Research into Writing as a Therapeutic Tool



An increasing body of research is exploring the effectiveness of expressive/therapeutic writing in many contexts including, but not limited to: relationships, health issues, self-esteem, grief, and trauma.


James Pennebaker
( of the University of Texas is the name most associated with research in this area. His work began with studies of self-disclosure. His most recent book Opening Up by Writing It Down, co-authored with Joshua Smyth, also a noted researcher, is a well-spring of information about the benefits of what they refer to an expressive writing. They document the outcome of a multitude of studies on various physical and psychological conditions. I appreciate that they also draw attention to matters of ethics and point out that writing may not be for everyone or every condition. If you intend to do research or are interested in a very readable summary of the research in this area, you will find Opening Up by Writing It Down by James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth an excellent resource.


This part of the web site will provide you with a brief summary of findings of various studies. There is no particular theme to the selected studies. When possible the full reference for the study will be included for readers who would like to look at methodology and analysis information.

Writing and Marriage

Eli Finkel and his colleagues of Northwestern University surveyed 120 couples for two years about their relationship satisfaction. There was no intervention in the first year. That is, participants were not directed to write anything. In the second year, the group was divided in two. One group continued to simply fill out the surveys. The other group was asked to complete three seven-minute writing tasks over the course of the year. They were instructed to write about arguments that they had in the previous months from “the perspective of a theoretical neutral third party”. The couples in the writing group were found to have greater relationship satisfaction at the end of the second year than the couples who did not participate in the writing task.


Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict-reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24, 1595-1601.

Work Place Injustice

The researchers explored the benefit of writing about workplace injustice. One hundred participants were randomly assigned to write on 4 consecutive days about (a) their emotions, (b) their thoughts, (c) both their emotions and their thoughts surrounding an injustice, or (d) a trivial topic. Participants in the emotions and thoughts condition reported higher psychological well-being, fewer intentions to retaliate, and higher levels of personal resolution than did participants in the other conditions. Participants in the emotions and thoughts condition also reported less anger than did participants who wrote only about their emotions.


BarclayL. J., & Skarlicki, D. P. (2009). Healing the wounds of organizational injustice: Examining the benefits of expressive writing. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 511-523. DOI: 10.1037/a0013451.

Breast Cancer 
(Expressive writing in early breast cancer survivors.)

One hundred and twenty participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: a control group (no writing) or one of three expressive writing groups: breast cancer trauma, any self-selected trauma, and facts related to breast cancer. Participants wrote 20 minutes a day for 4 consecutive days. Their quality-of-life was measured at the beginning of the study, at 1 month, and at 6 months after writing. The findings revealed that expressive writing about one’s breast cancer, breast cancer trauma, and facts related to breast cancer, significantly improved the quality-of-life outcome. The authors concluded that expressive writing, focusing the instructions on writing about one’s living and dealing with a diagnosis of breast cancer, is recommended for early breast cancer survivors as a feasible and easily implemented treatment approach to improve quality-of-life.

Craft MA, Davis GC, Paulson RM. (2013). Journal of Advanced Nursing. Feb;69(2):305-15. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2012.06008.x.  Epub 2012 Apr 11.



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