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Diary vs. Journal: What's the Difference?

Updated on October 13, 2016
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Sadie Holloway is a writer and artist who uses the power of journaling to bring more peace, serenity, and joy into her life.

Many people think a diary is the same thing as a journal. But there is a difference between the two. One is a book to record events as they happen, the other is a book to explore ideas taking shape. Learn more about the characteristics of diaries and journals to find out which style is best suited to your needs.

Here's how to decide which style of notebook is best for you.

What's the difference between a diary and a journal?
What's the difference between a diary and a journal?

What is a diary as a rule? A document useful to the person who keeps it. Dull to the contemporary who reads it and invaluable to the student, centuries afterwards, who treasures it.

— Walter Scott
A diary is a record of what happened on a certain day.
A diary is a record of what happened on a certain day.
A journal is where you would keep design ideas, sketches, rough drafts, and notes.
A journal is where you would keep design ideas, sketches, rough drafts, and notes.

What's the difference between a journal and a diary? These two words---diary and journal---are often used interchangeably, but there is actually a difference between the two. A diary is something that is more likely to be used every day to record specific things that happened on a specific day. It can be used to record feelings, moods, and emotions. A diary can also track data to help you make an important discovery. For instance, writing in a food diary might help you uncover the source of your migraine headaches. Tracking your exercise habits may help you make a connection between your mood and whether or not you were physically active that day.

The contents of a journal, on the other hand, aren't necessarily constrained by the dates on a calendar. Journals can include random thoughts, lists, ideas, pictures, doodles, memories, song lyrics...anything that comes to mind.

The chart below shows how the content of each type of book might differ based on various themes.

Topic or Theme
What You'd Put in a Diary
What You'd Put in a Journal
Food, Cooking, and Nutrition
A record of the food you ate today and how it made you feel
Notes about new recipes you want to try
Fashion and Style
An itemized list of what you wore today
Magazine clippings and pictures of designer handbags you want to own one
Work and Career
Appointments, meetings, and tasks completed at work
Big picture career goals, dreams, and aspirations
Fitness and Exercise
A record of the day's physical activity
Notes about how to do certain yoga poses
Here are a few topical examples of the difference between what you'd put in a journal versus what you'd put in a diary

Whether you're keeping a journal or writing as a meditation, it's the same thing. What's important is you're having a relationship with your mind.

— Natalie Goldberg

Which one should you choose, a diary or a journal? It depends on how disciplined you are. If you want to write every day, no matter what, then choose a diary with dated pages. But if you want to have a more organic creative experience, an undated journal or notebook would be better for you.

Does it really matter if there is a difference between a diary and a journal? No. It doesn't matter which format you choose, as long as it works for you and your needs. Writing, in a diary or journal, can help you organize your thoughts and help you feel more balanced. And scientists actually agree. A study published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists claims that expressive writing can result in overall long-term improvements emotional and physical well-being. You can read more about the study here: Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing.

Researchers also believe that writing on a regular basis makes you smarter! To learn more about how a daily writing practice can enhance a student's academic performance, read The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning.

So regardless of whether you choose to right about the past in a daily diary or dream about the future in a meditative journal, the act of taking time out of your day and focusing your attention on yourself for a while can have positive mental and physical health benefits.

There's no right or wrong in the journal vs diary debate. Whatever notebook format you prefer is the right one!
There's no right or wrong in the journal vs diary debate. Whatever notebook format you prefer is the right one!

Which do you prefer to use, a diary or journal?

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© 2016 Sadie Holloway

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  • B. Leekley profile image

    Brian Leekley 16 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

    For an example of a journal, search Google Images on journal of Leonardo da Vinci. His was full of sketches and notes. Tony Buzan credited da Vinci with pioneering mind mapping.

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