5 Simple Steps to Start (and Keep!) a Reading Journal

Though I never seem to be able to consistently write in an actual journal or diary, I’ve kept a reading journal since January of 2014– it was one of the few new year’s resolutions that actually worked out for me! If you’re interested in starting a record of your reading life, there’s no reason to wait until the new year, though. You’ll have to make some extra time in your schedule (though not necessarily more than a few minutes, as I’ll show you), so it’s perhaps better to start during a time of year when you aren’t consumed by anxiety dreams about a rogue strand of twinkle lights suddenly lighting your apartment on fire.

Each reading journal will be different because each reader is different, but I think these steps will help you decide what style of journaling is right for you.

1. Set your Goals

A photo by Liz Weston. unsplash.com/photos/IOzk8YKDhYg

Why do you want a reading journal? Or, even better: what do you want to be able to remember about your reading life in five years?

A reading journal, at its most basic, is a record of the books you read; everything beyond that is customizable to your wants and needs.

Some specific questions to ask yourself:

  • What questions do I have about my reading habits?
    • How diversely do I read across gender, race, nationality, genre, etc.?
    • What formats do I gravitate to– ebook, hardback, paperback, audio, etc.?
    • Where do I get my recommendations from? Do these recommendations tend to lead to books I like?
  • How do I want to challenge myself as a reader?
    • Do I want to read… Older books? Library books? More science fiction? Less science fiction? Books from a particular awards list? More books, period?
  • What other things in my life are tied to reading, and how can my reading journal help me do those things better?
    • If you’re a student: Should I put a space in my journal to reference class notes, ideas for papers, or connections to other books I’ve read that feel like they relate to this one?
    • If you’re a teacher: Can I use this reading journal to help me brainstorm paper ideas, class activities, etc?
    • If you’re a blogger/reviewer: Should I leave space in my journal for blog ideas, potential lists, and/or the seeds of a review?
    • If you’re a writer: How do the books I read relate to my own work? How can my reading journal reflect that relationship?
    • Will I use this reading record for professional/academic purposes?
      • If so: what information (quotations and page numbers, searchable keywords, etc.) will I need to include in each entry to ensure that I get the most out of it? What do I need to remember, and how can I make sure I remember it?

2. Choose a Format

After you have a better sense of what you want your reading journal to do, you should begin to think about what you want it to look like.

You’ll want to first choose between paper and digital.

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The benefits of paper are obvious to most readers, I think:

  • you get to pick out a journal that you’re excited to write in (Moleskine even has a themed journal)
  • you can carry it with you anywhere
  • it feels a little indulgent (less like work, more like fun) since it isn’t on a screen
  • it’s easier to incorporate doodles and diagrams (if that’s how you remember or record things)

The benefits of digital journaling are also pretty obvious:

  • your text is searchable
  • you have infinite space!
  • you’ll never lose it
  • it might fit more easily into your schedule (since most people always have a computer nearby)

If you’ve chosen to go with paper, then you’ll have to decide what size journal you want to keep, whether you’d prefer to keep it in a binder (so you can refill your pages when you need to and keep older records somewhere safe) or a notebook (so each notebook, as you fill it, will represent a time in your life), and how you want to divide up your pages.

Online or Offline?

If you’ve chosen to go digital, then you’ll need to decide if you want to keep it off- or online.

For offline journals, a simple word document in your preferred word processor (MS Word, Pages, etc.) will do, as will a spreadsheet program (like Excel). You can give each entry be its own document, or (as I would recommend) you can give each week/month/season/year its own document, depending on how you’d like to break up your journaling. If a gigantic document doesn’t bother you, you can even keep your entire journal in one document, which will make searching easier.

For online journals, I’d recommend using a Google Doc or a Google Spreadsheet. There are general journalling apps (like Day One), but I haven’t found anything that lends itself well to reading journals– let me know if you have one that works for you.

3. Set a Schedule

I recommend giving each book you read its own entry, but you could also consolidate your journaling and only write once a week or once a month and just hit the highlights of your reading life. I probably couldn’t do that– I forget things too quickly– but again, you should do what makes the most sense for you!

The most important thing about setting a schedule is knowing yourself and what you want out of your reading journal (see step 1). Be honest with yourself, and start small. Even if you eventually want to be able to build a castle out of your reading journals, I’d recommend spending a month just writing down the basics (which we’ll cover in step 4). Once you see how to make time for that in your schedule, then add on another category, if you want to. You can repeat that process indefinitely.

4. Create an Outline

I find that a reading journal is easier to sit down with when I have a set format. Here’s what my first few entries looked like in 2014:screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-9-44-35-am

It’s a Google Spreadsheet, which I’ve found particularly easy to work with since it’s stored in my Drive; I can access it anywhere, on any of my devices. It’s not the prettiest journal (a fact I’m even more conscious of since bullet journaling has become so popular…this bad boy isn’t going up on Pinterest anytime soon), but all that mattered to me was that I got it done.

Later, I started to get more confident in filling up the quotations and notations sections, but in the beginning, it felt awesome just to write down this basic information. In later spreadsheets (each year gets its own spreadsheet in my system), I added a column for page length and one for “writing ideas” (where I might use this book in an essay, article, etc., potential lists or categories I’d assign this book to, and so on).

I think if I hadn’t had a table to fill out, I might have become overwhelmed or felt like I was putting too much time into something that hadn’t paid me any dividends yet. Pick some easy categories (but make sure it will give you information you’re interested in– for example, when I started, I wanted to know how many of my books were Kindle and how many were in hardcopy, since I’d just gotten a Kindle and was designing a college class on “reading in a digital age”) to give yourself a sense of accomplishment and confidence. As you get more experience with the journal, you’ll learn how much time and energy you want to put into it.

Some categories to consider adding:

  • Author name and book title
  • Date finished
    • Some people put “date started – date finished” instead of just date finished, but since it sometimes takes me an embarrassingly long time to read a single book, I don’t want to include that information!
  • Genre
    • I like noting down the book’s genre because it’s interesting to see how much fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc. I read in a given period. It’s just one of my record-keeping categories.
  • Where?
    • Where did you read this? This can be a great way to remember vacations, memorable events, previous homes… Eventually, I got pretty specific with my entries: one of them (for The Goldfinch) says I read it “stuck on an Amtrak train for 6 hours outside of Union Station in DC.” Just reading that blurb brings back so much context that I would have otherwise forgotten.
  • Why?
    • Why did you pick this book up? Putting this category in will help you track where your reading recommendations are coming from and how reliable they are.
  • Rating
    • I personally don’t like rating books because it doesn’t seem to help me accomplish my reading journal goals, but I think it could be helpful to just “take the temperature” of the entry as you skim through it. You could also group your entries by rating!
  • What to Read Next
    • This could include books by the same author, books writers or recommenders have paired with it, or (especially for non-fiction books) resources the writer used or recommended for further reading
  • “This Read In One Sentence”
    • I haven’t included this in my own reading journal, but I think I might start– it challenges you to give a summary of your experience reading the book (which is different than a summary of the book itself) in a single sentence. Takes a lot of thought, but not a lot of writing, which is great for a reading journal.
  • Page Length
    • This is just a quick, cute way to measure “how much” you’ve read in a given day/week/month/year. Plus, the tallies are almost always surprising– those novels really add up!

5. Taste as You Go!

The best part about the reading journal is its flexibility. You should design it to fit your interests and needs, and those will invariably evolve and change. Don’t be afraid to cut categories or change formats.

Keeping a journal has been a huge part of my reading life, and I hope these steps will help you decide if you’d like to try it out for yourself. If you’re already keeping one, I’d love to know how you do it! If you have any questions or thoughts, post them in the comments or message me– I’d be happy to write more posts about this topic.

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