Health Benefits: Expressive Writing vs. Academic Writing


Writing has long been recognized as knowledge that can be earned through an academic degree. Even those who are born as talented writers are minimally appreciated unless they at least have a bachelor’s degree, knowing that undergraduate students have to pass through condensed writing courses in order to graduate. Unfortunately, very few people acknowledge the psychological and physical benefits that come along with academic writing but they still choose to go to universities that provide strong writing education just to fit in with the educated, empirical society. However, writing can be looked at from a different perspective, not in terms of the content but in terms of the writing process itself and the writer’s reflection on the topic. The latter perspective would very generally be referred to as expressive writing. Since there is not much research conducted about the health benefits of academic writing, the literature found on expressive writing will be mentioned and applied to academic writing with regard to the differences and similarities present between the two types of writing.

Expressive writing and its health benefits

diary1Expressive writing can be described as writing that expresses “major upheavals” in one’s life. It is writing that directly comes out from our innermost insecurities and it usually does not reflect on the events that take place but rather on one’s feelings and thoughts about these events. It is a type of writing used specially as a tool for stress management. Rather than repressing emotions such as anger and hostility for example, people reflect them in their writing and therefore ventilate these feelings. Simple examples of expressive writing would be a diary or a daily journal.

James Pennebaker has created a list of guidelines that one can follow while writing a journal in order to experience that positive effects that come along with expressive writing. The first and foremost important guideline is to allow yourself to explore all feelings and thoughts and especially the ones that are considered forbidden by the society and culture. Poon & Danoff-Burg believe that the forbidden ideologies are the ones that cause most distress because they are the most beliefs and emotions that are repressed and repression causes distress.  Many of the times people do not like to keep journals or do not express themselves with honesty in their writing because they’re simply afraid that someone would find it and read it. In fact, the second most important guideline that Pennebaker states is that one should write as though no one will ever read it and he advises people who are too worried about having their writing read, to still express themselves on paper and later tear it into pieces and throw it away.

In expressive writing, one does not need to take care of his/her spelling or punctuation and all the other “writing conventions”. In fact, the most successful and health beneficial journals are found to be ones in which the writers use more than one language to express him/herself. Sometimes one language many not have the vocabulary to describe certain emotions that another language has many words to describe or sometimes bilinguals can feel comfortable writing in one language and filling the missing vocabulary with another. Speaking about sketches and stick figures in the context of expressive writing is indeed considered a type of writing through which writers express their feelings and thoughts.

Facing your problems is not an easy task to do because there are many activities that we as humans participate in, which can very effectively impede our acknowledgement that there is a problem in the first place. For example, one of the major benefits of keeping a diary/ journal is that it gives the writer a fuller picture to his/her problem. When we are in a difficult situation, we tend to think about our behavior, what has been done and what could have been done to make things better which is great. Unfortunately, most of the time our thoughts get swept away and we end up ruminating about the negatives instead of focusing on finding the source of the problem and designing the solution. This leaves us confused and sometimes even depressed if the problem is a rather stressful one. This is why psychologists always advice clients who are confused about their situation and are unable to figure out where the source of their problem is to write it down on a piece of paper. Doing so somehow organizes the thoughts of the writer, helping him/her to reach a conclusion.  Moreover, one gets a wider perspective of the situation once it has been written down. In an argument for example, we often tend to victimize ourselves and neglect that other members of the violent negotiation might have got affected as well simply because we are too much focused on our own costs and benefits. However, once the argument has been written out on paper, we get to notice aspects that we couldn’t initially see.  Pennbaker concludes that expressive writing forces individuals to bring together the many facets of overwhelmingly complicated events.

Another psychological benefit that comes along with expressive writing is mindfulness and this benefit is significant especially when writers write about traumatic experiences that they have passed through. Psychiatrists compare expressive writing to exposure therapies in which clients experience repeated exposures to their traumatic experiences until they develop a coherent picture of the trauma. Similarly, repetitive writing about traumatic experiences not only allows the writer to get a clear idea of the whole experience but also helps him/her gain the ability to confront them without being threatened because the writers get to explore many hidden emotions and cognitions that they themselves probably did not know existed. This is because when people have masked emotions they tend to behave insecurely and aggressively, avoiding confrontation, as a way to protect themselves from being vulnerable.

A research conducted in North Carolina State University has proved that expressive writing inhibits intrusive thinking and one reason would be because one gets to ventilate their stress out on paper and therefore do not need to ruminate about it. However, the benefits of expressive writing are not just limited to advancements in our psychology. In fact, other studies that were conducted have shown that the participants have reduced the number of visits to their doctors while reporting that they significantly feel better. Biologically speaking, stress and trauma is known to suppress the immune system and therefore ventilating this stress on paper does not just prevent the side effects of stress from affecting our immune system but it actually improves the immune functioning by producing more antibodies and at a higher rate.

Expressive writing can also improve our working memory by altering our attention span and our cognitive overload. Our working memory is a “limited capacity system” that is part of our cognitive processes. The more emotionally loaded we are, the easier it is for us to get distracted while doing an operational task. In this case, there would be two types of material in our working memory: the task relevant and the task irrelevant which increases competition for resources in our working memory. Practicing expressive writing on a regular basis releases a lot of the tension that stems from stressful events and therefore reduces the amount of task irrelevant material that goes into our working memory and leaving more room and resources for task relevant material which increases our attention span.

On the other hand, expressive writing is not just beneficial in terms of writing about stressful events and trauma but it is also psychologically very constructive to write about positive things. King & Burton have conducted multiple studies that have proven that writing about realistic, achievable, future goals and objectives makes people happy. Other psychologists have concluded over a number of medical trials that writing about objectives in a ‘to do list’ manner creates the satisfaction of having a purpose to live in many people’s minds. In fact, writing every day about what you want to achieve in the near future reinforces your will to accomplish them. Researchers have also found that repeating your ‘to do list’ every day, even if it has the same task, improves one’s long term memory.

Moreover, when one writes about what s/he wants to accomplish everyday helps in bringing to their awareness flaws in their habits and behaviors, which stand in the way of reaching their goal. It is very interesting that my psychiatrists actually take advantage of the latter and implemented in their treatment plan especially for illnesses that are caused by health risk behaviors. For example, many of those who suffer from eating disorders: bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa are asked by their physician to keep a diary in which they write about their daily food and calorie intake and any compensatory behaviors that they participate in such as purging or cutting one’s self. In that way, the patients become consciously aware of all their wrong habits that contribute to their eating disorder. Heavy tobacco smokers are also treated in a similar manner. They are asked to keep a diary of how many cigarettes they smoked in a day and what were the situations under which they were smoking. In that way, both the physician and the patient would know what is it that really triggers the smoking behavior, is it that the patient smokes to fit in with his/her group of friends or is it because s/he is stressed for example. Plus the smoker will get a very clear idea of how many cigarettes s/he has smoked per day.

The Contrast between expressive writing and academic writing: features

It is important to note that there are many ways in which expressive writing differs from academic writing. The first and most important difference is that in expressive writing one need not take into consideration any writing conventions as mentioned above while in academic writing one should have a coherent paper that is free of spelling mistakes, comma splices and run-on sentences for example. Moreover, expressive writing is made up of text that is only for the writer to read while the text in academic writing is for everyone else to read. This means that the writer in the case of academic writing should tailor his/her text to fit with the qualities of his/her target audience or else the piece will be criticized and unaccepted in the academic field. This is why highly peer reviewed journal articles from example are considered credible enough to be believed. Authors get more than one perspective and opinion on their pieces by different highly skilled writers.

Another third difference between academic and expressive writing is the fact that academic writing usually focuses on one topic in a research paper. While on the other hand, one paper in expressive writing can contain many random thoughts and ideas that are not necessarily connected to one another. Plus, academic writing requires external sources to support the claims that an author makes in his/her paper and even these claims should be clearly unbiased and reliable but in expressive writing there is no need for the author to bring in opinions from experts or results of previously conducted research to talk about his/her personal goals or traumatic events.

The similarities: how teachers can facilitate the health benefits

On the other side of the spectrum, academic writing and expressive writing do overlap quite a lot in their psychological health benefits. First of all, people like to be heard and listened to and in both types of writing authors get to express themselves. It is true that in expressive writing authors are more free and less constrained than in academic writing but it is also true that authors can very much earn self-confidence simply because their pieces get read and appreciated by others. In fact, in expressive writing people gain self-confidence by ventilating out their vulnerabilities while in academic writing writers earn self-confidence because they work hard on trying to find the most reliable sources to use, to be unbiased in conveying their message and to keep the audience engaged and interested while reading. Therefore, gaining recognition and appreciation after putting in your paper a great deal of effort can make you appreciate yourself.

Applying all the health benefits of expressive writing to academic writing in a classroom can be very tricky. Sadly, not many tutors acknowledge that a research paper that students write as part of an assignment can make a huge difference in their psychological health more than in their academics. The teacher’s attitude and assignment requirements can highly affect how students actually benefit it. This means that the teacher is one of the major factors that contribute to having students grasp the full potential of a writing assignment or have a painful experience in fulfilling the needs of the assignment and not getting any health or academic benefits out of it.

As mentioned earlier, teachers can contribute highly to the extent to which a student can psychologically benefit from his/her writing assignment. For example, with reference to the point mentioned above about earning self-confidence, teachers can make a student feel appreciated or worthless with their criticisms. The type of feedback that the teacher gives the student makes a huge difference in the student’s psychology and in their future acceptance of writing assignments. It is a very sensitive concept to talk about and implement because each student requires a tailored strategy of critique and appraisal that fits his/her psychology.  Stipek said that when students are praised for performing well on an easy task, they perceive it as though their teachers do not see them as students who can perform well on difficult, competitive tasks and that lowers their self-confidence instead of boosting it. On the other hand, criticizing a student for performing badly on a task shows that the teacher has high expectations for a student.

Yet, the way a student is being criticized for mistakes makes a huge difference. Marshall has proposed a philosophy that he called ‘the formative process’ of critiquing students who are still learning to write an academic paper. He summarized a number of steps that a tutor/ teacher should follow in order to help students identify their mistakes rather than feel criticized and offended. The first step is to be prepared as a teacher to give examples of the right way in which things ought to be done. For example, if the student has grammatical mistakes, the teacher should be prepared to explain the reason why it is wrong and the right way of doing it. The second step is to separate your emotional biases from pointing out the student’s mistake. For example, if the student is an Arab and the teacher does not like to deal with Arabs s/he should let his/her emotions affect his/her judgment of the student’s work. The third step is to be specific in your comments about where the student went wrong. For example, do not give comments such as “your research paper is not good enough”. Instead, specifically mention the student’s mistakes by stating reasons why the paper is not good enough. The fourth step is to take into consideration that the student is probably enrolled in other courses and has other responsibilities to take care of. Which leads to the fifth step in which teachers should not assume that they know why the students did the mistakes they did. Lastly, the sixth step is that teachers should not express the latter. For example, teachers should not say “you will never start writing correctly as long as you do not attend classes” because in that sentence on its own the teacher has become authoritative by imposing on the student the s/he is guilty and will never be good enough.

Teachers can also control the student’s ability to express him/herself in an academic piece. As mentioned earlier, people like to be listened to and especially students who are still in the process of shaping their personality and ideologies. Many teachers do not allow students to choose the topic that they are going to write about and in many of the cases the output of the paper is not an excellent one. When a topic is being enforced on the students, they are not as motivated as compared to when they get to choose their own topic. When students choose a topic of their interest, they are in a way expressing themselves and their opinion about topics that matter to them. Therefore, they would put in much effort to prove their point of view and at this point a teacher should only be a director and not an imposer. S/he can guide students in terms of narrowing down their topic or being more focused on certain aspects of the topics.

Plus, expressive writing and academic writing overlap in its organization of thoughts. Yet, this organization is achieved differently in academic writing. Many writing teachers require their students to submit an outline of their research paper before starting to write the paper itself. In fact, outlining also promotes thinking and at the same time increases the capacity of the working memory just like expressive writing does by focusing our attention only on the points mentioned in the outline. Moreover, when you write down what you’ve brain stormed in a form of outline reinforces the points inside your head and therefore enhances your memory. If you for example lose your outline, you would still be able to remember majority of the points only because you wrote/typed them down in an outline form. What also contributes to the latter is our ability to visually learn and record the order in which the main points and sub points were listed.  Moreover, outlines help students see the bigger picture of what their research paper will be made up of and therefore they would know how to improve their paper, what to add and what to eliminate from the points at hand.

To conclude, expressive writing has many health benefits when one writes about trauma or stressful events and about positive goals and outcomes. These benefits include managing and ventilating stress, getting a wider perspective of one’s problem,, organizing one’s thoughts, being aware and mindful, confronting one’s own problems, inhibiting intrusive thinking, improving immune functioning, improving one’s working memory, feeling satisfied, improving one’s long term memory and pointing out health risk behaviors. Moreover, when contrasting the nature and health benefits of expressive writing to academic writing, they do overlap in some areas and mismatch in others. Most importantly, a teacher can play a huge role in influencing the extent to which a student can benefit from a writing assignment.

Mai Elsayed

A Mass Communication alumna from the American University of Sharjah. Loves writing about human related stories and factors that affect our psychological well being such as relationships, love and family.

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