On writing: the good, the bad, and the ugly

There are three kinds of people in the world: people who love to write, people who hate to write, and everybody in between. (Okay, there are more than just three kinds of people, but for the sake of explanation let's remember the extremes.)

For people who don’t like writing, doing it in any form might feel like a grade school punishment: for these people writing can be tedious, effortful, boring. 

Here’s the deal with writing, though:  whether you enjoy it or not, the act of putting pen to paper (if done in the right way) can have some pretty amazing psychological and physical benefits. These benefits include:

- a boosted immune system

- improved psychological functioning

- increased positive feelings

(Check out the studies here)

Essentially, writing can just make you feel better. Jotting down the thoughts swimming around in our heads can organize them, allow us to make sense of them, and provide a framework for going forward.

In fact, an intentional writing practice might even help you find a job…

In a study of people who had been unemployed for eight months, one group was assigned to write about their feelings around the loss: emotions, thoughts, how they had been affected. Another group was assigned to write about something benign (like their day or the weather), while a third group didn’t write at all. After five days of writing (30 minutes a night) the researchers tracked the employment status of the three groups going forward.

Guess which group was re-employed more quickly?

 The group who wrote about their job loss.

The researchers found that it was in the “expressive writing” condition that people reframed old attitudes and formed new ones; this may have allowed them to become gainfully employed sooner.

This example gets us to the “right” kind of writing (if you're looking to bring about an emotional shift, that is): expressive writing.

What is “expressive” writing?

Expressive writing is the kind that you do when you know it’s for your eyes only. It’s raw, unfiltered, and honest; it casts aside the rules of punctuation, bids farewell to being “acceptable” and politically correct, and just...flows. While expressive writing can mean creative, truthful, or lots of things in between, it can be most transformative when going through something upsetting or uncomfortable.


Because writing about a situation can take it out of your head and on to the page. Putting a pen to paper allows us to take an objective perspective, find some truth, feel the feelings we might wish we didn’t have...and move on.

That fight you had with your spouse earlier? Try writing about it as an observer. The awkward situation at work? Dictate how it went down from the ceiling’s perspective.

When I’m full of fear or just feeling uncomfortable (and the writing isn’t just flowing out) there are a series of questions that I ask myself on paper, tracing them further and further and just watching the thoughts tumble out:

What am I afraid of?

What evidence do I have for this fear?

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

How likely is this?

What are alternative explanations?

What’s the best thing that could happen?

What can I do to address this?

Writing like this can shift us out of rumination and into ideas; it can allow us to realize what’s there and then be able to address it.  

Personally, I’ve fallen into the I-love-writing-camp for as long as I can remember (hence the illegible scribble from my earliest journal, pictured below.) But even for those who feel writing is a battle to be fought, I hope this post has encouraged you to put down your sword and pick up a pen.

A couple of nights per week, close the door and just see what comes out on paper. It’s amazing what can happen when you let it all flow: by sorting through the bad and the ugly, you might just be left feeling the good.

The illegible writing of 5 year old me