More Travel Journaling Techniques

By Dave Fox

Speed journaling is an effective way to get a lot of thoughts down on paper in a limited amount of time. However, some people feel inspired by their foreign surroundings and would rather take the time to write well-crafted prose instead. There’s no right or wrong way to journal. What’s important is finding a technique you’re comfortable with.

Here are some different journaling techniques you can try. You can write fast and reckless if you want, or you can slow down when using these techniques.


We’ll start here since this is the most common type of travel journaling, though not always the best. In a day-by-day journal, you’re giving a broad overview of each day’s highlights.

Often when people use this technique, their entries feel pedestrian: “First we went to the Uffizi Gallery. The line was long. The paintings were nice. Blah blah blah. Then we ate pizza for lunch. It was yummy. Then we took a nap. Then we ate gelato. It was yummy. Then we took a walk….” And so on.

There are ways you can avoid this robotic tone. Follow the “Show, don’t tell” rule explained in the Outer Journey article and cram a lot of detail into everything you write about.

Be selective about what you cover. It’s okay to leave out big chunks of your day. Don’t worry about whether or not your journal flows. Just as a movie about a two-year time frame is never two years long, your journal doesn’t need to cover every moment of your day. Ask yourself what’s important.

Capturing a Moment

If you’re having trouble with the flat sort of journaling I described above, here is a technique to help obliterate that problem. Instead of skimming the surface of your entire day, choose one significant event and cover it in a lot of detail.

Let’s say you only have 20 minutes to write on any given day. By spending those 20 minutes writing in depth about one event, you really capture that one important moment. You have more time to cover all of your senses and present a deeper image of what went on.

You also have more time for introspection this way. You can explore your Inner Journey in more detail when you stick to a single moment rather than jumping quickly from event to event. Doing this not only captures more of your emotions on paper, it also helps you understand them better. By devoting more time to thinking about what’s going on in your mind, you’ll learn more about yourself.

Theme Journaling

As you travel, you’ll notice recurring themes on your trip. Some of these are things travelers experience universally: language barriers, unusual toilets, strange foods, and money issues to name a few. Other things might be location specific: the “passeo” or nightly stroll in Spain, great wines in France, Celtic music or pub culture in Ireland, or haggling over prices in African street markets. As you travel, look for these recurring themes.

Each day, choose a different topic and write about it. Don’t just cover the one day you’re in. Look at this topic throughout the course of your travels. The point is to choose one subject and really dissect it. You’ll come home with a series of essays about your trip, each recalling a specific element that was somehow worth noticing.

Personal Encounters

One of the thingskthat affects us most when we travel is the people we encounter. Sometimes, we engage in lengthy conversations. Sometimes, we remember people without ever even talking to them.

On a ten-minute stop in Belgrade once, I watched through my train window as an old man stooped down on the platform and pondered the world around him. His skin was worn and leathery, He wore a blue and white knit skullcap. I spied on him as he crouched, balancing his forearms on his knees. I wondered what he was thinking. That happened 14 years ago, but I can still see him clearly in my mind. I don’t think he ever noticed me.

I can remember dozens of people throughout my travels who I have never spoken with, or with whom I had the briefest of enco5nters — grocery store cashiers, border guards, beggars, young children, other travelers. Sometimes, somebody catches our eye for reasons we’re not quite sure of. (And sometimes, someone catches our eye for reasons that are very clear. They might look friendly, menacing, interesting, lost, or drop-dead gorgeous.)

Try choosing a different person each day who has crossed your path, and write about them. If you’ve had a conversation — whether it lasted three hours or 30 seconds —- describe the conversation. Include quotes. It’s okay if you don’t remember the words verbatim. You’re not reporting for the New York Times here. Write quotes down as well as you remember them.

Describe the person’s appearance and mannerisms. What was the setting in which you saw them? What was your impression of them? Why did you have that impression. Do you think your initial impression was accurate, or was it tinted by something in your own belief system? What do you think this person was thinking? Why did you notice this person in the first place? How did you meet them?

People enter our lives for mysterious reasons sometimes. They have things to teach us, but it’s easy for us to miss their lessons. Often these people flash past us too quickly and are gone before we’ve communicated with them. Writing about people we %ncounter helps us absorb their lessons.

Verbal Snapshots

One of the biggest dilemmas travel journalers face is we’d rather be out experiencing new things than writing about things that have already happened. By taking a “verbal snapshot,” journaling becomes part of our experience.

Choose a place you’d like to capture and go there to write about it. You can sit at a sidewalk café, sip a cappuccino, and write about the world that swirls around you — the wait staff, the other customers, the strangers who scurry by on the street. You can find a bench in a museum, and describe the art and the people who have come to see it.

One great thing about verbal snapshots, as opposed to actual photographs, is you are not limited to your sense of sight. Write about the sounds that surround you, and the smells in the air. Write about how your body feels — whether you’re hot or cold, tense or relaxed. You can record what you are thinking as you sit and enjoy the moment.

Get creative in choosing a place to go write each day. Verbal snapshots focus intensely on a single moment in our travels. They have a sense of immediacy. We are reporting live from our trip, writing things down as they happen around and within us. When we go back and read our snapshots later, we return to the exact moment when we not only had our experience, but when we wrote it down.


If you like to draw or paint, add captions to your art. Your captions can be a sentence or two, or they can last several pages. If you do this, keep in mind your visual art is capturing your Outer Journey. By writing about what you’ve drawn, you can also capture the inner part of the scene, and talk about how you felt as you drew your sketch.

If you’re not into drawing or painting, you can also journal in tandem with photography. This works especially well if you have a digital or Polaroid camera so you can look at the photo while you write.

Five Sentences a Day

If you’re too busy or restless in your travels to sit for a long period and write, try writing five sentences a day. You won’t get the depth of journaling you get from other techniques. But some people feel intimidated by the thought of trying to write down everything. At the end of a two-week trip, you’ll have a nice overview of where you’ve been — and thoughts to trigger other memories when you look back on your trip in the future.

When I journal this way, I make it a ritual. I make it the last thing I do before bed, or the first thing I do in the morning. It gives a framework to my day.

You might find that once you sit down to write your five sentences, more thoughts start coming. When that happens, go for it! But if you commit to a five-sentence-a-day journal (something even the busiest traveler has time for!), remember that if you write long one day, that doesn’t mean you have to stretch your quota every day. Don’t intimidate yourself by trying to beat your goal.

A Postcard a Day

One of the unpleasant parts of traveling is returning home to a big stack of bills. If you send yourself a postcard each day, you’ll return with lots of little souvenirs from your trip waiting in your mailbox… and perhaps a few trickling in over the next week. In addition to the mini-journals you create, you’ll also have pictures of the places you’ve visited.

Voice Journals

Recorded journals can be tricky. Some people love them. Others hate them. When you narrate your journals into an audio recorder or phone, you can cover a lot of details in less time than it would take to write everything down. The tricky thing is that many people aren’t able to ad-lib at a steady rate. They keep stopping and it feels awkward.

If you do journal with a recording device, in addition to capturing your voice, you can also catch ambient sound. Carry your recorder through a market, a noisy street, or anywhere else where there’s lots of noise. You can even zip it into your daybag to keep it unobtrusive. (I don’t recommend this in situations where you might have to pass through a security checkpoint, or in places where your recorder could be misconstrued if discovered.)

A recorded journal can be especially fun if you’re traveling with a partner. You can take turns talking about your day. When you run out of things to say, your partner takes over.

I’ve tried recording my journal entries before, and I have a hard time composing my thoughts. Climbing a volcano in Iceland once, though, I was happy to have a little recorder with me.

I was alone, and thoughts raced through my head as I tried to reach the crater. I turned on my recorder and placed it in my shirt pocket. As I climbed, I narrated the experience. Fortunately I was alone on the volcano, or other people might have thought I was crazy talking into my shirt pocket. I reached the summit and meditated inside the crater. The excitement in my voice, and the rush of the pounding North Atlantic winds were both caught “on tape.” (I put “on tape” in quotes because these days, few people use tape recorders anymore. This situation happened way back in 1989, however, when I actually was using a little microcassette tape recorder.)

E-mail Journaling

If you can’t find time in your day to journal, but you’re sending e-mail home to friends, send a copy of every message to yourself. You won’t get the same introspection that comes from writing for yourself, but you’ll still have lots of memories typed out.

Cybercafes are everywhere — from big European capitals to tiny African villages. For a few dollars, you can get online for an hour and keep in touch with a web-based e-mail account such as Yahoo or Hotmail.

Which Technique is Best?

These are just a few journaling techniques I’ve had success with. If you have others, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me an e-mail!

None of these approaches is better or worse than any other. They depend on your goals, your personality, your time, and your writing style. It’s worth experimenting with a few of these techniques to find the styles you like best. If one technique doesn’t seem to be working, try another. Try different techniques on different days depending on your mood.

When all else fails, I go back to speed journaling or five sentences a day. These are fast and efficient ways to write. They’ll free up your time so you can get back out there and find more to write about.

Published on Thursday, January 1, 2004

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