5 tips for spicing up your travel journals, or how to get beyond “Today I ate breakfast at…”

Every time I re-read that dog-eared journal I kept during my first trip abroad, I know that it’s not as good a memento of my travels as it could be.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: Every day I’d write the date at the top of the page followed by nothing more than a chronological recounting of that day’s events. The journal was, as Tolstoy wrote of Ivan Ilych, “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

Over the years, I’ve come to rethink everything I thought I knew about how to keep a travel journal. Here are a few tips, applicable to old-fashioned Moleskines and travel blogs alike, that will 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 mediocre restaurant 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. Mix 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 “Arabic Words I Know How to Write” or “What Guatemalans Really Mean When They Say…” (e.g. If you’re told something will take over 20 minutes in Guatemala, come back the next day”) or “My Favorite Reggaeton Songs” (okay, that list was empty). If you’re artistic, throw some sketches in there. If you’re a collector, hang on to old train tickets, receipts from memorable times, and notes from new friends.

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 three weeks 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, really, what’s that smell?