10 Reasons You’ll Want to Transcribe Your Handwritten Journals 30

Have you been journaling for a while? Years? If so, you probably have stacks or boxes of handwritten journals stashed away under the bed or in storage somewhere. Do you ever ask yourself, What use are those journals now? Or what will happen to them after I am gone? Or perhaps you delve into those old journals from time to time to find material or inspiration for memoir or a short story and wish there were a better way to find what you want.

The answer is to transcribe your old journals into a journaling program on your computer or other digital device. If you already use a computer or device for journaling, you already know the benefits of digital journals. But you may not have considered transcribing your older pre-digital journals.

When I wrote my memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, I scoured thousands of pages of my own and my mother’s journal entries. Some of those entries were digital, others were not. If all had been on the computer, my time spent researching would have been more effective and efficient, and I would have had more time to write.

Now, I am working on a new memoir about a different period of my life, and I have begun transcribing my journals from that period of time onto my journaling software of choice (more about that at the end of this post). As a result, I have discovered the many benefits — not only of having the journals easily accessible, but in the transcription process itself.

Here are ten of those benefits, and why you will want to transcribe your own journals into digital form:

  1. If you are in the process of writing a memoir, transcribing journals from the period you are writing about awakens memories and emotions that you have completely forgotten about. Transcribing transports you back in time in a visceral way that simply reading your entries will not.

    [bctt tweet=”Transcribing your journal transports you back in time in a visceral way.” username=”writingthrulife”]
  2. Digital journal entries are searchable and keywordable (okay, I made that word up, but you know what I mean). Ever wondered how many times you wrote about your mother or one of your children during difficult times in your relationship, and what you wrote about? Want to find that particular entry where you described your surroundings after moving to a new state? No more fruitless searching through hundreds of handwritten pages — a quick search brings up just what you need.
  3. While transcribing, you’ll be able to make note of well-written phrases, unique metaphors, and ideas you’d forgotten about, as well as themes and recurring symbols.
  4. You can lift those well-written phrases and metaphors verbatim from the pages of your journals and into your current work (for later editing) with a simple copy and paste.
  5. Most journaling programs allow you to password protect your journals, doing away with any fear of someone peeking at your personal thoughts and feelings.
  6. Your journals no longer have to take up space or gather dust in your house or storage area.
  7. Your can protect your journals from disasters such as flood or fire or, as recently experienced here in Napa, earthquakes. Digital journals can automatically be backed up on the cloud, using Dropbox or SugarSync for example, or on a remotely stored backup drive. Once transcribed, you can throw those old journals away (or shred them) and know that they are still saved for the future.
  8. If you decide to print and store hard copies of your journals, they’ll be easier to organize and read. And if you want to give the gift of your story as legacy, you can easily edit and print selected excerpts from your journals for family and friends.
  9. You will become more aware of how your journals today may be of value to you in the future and will tend to be more mindful and include more detail in your daily writing.
  10. Transcribing journals is incredible inspiring. While typing my journal entries I have had many moments of discovery and insight, not only into who I was then, but also how my life events — and how I responded to them — helped to shape who I am today.

Have I convinced you yet? Yes? But you don’t type very quickly? Fortunately, there are now a number of excellent speech to text transcription programs out there, including your smart phone. You can read your journals instead of typing them if you prefer.

Resources for digital journaling and speech to text are as numerous as stars in the sky, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating. Here are just a few.

Journaling Programs
For Speech to Text
  • Your smartphone (most journaling and note-taking applications are integrated with texting speech to text). And it’s free.
  • Dragon Naturally Speaking – excellent program for Mac and PC. Their Home version costs around $99.
  • Windows has speech recognition built in. You can find it in your accessories, under Ease of Access. I use a Mac and haven’t used it myself, but it seems worth a try.

Skeptical? I challenge you to try it. Begin with a small journal — or just a few pages. Then come back and let us know what you learned.

Photo Credit: Adikos via Compfight cc


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30 thoughts on “10 Reasons You’ll Want to Transcribe Your Handwritten Journals

  • patsy ann taylor

    Yikes! Okay, I’ll try. No promises. Some of my travel journals are on my computer. And a few entries straight from the page, but the others, over twenty-five years of them are resting in a big tub on a shelf in the garage. This goes on my to-do list.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Patsy, it may seem overwhelming when you look at that big plastic tub filled with journals, but the way I look at it … a few pages at a time (like one step at a time) … it’s not so bad. So give it a go, and let me know if you discover anything. Since I know you use a Mac, you might want to try out MacJournal, Evernote, or even Scrivener as tools for journaling.

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    Transcribing journals is like traveling back in time but with a current-day perspective. It is a process I tend to neglect, however. But I have to admit that journals are affirming and informative. My regret is not journaling sooner in my life.
    Anyway, thanks for the tips.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Sara, you said it much better than I … “traveling back in time but with a current-day perspective.” Love the comparison. Maybe it would work for you to start transcribing your current journals or — to experience that sense of traveling back in time — make it a yearly ritual to transcribe the previous year’s journals?

      My regret is having thrown out past journals because I judged them as “too juvenile.” Now, I’m writing about that period of time in my life and oh, so wish I had them.

  • Anne-Marie smith

    Now this would be a challenge….I have three boxes of journals, notebooks of all shapes and sizes, from the past 27 years…..I decorated the boxes, and whenever I move house, the get lugged along with me. I have been wondering why I do it, why I keep them….and still I buy new notebooks and still I write a journal. Throw them away??? Aaaaaargh! I or someone will have to, one day…..but you have opened up a different possibility here for me…..type them/transcribe them. It will mean getting friendly with electronics/apps, that I have so far resisted….but I see that this may be the route to a memoir …Thank you for opening up this new possibility.

  • Barbara Toboni

    Amber, I have a shelf or two of journals in my closet. I could start to transcribe them. Some entries like you say will be much better than others, and I will end up skipping over a lot, but it would be liberating to have them out of my closet, and not have to think about who will need to toss them after I’m gone. Although, I do like the old fashioned journal and pen. I’m not sure I can give them up entirely.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Barb, try it with a journal that you’re interested in reviewing and see what you think. You never know what you’ll uncover that you’d forgotten about … lots of material for your poetry, perhaps.

      As you know, I tend to journal on the computer, but when I do use pen and paper, I transcribe my entry during the following day or two. That keeps me up to date. However, I have 3 boxes of journals in storage that I have begun to transcribe. So far I’ve completed three, and it’s been a rewarding process.

  • Teri Ralbovsky

    Thank you for this post. I have some old letters and e-mails which contain a lot of really good material that are very much like a journal. This inspired me to transcribe them into Evernote along with journal entries as well. I also like that I can use my tablet, smartphone and laptop. It solves the problem of being without a pen and notebook!

    I really appreciate all of these posts, but this one really got me inspired and motivated.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Teri, I’m so glad you found this post inspiring. It’s a lot of work to transcribe all those letters, but well worth it. Emails, fortunately, can be sent to Evernote and automatically be added to any notebook. Letters, if typed, can be scanned directly into Evernote, which can search text in pdf documents. So all that’s left are the handwritten ones. (You could scan those, too, but they wouldn’t be searchable, which is one of the desirable aspects of having everything on the computer.)

      And yes, most of us carry our smart phones everywhere with us, and with apps like Evernote, journaling app, or a built-in Notes app, we always have a way to record ideas and to write, even when we aren’t carrying paper and pen.

  • Sharon Lippincott

    You’ve convinced me. This project is right there next to a cubic yard of photo albums waiting to be scanned. I’ve briefly tried transcription software on my tablet and it worked quite well. Perfection isn’t necessary in this endeavor. Recognizable is good enough. We can clean it up later if we decide to recycle.

    BTW, this transcription device bridging the gap between handwriting and digital-printable should enable us to more easily take advantage of the benefits of writing on paper with pen in hand. I’m thinking of the experiment you ran three or four years ago …

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Sharon, I also have a stack of photos waiting to be scanned. How funny!
      I agree about not needing perfection just to get our journals into digital form, and that cleanup can happen later, as we go along. Which transcription software have your tried on your tablet, and which apps worked best for you?

  • Eric Gish

    Thanks for the great article!

    I have been doing this for a few years now as a business, and you sound exactly like me when I’m selling someone on the idea of journal transcription. Is it alright with you if I post this article on my website? It would be a great blog post on there.

    If you’re interested, check out https://www.legacyscribes.org/share.php?j=5 and let me know what you think. It’s an example of one of mine after it’s been digitized. We think it’s wonderful when people do the digitizing themselves, but we’re here if you ever want help (for a deceased family member perhaps).

    Again, loved the article. I would perhaps add another point that if done right, digitized journals can be integrated into genealogical databases like familysearch and can be very helpful to others trying to find information about people.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Eric, thanks for letting us know about the resources you offer for those who don’t want to have to do all the transcription themselves. I like how the final digitized transcript also includes an image of the handwritten journal (you’re giving me ideas).

  • Dorothy Ross

    In addition to scanning photos and digitizing hand-written pieces, I’m also recording memoirs and copying them to audio CDs to share with family and friends. It’s surprisingly easy to do, using the GarageBand app on my Mac and the built-in microphone. The grandkids have especially enjoyed listening to them.

  • celinda lovett

    My dream is to pack up my tub of journals and send them to “Transcription Heaven” and then (a couple of weeks later) recieve an emal with my journals attached. A girl can dream can’t she.

  • Samantha T

    I just finished transcribing a set of journals (one book apiece) that my grandparents wrote to me before they died. Each page had a different prompt, and it was so sweet and emotional to read as I was transcribing them. I plan to give a copy to each of my cousins, aunts, and uncles for Christmas this year! Do you have any recommendations for templates or websites to get the transcriptions printed (or do it yourself) in a way that is gift-appropriate?

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Samantha, what a wonderful idea! There are many ways to print small and/or on-demand books to give to family and friends. Let me do a little research to catch up on the latest resources, and I’ll update this reply in a few days.

  • Olga (Chris) Dixon

    My husband passed away in October of 2012. He wrote a journal since 1990 something before I met him we got married March og 1998.. He told me way before he got sick to take his journal (which was in his own writing ) and make it into a book.. His penman ship was perfection. want to know how I can put his pages which were
    dated and year put on the large brown envelopes into a book.. this was his request.. He said I could live off the money that would be made from his journal. I understand that who ever turns this into a book would receive money and I would get royalties from the book.. PLEASE HELP ME FULFILL HIS LAST REQUEST
    I am getting remarried on November 4th 2017 and I truly beleive that my husband from heaven sent this man to me to love…

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Olga, welcome to WritingThroughLife and thank you for joining the conversation. You can pay someone to transcribe your husband’s journals, or you can do it yourself. It would be very time-consuming. There may be applications out there that can read handwriting in a limited fashion, but I don’t know of any specifically. This would be a wonderful labor of love, and you would end up with a book suitable for your family. However, to be suitable for sale, someone would have to take the content of his journals and shape them into a coherent story. And, I hate to disillusion you here, but memoirs are difficult to sell. If your husband was not famous or otherwise noteworthy, then it’s unlikely you’d make much money from it, if any. So I recommend if you can afford it, as a labor of love, go ahead and have his journals transcribed. See what you have. Then, if you really believe it would make a good story, then you or a ghost writer you hire would need to take that source material and rewrite and revise. Otherwise, you have a precious life story as a legacy for your children and grandchildren on both sides of the family.

      And congratulations on your upcoming marriage!

  • Pamellion

    Well, one thing that I learned is that there are some things that I wrote as a teenager that I never ever ever ever ever want anyone else in the world to read. I don’t even really ever want to read those things again. Nothing important, just stupid things that you say when you’re a teenager that you think sound so cool. So my first journal is now all on my computer in digital form. With almost nothing edited, but with a few things left out that are really not needed out there in the world. LOL! So now I want to burn that journal. And it sounds like you got rid of all yours because you’re talkin about how you have more space on your shelves. I’m a little freaked out at not having those books in my handwriting. But I did take pictures here and there of my little doodles and inserted them into the doc… And really, you’re right, this will be so much easier to go through if I ever want to see where I was on a certain date again. So, wish me “no regrets”!

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Pamellion, I can definitely relate to not ever wanting someone to read certain things — especially written when we were immature. And yes, I shredded my old, handwritten journals after shifting them to the computer. So go for it, and wishing you no regrets! (I haven’t had any.) 🙂

  • Kate Black


    Thank you for your recommendations on transcribing journals.

    I have been doing this for the past few years to the online journal Penzu. Should I be using a different means of doing so, even though I still have my hardbound journals?



    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Unless there’s a backup method (i.e., you can download your digital journals to save on your computer or in a personal account on the cloud), I hesitate to trust anything as important as your personal journaling to online-only platforms. If the platform doesn’t belong to you, you have no control over the information, how long the platform will be available, and so on. So I would recommend transcribing to a form that you can backup and access in more than one format. (just my 2 cents)

  • Daniel

    Thanks for the article and inspiration.
    Starting journaling aged 15 I had most of my rather numerous diaries scanned into pdfs for fear of somehow losing them.

    With the advent of large language models, having digitized diaries could serve as gold mine for self-analysis or even therapy if one so desired.

    However the handwriting is so poor and often faded, that automatic handwriting recognition is currently out of the question.
    So I guess I have to wait for it to become as good as I am (after all I can read my handwriting), or digitize it by reading it to myself using google speech to text.