UT professors weigh in on the importance of expressive writing

Caroline Betik

“Dear Diary …” flashbacks of pining over a middle school crush and writing grammatically incorrect love poems are inevitably what accompanies that phrase when you think about writing down important aspects of your life in a notebook or journal.

While the common entry phrase may be tacky and outdated, writing down important facts about your day is actually a common experience among many people and can benefit your health in many ways.

Psychology professor James Pennebaker said many forms of writing have proven to be helpful. Improvements in physical health and immune function, better sleep and more social engagement for weeks afterward are among the many benefits of expressive writing found in research.

“Writing helps you clear your mind and helps you put things together,” Pennebaker said. “The beauty of writing is it helps you get a better understanding of what has happened. It slows the process down and ties things together giving your brain time to process everything.”

Pennebaker said expressive writing, which is similar to journaling, is defined as setting aside time to write for 15–20 minutes a day. If a person is thinking about something too much, he said setting aside a time to write about it is good for you.

Speech pathology junior Melanie Looper said routine writing has helped her concentrate and organize her thoughts while practicing her faith. She said taking 15 minutes a day to record her thoughts while reading the Bible allows her to process scripture and apply what she has learned to life.

“It’s just a good way to put everything I have in my brain down on paper, and I like to reflect on it later to see how I have grown,” Looper said. “Last spring, I was wrestling with a lot of thoughts consuming my brain which were getting in between my relationship with the Lord. That is when I journaled more than I normally would, and it made me feel a lot better getting it all out.”

Charlotte Land, a doctoral candidate and writing professor, said a notebook is a place where you can record events of the day and capture ideas, to think through questions, try out stories or topics and respond to the world around you, allowing you to use the journaling in your work.

“I suggest writing as a daily routine,” Land said. “Writing can be a space for healing, discovering, contemplating, weighing choices or even just making what feels huge and abstract feel a little more concrete. What feels hard to think about seem a little less daunting or fleeting.”

Land, who teaches Rhetoric and Writing 306, makes students write in notebooks as an assignment. She said that many students have told her that keeping a notebook benefit them.

“It gave them a place to think through everything that’s going on in their lives and the world,” Land said. “I think that kind of space can be particularly important for college students who are often living somewhere new, building new and sometimes breaking old relationships, making big decisions about their futures, on top of all the things that just come with living life.”

However, Pennebaker said while many people reap the psychological benefits of keeping a journal, it may not work for everyone. He suggests students try different tactics for maintaining their mental health until they find what works for them.

“Maybe writing will be good for you but when you try again in six months it doesn’t work,” Pennebaker said. “No big deal, try something else. If you are doing something and you are not feeling better from it ­— for crying out loud — try something else.”