I’ve been writing professionally for over two decades, as well as teaching other writers. I’m always looking for research that confirms the benefits of being expressive in writing, and I’ve seen evidence that it can improve your outlook, provide a sense of momentum, offer structure in the midst of chaos, strengthen your memory, and just plain bring you joy. It can even reduce symptoms of illness and increase your social reach.
Following are five tips for using writing to your benefit:
1. Don’t just write, revise. The process of writing and editing one’s personal narrative increases opportunities for personal reflection and life choices.
One study assigned insecure college freshmen at Duke University into control and experimental groups. In narratives, all had questioned their ability to keep up. The experimental group was exposed to information that they were not alone, including taped interviews with successful students who’d initially struggled. This provided an opportunity for the subjects to relate to others like themselves and reconsider their self-concept narratives. Compared to the control group, the students in the experimental group substantially improved their performance, both short- and long-term, and many more of them continued with their education.
Revising makes us look at what we’ve stated and think about whether it’s what we really believe or want to say.
2. Use regular journal exercises to express your inner life.
James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, asked students to write for 15 minutes a day. They could choose an important personal issue or a superficial topic. The students who wrote about personal issues, Pennbaker discovered, had fewer illnesses and visits to the student health center. “I think of expressive writing as a life course correction,” he said. "When we translate an experience into language we essentially make the experience graspable."
This kind of exercise, others have found, also improves emotional intelligence.
3. Use writing to actively engage with your life. It can provide a blueprint for moving forward.
Dr. Marian Diamond at the University of California at Berkeley found evidence to support the idea that the dorsolateral cortex, the brain’s planner, also communicates with the immune system. When she discovered that mice with a small DC did not produce immune cells, she tested an idea on humans. Several groups of women played contract bridge, a game that requires planning, strategy, and a good memory, while others passively listened to music. After an hour, those involved in the game showed increased immune cell production, but the music listeners received no such benefit.
As an activity, writing offers ways to think ahead and envision where you want to go, as well as describing the steps needed to get there.
4. Use writing to develop mental agility, the ability to see things from many angles. For example, try writing about a common object like a rug in a unique new way. Then do another one. This exercise contributes to creativity, aha! moments, and mental resilience.
While writing and revising, you generally search for new ways to say something, which calls on the brain’s association cortex.
Neuropsychiatrist Nancy Andreason suggests that the brain is a self-organizing system of feedback loops that constantly generates new thoughts, sometimes spontaneously. The association cortex gathers a lot of diverse information, which creates conditions for unique and surprising interactions. If you practice perceptual flexibility and openness while writing, you can benefit from these feedback loops.
5. Write, at least occasionally, in longhand. Research shows that it has a calming effect, actively engages the mind, and improves your memory of what you write in ways that typing cannot achieve.
"One key difference is movement,” says Dr. Marc Seifert, author of The Definitive Book of Handwriting Analysis. “That involves the motor cortex of the brain, so ... you are using more of the brain than when you simply type.” Even if you have poor penmanship, the act of writing in longhand requires more mental effort.
None of the above exercises needs to be solitary. They work as well in a group, and sometimes the presence of other people doing the same thing can enhance the benefits.