In Teaching with Writing, Toby Fulwiler presents the findings of a 1981 study of writing in American schools that I believe is still valid today—even in universities and corporate training rooms across the country.
The study found that the majority of assignments involved transactional writing—the kind used to communicate information (as in essays and business letters).
The second most common type of writing was mechanical—the kind used to fill in the blanks, copy information off the blackboard, and take notes. In fact the study found that mechanical writing represented 24% of all classroom activity!
Imaginative writing—the kind used, for example, in writing poetry—came in a distant third and only occurred in English classes.
The fourth kind of writing—expressive—was almost completely absent from the classroom. Expressive writing is the kind of writing we do for ourselves. It is when we write our own thoughts down in order to play with an idea, look at it from different angles, and explore relationships.
In other words, the study concluded that “writing was taught almost exclusively as a means to communicate information rather than as a means to gain insight, develop ideas, or solve problems.”
Why expressive writing is so powerful
Writing to Learn & Create
According to Fulwiler,
Writing is basic to thinking about, and learning, knowledge in all fields.
Expressive writing helps us brainstorm ideas, invent new solutions, and acquire and synthesize knowledge. It helps us discover what we really think and feel about a subject. And it helps us come up with insights that would otherwise have remained unconscious.
James Van Allen expressed this well when he said:
The mere process of writing is one of the most powerful tools we have for clarifying our own thinking. I seldom get to the level of a publishable manuscript without a great deal of self torture and at least three drafts. My desk is littered with rejected attempts as I proceed. But there is a reward. I am never so clear about a matter as when I have just finished writing about it. The writing process itself produces that clarity. Indeed, I often write memoranda to myself solely for the purpose of clearing up my own thinking.
Writing to Heal
Expressive writing can also help us heal. Dr. James Pennebaker, Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Texas in Austin, states that:
Dozens of experiments have now been conducted by researchers in laboratories around the world. Writing about emotional upheavals has been found to improve the physical and mental health of grade-school children and nursing home residents, arthritis sufferers, medical school students, maximum security prisoners, new mothers, and rape victims. Not only are there benefits to health, but writing about emotional topics has been found to reduce anxiety and depression, improve grades in college, and, as we have seen, aid people in securing new jobs.
What this means to you
Because so many of us associate writing with memories of school essays covered with red marks, we would rather do just about anything than put our words down on paper! Yet such reluctance is doing us a great disservice.
Writing for ourselves opens up our brain’s ability to generate ideas, it expands our creativity, and it helps us heal—whether or not we understand what a split infinitive is or where a colon should go!
So sit down in a comfy chair, grab a cup of tea, put on some music and just write. You’ll be glad you did.