Wednesday, March 9, 2011

J is for Journal or Diary Format

I recently read that one of the trends in writing for children is the journal or diary format. While I’m not advocating that you write to suit a trend, it’s interesting to explore some of the advantages of this popular format for middle graders.

The thrill of secrets. A story written as a series of journal entries creates an expectation that the reader will be learning the private thoughts of the narrator. Already, there is built-in anticipation. It’s like you’ve already got part of the hook to get your reader to open the book.

Connecting with the reader. The conversational writing style of the journal format brings the narrator close to the reader, almost inviting the reader to share in their experiences and feel the emotions they are feeling. In some schools, students in higher elementary grades keep writing journals, so they may already have sense of the journaling process, or may even keep a diary or journal. I’ve seen this style used to bring to life historical subjects that kids might otherwise consider boring.

Space for imagination. The journal format allows the writer to be creative, possibly including diagrams, letters, lists, margin notes, large or bold text for exciting moments. Breaking up the text in smaller chunks by days or events also can make it appeal to kids who want a lighter read and tend to shy away from dense text.

Passing time. Because journal entries are specific to a certain time period, it provides a convenient vehicle for showing how time is passing.

One challenge of writing in a journal or diary format is the showing vs. telling dilemma. It’s easy to describe an event you are writing to “tell” it to someone and possibly more challenging to “show” actions that allow the reader opportunities to construct their own interpretation. However, trying out a different form of writing could bring a new energy to your story.

A few (of the many) books with a journal or diary format:

Amelia’s Notebook by Marissa Moss
Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel by Ruth McNally Barshaw
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Dork Diaries, Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life by Rachel Renee Russell
McKenzie Blue - Friends Forever by Tina Wells
The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger


10 Trends in Children’s Books from 2010

An article about diaries and The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow from the Seattle Times.

A perspective on the diary format in children’s books from the Barnes and Noble book club.

Have you read any great books with a journal or diary format? Or, have you ever tried using this form in your writing?


  1. Great points! Formatting a story this way has it's pros and cons. A writer must use the highest form of telling, which is the hardest way to write. But it also is very personal so the reader connects instantly. I loved the Origami yoda book!

  2. The Origami Yoda book is on my list. I didn't know it was diary style~ now I'm even more excited to read it! I enjoy reading books in this format, but I can't write using it, for the reasons you listed--too much telling (when I write it anyway), etc.

  3. Jess, Origami Yoda is not exactly a diary, since it's in the form of a "case file" with different students writing, but it's similar. A great book.

  4. I'm so glad to hear this format is coming back for younger readers! I noticed it was making a resurgence in YA a few years ago with books like Life As We Knew It so perhaps that's tricking down to MG now. I always loved journal format as a kid because it gave me the feeling of peeking into something secret and forbidden.

  5. I was actually considering writing a story in journal format for all the reasons you mentioned, but the cons are what made me decide against it. Although there are lots of great books told in journal format, I've also read some that weren't as successful. Maybe one day I'll be brave enough to try it!

  6. Ah, the journal format. It can be hard to pull off but I can see how kids love reading these types of books.

    Just recently, my god-daughters had a falling out because the younger sister tried to jimmy the lock of the older sister's diary.

    Diaries are like sacred to them, LOL.

  7. Great post! I've never tried to write in journal format, but I love books that are in this format. Tangerine by Edward Bloor is one of my favorites. I'm glad I found your site on the blue boards. I'm your newest followers.

  8. Karen, yeah, I remember trying to keep my locked up diary away from my brothers! I eventually started writing in code.

    Glad you stopped by, Kelly. I'm going to look for that book!

  9. I'm currently editing and eventually trying to publish a manuscript of my journals from early adolescence to present day young adulthood, and reading this short but telling post has given me some new perspectives from which to critique my project.

    Fluidity/continuity is something I've been struggling with. Entries of narrations that don't obviously lead into one after the other have to rely on the tenuous hope that their contribution to the overall picture, that is, the voyeuristic portrayal of the protagonist's psyche, will be enough to make reading them worthwhile and sensible.

    Youth in Revolt, the Journals of Nick Twisp by C.D. Payne is another book in this format, though a little raunchy for the average young adult. My mom lent it to me when I was 14 and dangerously impressionable.


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