed by the date of first day of the week — for example, journal-week_of_2017-07-17

Those are file names that work for me. Feel free to come up with your own.

Where to put all those files? You’ll want them in a central location on your computer. I have a folder called Journal in the Documents directory on my computer. In that folder, I have sub folder for various years, and ones for each month of those years. That’s what works for me, but again feel free to come up with your own way doing things.

Final Thought

Journaling in plain text lets you focus on what you’re jotting down. You’re not worried about adding formatting or anything like that. Your focus is on recording what you did over the course of a day.

It’s simple, fast, and you don’t need special software to do the job.