What is expressive writing?

Expressive writing has been a hot topic recently, but what is it and how can it really help you feel better?

If, like us, you’re an avid listener of Michael Moseley’s podcast Just One Thing, you may have heard of the wonders of expressive writing and how it can be hugely beneficial for both our mental and physical health.

We’re here to demystify this powerful activity, briefly summarising the wealth of science-backed research that supports the world of writing for wellbeing.


What does ‘expressive writing’ mean?


The definition of expressive writing is ‘a form of therapeutic or personal writing that is focused on exploring and processing one’s emotions and thoughts’.

Expressive writing encourages you to communicate your thoughts, emotions and experiences in a free-flowing, unedited manner. It can be a meaningful yet simple everyday activity to set yourself up for the day or wind-down in the evening.


The intention of expressive writing is to help you gain insight into your own emotional and mental state, to better understand and come to terms with your experiences, and to support healing and personal growth.


If you find yourself jotting down thoughts or feelings in your notes app or journal you may be an unintended expressive writer already. The truth is, expressive writing can take many forms, whether it be journaling, creative writing, poetry, or even letter writing.

The only ‘rule’ (and we say that loosely) of writing is that you’re honest and sincere. You should be expressing yourself freely and without fear of judgment.

Put grammar and spelling aside, and just focus on how you feel.


Can expressive writing really help you feel better?


According to a plethora of research, expressive writing can have plenty of notable positive effects. It’s been linked to reduced stress, improved immune function, and improved mental health wellbeing (namely reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety).


  • A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that expressive writing can lead to improvements in immune function. Participants who wrote about a traumatic or stressful event for 20 minutes on three consecutive days showed stronger immune system functioning six weeks later compared to those who wrote about a neutral topic.
  • A review of 146 studies on expressive writing published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that expressive writing was associated with a range of positive health outcomes, including reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, improved immune function, and better coping with chronic illness. 
  • In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, college students who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about a personal experience for 15 minutes per day for four consecutive days reported greater psychological well-being and less physical symptoms than those who wrote about a neutral topic.

If you’d like to learn more about the research behind writing for wellbeing we recommend you read our ‘Ready Steady Flow‘ paper or Kate McBarron’s ‘What writing can do for you – When you want to improve your sleep‘ booklet.


Give it a try…


In her poem “The Summer Day”, prize-winning poet Mary Oliver asks the question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Now, I invite you to use this question as a prompt for your own writing.

  1. Read the quote carefully a couple of times.
  2. Then write instinctively, noting down whatever comes to mind and allowing your thoughts to flow onto the page.
  3. Write for at least 5 minutes.


Expressive writing can be an effective therapeutic tool and can help you reach goals and work on personal growth. It can also help you gain perspective when looking back on difficult times, and help you develop a sense of resilience and inner strength.


Want to build expressive writing into your everyday routine? Reap the benefits of writing, sign up to a free 14-day trial to WriteWell and join us for writing events, prompts, activities and much more! 


Sources: “Expressive Writing and Coping with Job Loss” by James W. Pennebaker and Janel D. Seagal and “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing” by Karen A. Baikie & Kay Wilhelm.

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