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January 18, 2008

5 tips for writing better travel journals

Looking back at that old dog-eared journal that I kept during my first trip, I can tell that it’s not as good a memento of my travels as it should be. Of course, it probably looked like most people’s travel journals– the date at the top of each entry, followed by a chronological record of the day’s events. In other words, it was a little dull. Here are a few tips to help you write better than I did my first time around:

1. Don’t write every day.

Who says you have to have an entry for every day? If writing in your journal begins to feel too much like a chore, if you’re not enjoying or learning anything from putting your thoughts and observations down on paper, then take some time off. I had always thought that if I neglected to write a journal entry one day, the record of my trip would somehow be incomplete. It’s not.

Especially on long trips, some days may not truly merit an entry. Think to yourself: Five years from now, am I going to be glad I wrote this down? If not, leave it out. Really, it’s okay.

2. Leave out the boring stuff.

You’re not getting paid by the word, so leave out all the boring stuff. Simply recounting events chronologically makes for some really tedious reading. When I look back at my old journal, I cringe when I read the same things day after day: “Today, I woke up and got breakfast…” Really? You woke up? AND you got breakfast? Bor-ing. I promise, if you leave out the fact that you ate lunch at a restaurant called Buffalo Joe’s and the food was decent, your head will not explode.

Honestly, you’re not going to remember every meal, or every traveling buddy, or every time you went to the bathroom, even if you write all these things down. So don’t try. If you do, you’ll end up merely recalling the words of your journal rather than the memories themselves.

3. Pretend like you’re writing for someone else, even when you’re not.

Some people never show their journals to anyone, ever. Fine. But when we only write for ourselves, we have a tendency to become lazy writers. We don’t always search for the right word or phrase because, well, we know what we meant. Instead, act like your best friends are going to read your journals– make them dynamic and interesting, include dialogue, find the right word and the perfect expression. Ten years from now, you’ll be glad you did.

4. Spice things up a little.

Writing paragraphs about where you went and what you saw is fine, but why not be more creative? Recently, I’ve gotten into making lists, such as “An Incomplete List of Czech Beers” or “Arabic Words I Know How to Write” or “My Favorite Reggaeton Songs” (that list was empty). If you’re artistic, throw some sketches in there. If you heard a funny conservation or joke, write that down too.

5. Look outside yourself.

Too often, writing in a journal becomes an exercise in wallowing in your own (usually negative) emotion, as in “I feel so lonely/guilty/depressed I could cry!” Sometimes it’s tough, but do your best to leave this stuff out. When you read your journals five years from now, how are you going to feel about all that drama? “Boy, I’m sure glad I remembered to record how depressed I was for those 30 days in a row!” No. Instead of doing this, look outside yourself. How does the food taste? (And you can do better than “good.”) What does the landscape look like? What does the language sound like? How’s the music? And, hey, what’s that smell?

No, seriously. What’s that smell?

Posted by | Comments (4) 
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

4 Responses to “5 tips for writing better travel journals”

  1. Noraconos Says:

    Love the tips. I’m not going on my trip for another 4 months or so and I’m keeping a journal already. Write in it every 3-4 days or even once a week, updating my plans and all that other nonsense and I’ll be glad to take some of these tips along with me the rest of the way. Four more months and I’m in Argentina waaaahoooooooo

  2. Tim Patterson Says:

    Aaron, excellent post – good advice, with humor, is the perfect combo, and you nailed it.

    I’ve been following your writing and hope you will think about pitching me an article for sometime.

    Check out our contributors guidelines and shoot me a mail at hokkaidotim(at)


  3. Alanna Says:

    I’m about to go on a trip overseas, and I need help not writing down every detail, and actually recording what’s important. This’ll help a lot. Thanks.

  4. Hayley Says:

    I’m 14 and going to Taiwan in 2 1/2 months. I’m really excited and a bit nervous, I’ve started a journal already about what I’m feeling, things that get added to my itinerary, stuff like that. These tips are really helpful. I’m gonna write (stories for myself) when I’m on the plane 11 1/2 hrs from New Zealand to Hong Kong 2 1/2 hrs from Hong Kong to Taipei. Yikes!

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