Writing Glossary

What is a Dialectical Journal? (How Do They Work)

August 30, 2023 by

Have you heard about a dialectical journal but want to learn more?

Or perhaps you want to have your own dialectical journal but don’t know how to start.

Well we’ve got you covered!

We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):

Table of Contents

What is a Dialectical Journal?

A dialectical journal is simply a journal used for the purpose of intellectually engaging with the contents of a text. You are essentially journaling to record your own thoughts or even emotions experienced as you go through the text. A dialectic journal is sometimes known as a double-entry journal or a reader-response journal.

Dialectic means the process of arriving at the truth through logical reasoning or asking questions.

The ‘Socratic Method’ invented by the Greek philosopher Socrates is a dialectic process of arriving at logical answers.

Essentially, Socrates would pursue a line of reasoning, attacking the embedded assumptions within people’s answers to everyday questions, like what is the meaning of life or what is bravery?

He would then keep on asking questions indefinitely until the taken-for-granted assumptions would no longer hold.

The same process of dialectical reasoning can be applied to studying any type of material with a view to broadening one’s understanding of a given text.

It is a way to facilitate the production of original ideas, to reach insights about the text and one’s own self, and to think clearly and critically about the ideas one reads.

We’ve all experienced that blank feeling when we are close to finishing a book. What was it about?

If anyone were to ask us to explain, in our own words, the main points of the book, we would be at a loss for words.

Why do you think that is so?

It’s because we do not engage with the text.

Engaging with the text means absorbing yourself in its contents in such a way that you are making connections between the ideas mentioned in the book and other experiences and ideas.

It’s about making parallels between the writer’s and the character’s experiences with your own experiences.

Of course, you are not supposed to engage with every paragraph or sentence in the text.

The idea is to record and make note of the passages, sentences, turns of phrases, unfamiliar usage of vocabulary, insights, and ideas that appeal to you.

Once you like a passage or are intrigued and confused by it, you go ahead and write it down in the dialectic journal verbatim.

Then, you proceed to ask questions, take it apart, connect other ideas to it, and draw insights in a column next to the passage. These are your responses.

The point is to not read or write passively but to actively engage in the argument with the writer as if you were having a conversation with him/her face to face.

dialectical journal example
actively engage in the argument

Dialectical Journal Examples

In a dialectical journal, you divide a notebook page into two columns: one for direct quotes from the text and the other for your own reflections, questions, connections, or analysis related to those quotes.

Here are a few examples:

1. Literature Example (Fiction – “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee)

Quote from the Text: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Reflection/Analysis: This quote from Atticus Finch highlights the importance of empathy and understanding. It reminds me of the ongoing theme of prejudice and racism in the novel. Atticus’s advice challenges the characters and readers to see the world from others’ perspectives, which is crucial for combating injustice.

2. Non-Fiction Example (Science – “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins)

Quote from the Text: “Genes cannot be seen; they are abstract information. They are like computer programs.”

Reflection/Analysis: Dawkins’ analogy of genes to computer programs is intriguing. It suggests that genetic information drives biological processes in a way similar to how software instructions control computers. This makes me question whether this analogy holds up in all aspects of genetics or if there are limitations to this comparison.

3. Philosophy Example (Philosophical Essay – “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau)

Quote from the Text: “That government is best which governs least.”

Reflection/Analysis: Thoreau’s statement challenges the conventional idea of government’s role in society. He seems to advocate for minimal government interference, which raises questions about the extent of governmental authority and its impact on individual freedoms. I wonder how this concept aligns with modern governance and the complex issues societies face today.

4. Poetry Example (“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost)

Quote from the Text: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by.”

Reflection/Analysis: Frost’s famous lines evoke the idea of choices and their consequences. The speaker’s decision to take the less-traveled path is often interpreted as a metaphor for making unconventional life choices. This resonates with my own experiences of facing decisions that involve risk and personal growth. It’s a reminder of the value in stepping away from the familiar.

How Long Should a Dialectical Journal Response Be?

So how long should your dialectical entry be against a particular passage?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter how long an entry should be. The sky is the limit. But how much can you write about one passage, anyway?

With that said, a journal response should not be less than five sentences.

Your goal is to ask questions, make predictions, record your thoughts, analyze the writer’s style and the literary choices made to set up a scene, or draw patterns and themes.

There is no limit on how much you can write on any given passage, but keep in mind that your responses should be detailed and specific to the contents of the passage.

What is the Purpose of a Dialectical Journal?

The purpose of a dialectical journal is to force you to think critically about the text.

Although you can try the dialectical journal technique with any form of text, let us take the example of a book.

A book is densely packed with ideas. The writer makes many, many points in a sequential, logical manner.

If you are constantly distracted and have little attention span, you will find it difficult to follow the writer’s line of reasoning to the end of the chapter, much less the entire book.

That’s because engaging with the text, on an intellectual level, doesn’t come naturally.

We’ve to actively ask questions, make connections, evaluate the writer’s ideas, and identify themes and patterns.

You should employ dialectical reasoning throughout until you’re finished with a particular text.

This way, you’ll not only be able to retain much of the contents you are reading, but you’ll also gain a deeper understanding which you can then apply practically.

In an interview, Bill Gates — who happens to be a voracious reader — said that he wrote in the tiny margins of books while he read.

According to him, writing in the margins of a book helps him engage with the points that the author is making, and it also helps him make connections with his existing knowledge about the subject.

dialectical journal taking notes

What Do You Record In a Dialectical Journal?

Here are the two things that you record in a dialectical journal:

  1. Passages, sentences, or even words from books, articles, magazines, websites
  2. Recording your response opposite that passage, sentence, or word

If you want to really get organized, you can follow the dialectical journal codes that help you label your responses for later reference.

These codes are: Question (Q), Prediction (P), Connection ©, Clarification (CL), Reflect (R), Evaluate (E)

It is up to you to add more, like Ideas, Insights, or Epiphanies. It doesn’t matter as long as you are engaging with the content.

How Do You Write A Dialectical Journal?

So how do you write in a dialectical journal? After all that information, it would be nice to know just how one can start right away.

Here is a step-by-step breakdown of how you should make dialectical journal entries.

  1. You need a notebook and a pen, or you can do this on the Evernote app, or even on a Word document, it doesn’t matter. Make three columns (labeled as passage, page number, and response)
  2. Copy the passage that you like and put it under the passage column that you created. (It could even be a sentence or a phrase that appeals to you in some way)
  3. Next, write down the page number in the second column right next to the passage’s column. (Put the page number, and if you like put a paragraph number next to it as well)
  4. In the response column, start writing your response.
  5. Be as detailed and specific with your response as you can be.
  6. Label your responses based on whether they are questions, reflections, or connections.
  7. Come back to these responses later every now and then as you clear doubts, confirm or disaffirm existing responses about the text, and answer questions you had about the text.

To further explore how to write a dialectical journal, we also recommend this video by Jen Jonson:

Dialectical Journal Sentence Starters

Here is a list of sentence starters you can use to get the most out of your journal responses:

  1. I agree/disagree with what the writer is saying because…
  2. The writer’s main idea in this passage is…
  3. I can relate to what the character is feeling…
  4. I liked how the author used (insert literary device)
  5. If this happens then…. could also happen (prediction)
  6. Would I have done….differently if I were in the character’s place?
  7. I am confused about…
  8. The example that the writer has used is/isn’t relevant to…
  9. Does this argument fit into the overall thesis the writer presented at the beginning?
  10. I think this is a profound observation on part of the writer because…

Final Remarks

Dialectic journals are great study tools that can enhance your engagement with the content of a book, article, or any other reading material.

Instead of passively going through the text, you begin to internalize and retain more information from your reading by asking questions, reflecting upon the ideas of the writer, and making connections.

Want to learn more journaling tips? Check out our journaling for beginners guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you set up a dialectical journal?

To set up a dialectical journal, create two columns on a piece of paper or in a notebook. In the left column, record significant quotes or passages from the text being read, and in the right column, record personal reflections, connections, and analysis of the text.

What is the objective of dialectical journal?

The objective of a dialectical journal is to encourage critical thinking and analysis of a text by engaging with its content on a deeper level. By recording significant quotes and personal reflections, readers can develop a better understanding of the text’s themes, characters, and messages.

Is a double-entry journal the same as dialectical journal?

A double-entry journal is similar to a dialectical journal in that it involves recording quotes or passages from a text and personal reflections or analysis. However, a double-entry journal typically involves dividing the page into two columns, with one column dedicated to recording quotes and the other column dedicated to personal reflections or connections.