Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Power of Therapeutic Writing & Freewriting

The majority of posts for EIU Writes discuss matters that focus on college writing and professional writing.

For this post, however, I want to provide information about unstructured and personal writing that connect to important research done by James Pennebaker, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University Texas at Austin. In addition, scholars are using Pennebaker's research findings to influence pedagogy. For example, EIU's own Nia Klein wrote her excellent Master's thesis in English titled  It's Not Catharsis; It's Cognition: A New Approach to Emotion in Composition in 2010. And she's directed therapeutic writing groups for cancer survivors in the Champaign-Urbana area.

Pennebaker has produced important research over the past thirty years or so, and a recent article from Ode Magazine highlights his psychological research about therapeutic writing and how the words used in personal writing are markers of mental health and growth.

As Inge Schilperoord relates early on in "The Power of Pronouns," "Intuitively, we've known for centuries that this loose kind of writing [diaries, journals, freewriting] is good for our creativity. But what we didn't know until recently is that 15 minutes of free writing a day can help us fight cancer, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and loneliness--and that autobiographical writer who use a variety of pronouns (I and me but also we and you and they) laugh more and take fewer aspirins than those who stick to the first person singular."

Pennebaker and colleagues have done groundbreaking research about language use and the therapeutic uses of writing. And for those interested, on his departmental webpage, he has a page titled "Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice."

His advice coheres with the method of freewriting used in college writing classes made popular by Peter Elbow. As I enjoy saying when I introduce this activity and have my students freewrite in class, "Free your mind, and the ideas will follow." 

As evidenced by the page about "Freewriting & Focused Freewriting" by the Writing Across the Curriculum program at the University of Richmond, this method can be used in various classes, especially when analyzing important reading selections associated with the course. Freewriting can be used a powerful writing-to-learn activity to promote discussion, foster reflection, and help students make connections.

But what Pennebaker's research mostly focuses on is the therapeutic use of writing, and his recent book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, informs us that people "whose use of causal and insight words continued to increase as they wrote benefited the most, Pennebaker says. That's because causal-word use indicates that a person is making a story out of the experience" (Schilperoord). And "insight words" denote that a person is attempting to make sense of an experience.

Both Pennebaker's research about therapeutic writing and how instructors use freewriting in varied contexts remind me of a passage in "Reflections on Contemporary Currents in Writing Center Work" by Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede [Writing Center Journal 31.1 (2001)]. The authors describe how Lunsford and her student used conversation as a means of discovery: "as Andrea and the student sat there, he literally talked and wrote his way through his problem to a thesis -- a powerful one that was quite different from anything in his current draft. This is what we mean when we say that talking is important to writing and that writing, at its best, is 'epistemic' -- it creates knowledge rather than simply recording it" (16).

Like productive conversations in writing centers, freewriting and personal writing can create discoveries and support growth.


  1. That does it, we're free-writing in class today or tomorrow. These folks need project topics!

  2. And you can always blame my post if they complain.