Why you should consider expressive writing

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If you’ve never tried expressive writing, this post-pandemic milieu may provide the perfect time for you…

Readers and clients often ask me if I believe in “free writing”.

In case you’ve never heard the term, it refers to writing about anything — whatever is at the top of your mind — with no judgment or concern for either subject or quality. Or even spelling.

You may be more familiar with “morning pages” – Julia Cameron’s famous system for encouraging people to express themselves in handwriting, each morning, with a totally open-minded idea to whatever shows up on the page.

But today, I want to talk about expressive writing which shares some similarities with free writing and morning pages, but is also different.

Expressive writing is for people who have been through some sort of trauma or emotional struggle. Dealing with the COVID pandemic counts, so you almost certainly qualify to write expressively if the idea interests you. 

I also qualify because my 28-year old daughter, Alison, died of a brain tumour last summer. 

I haven’t been public about this loss because, for a time, it was better for me to dive back into work and not have to deal with other people’s unpredictable and often emotional reactions to the death of a young person. 

As well, my husband and I were physically and mentally exhausted after a full year of caring for Alison in our home with seemingly endless trips to the cancer agency, the ER department and ongoing negotiations with countless doctors and social service agencies. She had significant unresolved pain during her final month, which made everything more difficult for her and for us.

My husband and I have both had counseling but the trauma of this family-changing event will continue for many years, I know. Hence my interest in expressive writing.

Developed by social psychologist James Pennebaker in 1986, expressive writing is a way for you to explore the feelings you have related to trauma or emotional upset. Since then, more than 200 research studies have demonstrated that expressive writing (sometimes called emotional writing) can improve people’s physical and emotional health. The research found that people who wrote about personal upheavals for 15 minutes a day over three or four days, visited doctors for health concerns less frequently and reported greater psychological well-being. 

In his famous book, Opening Up by Writing it Down, Pennebaker describes how to do it:

“Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed. Ideally, pick a time at the end of your workday or in the evening when you know things will be calm and quiet. Promise yourself that you will write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least three or four consecutive days, or a fixed day and time for several weeks (for example, every Thursday evening for this month). 

“Once you begin writing, write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you have already written. You can write longhand or you can type on a computer. If you are unable to write, you can also talk into a tape recorder. You can write about the same thing on all days of writing or you can write about something different each day. It is entirely up to you.”

He also stipulates you shouldn’t show your expressive writing to anyone else. It is only for you. You can choose to shred it, burn it, scribble over it or tear it into little pieces. Or, if you want to be able to review it later, hide it somewhere on your hard-drive with a benign file name or use a password to protect it.

It’s also important to know that this type of writing may make you feel worse, at least temporarily. But that feeling should pass quickly. On the other hand, if you’re writing and ever believe that you’re being pushed over the edge, then stop. You’re not meant to write about that yet. 

The most healing writing, according to researchers, should contain concrete and explicit detail. The writer should aim to connect feelings and emotions with events. This allows the writer to become a narrator — with the power to observe and make sense — rather than just a victim. 

According to a 2019 study, expressive writing increases resilience, and decreases depressive symptoms, perceived stress, and rumination among those reporting trauma. 

Writing expressively can do many things for you. It can help you cope with challenging situations, it can help you make meaning out of something that feels random and unbearable, it can teach you about yourself, and it will give you hope.

In my case, it hasn’t made the loss of my daughter any easier, but it’s helped me to cope with it better. 

And, as an enormous bonus, the lessons of expressive writing — write frequently, pay no attention to quality, do it for a relatively short amount of time — will also help you become a better, more comfortable writer all across the board. 


My video podcast last week addressed how to be a better editor for the work of others. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.  


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


Have you ever tried expressive writing? Did you find it helpful? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Sheri, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a May 23/23 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Sheri.) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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