What is Expressive Writing?

If you’ve looked around this site a little, you might be wondering: what is expressive writing?

In the field of psychology, for 30 years the field of expressive writing, which includes variations of writing about one’s ‘deepest thoughts and feelings’ for 15-20 minutes over several days, has been widely researched.

In a review of these numerous studies, it has been generally determined that such written “disclosure” is in many, though not all, cases “beneficial for one’s psychological health, physical health, and overall functioning” [1].

How does expressive writing help?

It is called expressive writing because emotional expression is integral to the success of the intervention, i.e. people do not tend to benefit when they write the facts of the trauma alone.

James Pennebaker has remained the leading researcher in the field since his 1986 paper on writing to confront a traumatic event. Since then, there have been studies on everything from how writing helps you sleep, to how writing helps in coping with job loss, and even writing to mend a broken heart.

The Expressive Writing Intervention

The standard expressive writing task focuses on trauma. Here are the typical instructions:

For the next 3 days, I would like for you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie this trauma to your childhood, your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends or relatives. You may also link this event to your past, your present or your future, or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or about different topics each day. Not everyone has had a single trauma but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors—and you can write about these as well. All of your writing will be completely confidential. Don’t worry about spelling, sentence structure, or grammar. The only rule is that once you begin writing, continue to do so until your time is up.” [2]

If you’re interested in exploring the field further you can read more about expressive writing here.

Writing to be happier?

In my own research, rather than looking at how writing heals trauma, I have explored writing with positive emotions, writing when things go right and writing for wellbeing.

Interested to learn more? I’ve got some tips on how you can get started writing for happiness.


[1] Frattaroli, J. (2006). Experimental disclosure and its moderators: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6): 865.

[2] Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2011). Expressive writing: Connections to physical and mental health. The Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology: 419