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Becoming Writerly

Discover the psychological benefits of habitual writing

Liam Anderson/Pexels
Discover how writing can help you
Source: Liam Anderson/Pexels

I was not born a writer. In fact, for the majority of my life, I loathed writing. I struggled to string a sentence together. I always felt dumb because grammar and syntax were inscrutable to me. Every college paper I got back from my professor had positive remarks for content, but a number of red marks for grammar. I always felt jealous of those who were semantically inclined. I felt like they were superior beings, while my knuckle-dragging brain was barely making it through school. It wasn't until the summer I got married that I discovered the joys of writing.

Marriage is a wonderful thing, but I was unaccustomed to sharing a bed with someone. And me being me, a 6'7" 260-pound man, didn't share a bed roomily. Night after night, I would lie restless next to my beautiful bride, unable to fall asleep. One night it occurred to me that I could stay in bed for hours praying for the sleep, or I could get up and occupy the next few hours with something productive. I chose to sit at my desk and write. That was almost eight years ago and I have never been the same since.

That night introduced me to one of the greatest and most beneficial addictions of my life. And yes, I said addiction. I am, without equivocation, addicted to writing. If I could write and research all day, every day, I would. Writing has unlocked a number of hidden aspects of my brain and personality. As a result of writing on a daily/weekly basis, I noticed my thinking sharpen, I could speak in a more articulate manner, I could better construct and verbalize a position.

The very nature of thinking and exploring different points of view seemed more accessible and less arduous. Thought transformed from something burdensome and difficult to something exciting. I enjoyed the company of my own mind. I felt enriched after self-reflection. These were the manifold deliverances of writing. But I am not a walking anecdote. The benefits I discovered by writing down my thoughts have been validated by a number of researchers exploring the psychological and health benefits of writing. Benefits you can capture by writing on a regular basis.

You might be thinking "But I'm not a writer! I can barely string a sentence together. I'm never going to be Hemingway." You don't have to be Hemingway. You don't have to become a writer to experience the benefits of writing. In fact, you can experience a benefit by writing for as little as two minutes a day [1]. So breathe a sigh of relief. You don't have to write a novel.

The kind of writing that researchers have been studying was developed by psychologist James Pennebaker in the 1980's, which he called expressive writing. Expressive writing is writing down your thoughts and feelings about a specific topic such as a traumatic event or a positive memory for a 15 or 20-minute interval over the course of several weeks.

Since Pennebakers' initial conceptualization of expressive writing and its benefits to mental and physical health, a number of studies have replicated his findings and discovered other benefits such as subjective wellbeing, improved cognitive functioning, improved learning and recall, and interpersonal healing. The following a cursory examination of a few major findings, but as more research is done, more benefits are being discovered.

Researchers have founds that writing about the perceived benefits of a traumatic event can reduce doctor visits and improve overall well-being [2]. King and Miner (2000) found that study participants were better able to find meaning by writing about a traumatic event [3]. Furthermore, researchers have found that writing can help reduce rumination and depressive thoughts [4] [5]. It seems that writing about a painful, stressful, traumatic and or negative life event can help you organize complex feelings and thoughts. And the more specific you can be when writing about the emotional event the better. Vrielynck, Philippot, & Rime (2010) found that the level of specificity was correlated to the level of relief, greater specificity led to greater relief [6]. Putting thought and feeling to paper gives the writer a sense of clarity -- they can stand outside of their pain and evaluate it, find the meaning, find healing.

However, the benefits of writing are not limited to writing about the traumatic, the stressful and the negative. Quite the opposite. Writing about positive life events can increase a greater sense of wellbeing. Burton and King (2004) found that writing about positive memories enhances positive emotional state [7].

Additionally, writing with time for reflection increases life satisfaction by reducing the intensity of emotion when processing a negative life event. Whereas simply reflecting on positive life events, without writing, enhanced life satisfaction [8]. A strange but interesting takeaway is that writing gives psychological distance from pain, which is advantageous when feeling pain. Whereas, writing is not advantageous when feeling joy. It's beetter to experience a present joy — writing forces you to stand outside of it. However, writing about a past joy can call it into the present.

Expressive writing helps with emotional self-regulation [9]. Writing helps people process interpersonal wounds and find forgiveness [10]. Personally, I've also found writing to be helpful with assertiveness. When you can write your own assertiveness script down before having a difficult conversation, you will be more likely to speak boldly.

The power of writing helps reduce the pain of the negative and increase the joy of the positive, but it can also give you more brainpower. Burton and King (2009) found that writing increases levels of global cognitive focus [11]. Expressive writing increases the capacity of working memory by offloading the brainpower consumed by anxiety [12]. Writing about negative life experiences reduces intrusive and avoidant thinking [13]. Writing also helps with the learning process [14]. Writing helps organize your thoughts in a coherent manner [15]. And writing helps you expand your emotional range. Wong & Rochlen (2009) found that writing about emotional topics helped young men who struggled with restrictive emotionality [16], which is of great interest to me since I work with so many men who suffer the consequences of low Emotional Intelligence.

Hopefully, this information gives you a sense of how important and helpful a regular practice of writing can have on your life. This bears repeating since it is important. You can experience the benefits of writing by writing a minimum of two minutes. Two minutes! If you don't have two minutes to spare then you really need to rethink your life choices. You can devote two minutes a day to expressive writing. You don't have to be Hemingway. You don't have to write a novel. Your writing can even be terrible. The quality of the writing has no bearing on the benefit you will receive. So, stop reading my writing and go do some writing of your own!

References

[1] Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2008). Effects of (very) brief writing on health: The two‐minute miracle. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13(1): 9-14.

[2] Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2011). Expressive writing: Connections to physical and mental health. In: Friedman HS, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 417–37.

[3] King, L. A., & Miner, K. N. (2000). Writing about the perceived benefits of traumatic events: Implications for physical health. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(2): 220-230.

[4] Sloan, D. M., Marx, B. P., Epstein, E. M., & Dobbs, J. L. (2008). Expressive writing buffers against maladaptive rumination. Emotion, 8(2): 302.

[5] Gortner, E. M., Rude, S. S., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms. Behavior Therapy, 37(3): 292-303.

[6] Vrielynck, N., Philippot, P., & Rimé, B. (2010). Level of processing modulates benefits of writing about stressful events: Comparing generic and specific recall. Cognition and Emotion, 24(7): 1117-1132.

[7] Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2004). The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences. Journal of Research in Personality, 38(2): 150-163.

[8] Lyubomirsky, S., Sousa, L., & Dickerhoof, R. (2006). The costs and benefits of writing, talking, and thinking about life's triumphs and defeats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(4): 692–708.

[9] King, L. A. (2002). Gain without pain? Expressive writing and self-regulation. In S. J. Lepore & J. M. Smyth (Eds.), The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (p. 119–134). American Psychological Association.

[10] McCullough, M. E., Root, L. M., & Cohen, A. D. (2006). Writing about the benefits of an interpersonal transgression facilitates forgiveness. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(5): 887–897.

[11] Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2009). The health benefits of writing about positive experiences: The role of broadened cognition. Psychology and Health, 24(8): 867-879.

[12] Park, D., Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2014). The role of expressive writing in math anxiety. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(2), 103–111.

[13] Klein, K., & Boals, A. (2001). Expressive writing can increase working memory capacity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(3): 520–533.

[14] Nevid, J. S., Pastva, A., & McClelland, N. (2012). Writing-to-learn assignments in introductory psychology: Is there a learning benefit? Teaching of Psychology, 39(4): 272-275.

[15] Melissa Craft, M. S. (2005). Reflective writing and nursing education. Journal of Nursing Education, 44(2): 53.

[16] Wong, Y. J., & Rochlen, A. B. (2009). Potential benefits of expressive writing for male college students with varying degrees of restrictive emotionality. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 10(2): 149.

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