Essential Writing Types 101: Expressive & Poetic Writing

Foreword:


Writing entertains, informs, persuades, explains, clarifies, and gives the author an avenue for creative and intelligent expression. Writers always have a purpose or goal, which dictates the style a writer must use when approaching composition. Essential Writing Types 101 aims to educate readers on six types one will encounter throughout their academic and professional writing careers. Each chapter will outline textual examples associated with the style and describe the characteristics that make these writing styles distinct. Due to the diversity of rhetorical contexts and audiences, understanding each writing style and the relationship between the purpose and its communicative function will facilitate more effective writers and communicators.


The following is divided into six main chapters:

  1. Descriptive Writing

  2. Narrative Writing

  3. Expository Writing

  4. Persuasive Writing

  5. Expressive & Poetic Writing

  6. Technical & Scientific Writing

Essential Writing Types 101: Expressive & Poetic Writing

Thus far, the Essential Writing Types 101 series has outlined writing types in which the author must remain conscious of the audience, especially as they disperse information that the audience needs. Yet, the audience is not typically the only consideration in expressive or poetic writing. The open-ended format values linguistic and compositional freedom for the author, and thus it makes it a highly regarded writing type. Sometimes the author’s words come from a place not based on an argument supported by credible sources, but instead, from a more imaginative and emotive source that resonates with readers as they relate to human experiences. The second to last chapter of the Essential Writing 101 series will describe the characteristics of expressive and poetic writing, and the therapeutic and social benefits it has for humanity to connect and become cognizant of one’s own inner emotions through writing.

Figure 1: The reader. Wierzy, J. 2021.

First, before defining the process and outlining the characteristics of expressive writing, one can make a decent assumption of the definition of this writing type based on the meaning of its parts. The word express is defined as “to make known the opinions or feelings of (oneself)” (Merriam Webster, n.d.). Thereby, this writing type is a mode of writing for a writer to convey their emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Some examples include journal entries, essays, memoirs, and poetry. Although expressive writing uses creative writing techniques to develop a narrative and invoke stark imagery by using clever figurative language, it does differ from creative writing. Patricia McAdoo (2014), a clinical psychologist working with children and adults in mental health services throughout Ireland and the UK, also describes it as ‘wild writing’:

It’s voicing our own thoughts on the page without the self-conscious voice we use in tweets and emails. [...] Research by cognitive scientists and developmental psychologists demonstrates that we rely on story-making as the main road-map for understanding and making sense of our experience (p. 33).

While the former reflects elements of creative and narrative writing, the latter tends to rely more on ideas extracted from pure imagination. Expressive writing is born out of the events in an individual’s life. Poetry, then, can fit into expressive writing because prose has long been inspired by the human experience such as the relationship between others, the self, and nature. Prose is "a literary medium distinguished from poetry especially by its greater irregularity and variety of rhythm and its closer correspondence to the patterns of everyday speech" (Merriam Webster, n.d.) and has existed as long as language, and later has been recorded in writing, spanning across a variety of cultures.

Figure 2: Yeditto. Oddis. 2016.

Due to the deeply personalized focus of expressive writing, it tends to function as the earliest mode of writing education for young students, as it motivates an individual to begin experimenting with writing. After all, writers write things they know, so centering the topic with oneself is a great way to practice introspection and experimentation with creative language and composition organization. In a practical purpose, it prepares students on how to ‘express’ themselves in interviews with employers as they describe their background, goals, and purposes. In a more abstract, metaphysical purpose, it allows a writer to come to terms with several, deeply impactful experiences that result in one’s identity and reactions to the world. While expressive writing grants more abstract language and free thought, it is not without strategy or structure. Cynthia Selfe and Sue Rodi (1980), instructors of composition and rhetoric at Ohio State University and the University of Texas respectively, discussed a heuristic to help teach expressive writing to students by identifying the two main challenges students face:

Student writing may, on the one hand, contain only a flow of personal events that appear to be unrelated to each other in any meaningful way. On the other hand, student writing may contain only a series of abstract concepts which are seemingly ungrounded in personal events, and hence, are less than believable (p. 170).
Figure 3: Creative Space. Hanke, J. 2022.

Therefore, expressive writing is meant for students to reflect on their life experiences and piece together these events into a narrative with a clear cause-and-effect timeline. Selfe and Rodi (1980) present the following structure of the heuristic in a three-by-three matrix that students can use to brainstorm an expressive piece:

Self-definition

Social

Definition

Environmental Definition

Past

What was I like at 5 years age?

How did others see me physically as a child?

What “things” helped me reach goals 10 years ago?

Present

What kind of person am I today?

How do others see me physically today?

What “things” do I utilize to reach my present goals?

Future

What kind of person will I be in 5 years?

How might others see me in the future?

​What “things” might I use to reach my future goals?

"The heuristic should be especially useful for students who, as a regular component of their composition class, are required to keep a journal and who run out of things to say after their first few entries” (p. 171). It is crucial to recognize that expressive writing’s informality and creativity also require structure and a cohesive timeline for the reader to follow. Expressive writing has much more personal significance to the author, but it should also have the ability to be easily followed by the reader to create understanding and connection. Novice writers can then explore and experiment with their unique, authorial voice.

Figure 4: Fill It With Colors. Hurca!TM. 2021.

Thus, expressive writing tends to be more centered on the author than the previously discussed writing types. The flexibility and individuality of expressive writing grant both creative and emotional freedom to an author. They may write not only what they feel comfortable with, but they can express and structure it in a way that they feel is best. For example, Sherry L. Beaumont (2018), a professor of Psychology at the University of Northern British Columbia, wrote a piece on art therapy that utilizes expressive writing as a reflective practice:

Expressive writing is obviously most suited to individuals who are comfortable with being verbal. However, there are many artists, writers, and expressive arts therapists who argue that using art-making with writing, in what is usually called visual or art journaling, offers people the synergistic benefits of both visual and verbal forms of expression. (p. 55).

Art journaling combines visual components and writing in a bound journal or on loose pages. Various poetry forms also include this style of poetry where the artist creates a representative artistic scene while highlighting the words of the prose. One can see a similar method of expressive writing in the process of integrating prose with visuals in “visual poetry” in the example pictured below.

Figure 5: After Picasso’s The Dream. Naomi, R. 2021.

Additionally, the emotivity of expressive writing requires a writer to identify an emotion, how it relates to an event or moment, and then describe its significance within the piece. Anna Ovaska (2017), a literary scholar working at Narrare (Centre for Interdisciplinary Narrative Studies) at Tampere University, analyzes the conveyance of depression in British playwright Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis (2001) and Finnish writer Maria Vaara’s autobiographical novel Likaiset legendat (The Dirty Legends) (1974). In her analysis, she makes the following observation:

The cognitive problems inherent in depression are often seen to have consequences also for writing about depression. [...] In both texts the monologue of the narrator-protagonists is interrupted by dialocigal elements (patient-therapist conversations) which may either be interpreted as hallucinatory (p. 368).

In other words, Ovaska identifies the main characteristic of expressive writing, which is the employment of a more abstract structure that matches the theme of the piece. An author can also play with language that gives the reader a window into the mindset (and even bodily sensations) of the author as they experience an event that is being narrated at that point in time. Ovaska (2017) cites the following example from Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis (2001): “There is a sense that one’s body is separate, either a barrier between the self and the world, or something that is separated from one’s self:

‘Here am I and there is my body dancing on glass’” (p. 366).

Surely, the emotions expressed in just these few words exemplify the power of expressive writing where the narrated raw emotion makes the reading experience even more impactful. The unique, free-form arrangement of the aforementioned example also demonstrates some poetic tendencies of expressive writing. Stories allow humans to relate and learn from one another, which makes expressive writing an essential writing type to exercise creativity and encourage emotional maturity and self-growth.

Figure 6: Book Day. Tania, T. 2021.

Due to the self-reflective nature of expressive writing, it is no surprise that it is commonly used in therapeutic settings. Annalisa Tonarelli et. al (2017), researchers in medicine at various healthcare centers, universities, and scientific institutes throughout Italy, recommend that expressive writing be used as a tool in healthcare. In the last 25 years, studies showed that "writing on deeper thoughts and sensations related to emotional events, is a useful tool to alleviate both physical and psychological symptoms" (p. 14). These promising results have inspired psychologists to continue researching the benefits of writing in patients since the 80s and 90s. One of the earliest empirical studies conducted on expressive writing’s impact in the clinical context was by Pennebaker and Beal (1987). These researchers from the University of Texas studied patients struggling with long-term health issues due to traumatic events by utilizing the Basic Writing Paradigm which is detailed as the following:

[The Basic Writing Paradigm] consists of a laboratorial trial that asks two or more experimental groups to write about assigned topics for 3 to 5 consecutive days, 15 to 30 min each day. The results demonstrate that writing about upsetting experiences, although painful in the days of writing, produces long-term improvements in mood and indicators of well-being compared with writing about control topics (as cited in Costa & Abreu, 2018, p. 75).

Ever since the 80s, such studies have been revisited and retried in various clinical settings and contexts. Janice Joplin (2000), an associate Dean in the School of Business at Southern Illinois University, first reports on the positive use of expressive writing in a clinical context where patients who engaged with expressive writing about traumatic and chronic health conditions produced decreased health center visitations. The writing exercise helped "participants alter their memories of the traumatic events and provide sustenance for weathering life’s stressful events" (p. 124-125). Joplin's findings indicate that this way of writing even serves as a way for one to successfully navigate trauma and strengthens compositional techniques.

Figure 7: Illustration for Guardian Weekly. Tkach, V. 2022.

Clearly, these findings have added to the evidentiary research of using art as a coping mechanism that can be a cathartic process of self-discovery. Ana Catarina Costa and Manuel Viegas Abreu (2018), researchers at The University of Coimbra, concluded that expressive writing could be used as a potential option in an individual’s therapy plan:

Some studies tend to confirm the idea that giving a significant content or a narrative form to expressive writing texts will be more beneficial. This makes us think that writing fictional narratives may be an appealing practice to be tried in the therapeutic context. There are plenty of self-expressing literary genres (fictional stories and narratives, poetry) and each person may tend spontaneously to a specific genre or can be conducted to a certain genre by a therapist (p. 83).

Not only does the research consistently show a positive trend in expressive writing concerning health, but it further underscores how expressive writing brings forth empathy, and sometimes inspiration, on a sociological level between the author and audience.


In conclusion, expressive writing promotes the raw experiences of humanity, and its concentration on the author allows for more diverse compositions. The fundamental feelings emoted from expressive writing connect audiences and writers, and the unique narrative that encompasses these emotions constructs a message about life that everyone can learn from. Candace Spigelman (1996), a former associate professor of English at Penn State Berks, summarizes the goal of instructing expressive writing:

[Expressive writing pedagogy advocates] do not want students to have to choose between what they see as the goals of writers (personal, expressive, invested, assertive) and the goals of academics (historical, analytical, critical, tentative). These theorists argue that personal expressive writing is of value to students and instructors, that it is intrinsically social, and that it too can be used to do academic work (p. 122).
Figure 8: Floating Imagination. Hurca!TM. 2021.

Indeed, the practice of expressive writing, and also at times poetic, is beneficial for the internalities of themselves while simultaneously using that voice in writing to strengthen positive social outcomes. Richard Slatcher and James Pennebaker (2006), researchers of psychology at the University of Texas, draw the following conclusion on their study of the social effects of expressive writing: “Expressive writing may serve to strengthen the relational connections of a broad array of social channels, particularly for persons who have not had extensive experience expressing emotions to others” (p. 663). Therefore, expressive writing does not necessarily exist in a vacuum, and even the effects of private expressive writing can be felt in the relationships of the writer as they embrace their experiences and move forward throughout the world with an awareness they may not have gained otherwise.




Biographical Sources

Costa, A. C., & Abreu, M. V. (2018). Expressive and creative writing in the therapeutic context: From the different concepts to the development of writing therapy programs. Psychologica, 61(1), 69–86. https://doi.org/10.14195/1647-8606_61-1_4 Retrieved from https://digitalis-dsp.uc.pt/bitstream/10316.2/43571/1/Expressive%20and%20creative%20writing%20in%20the%20therapeutic%20context.pdf


express. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/express


Janice Joplin. (2000). The therapeutic benefits of expressive writing. The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005), 14(2), 124–125. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4165642


McAdoo, P. (2014). Expressive writing. Books Ireland, 355, 33–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24622041


Ovaska, A. (2017). Detuned selves: evoking and conveying affects and emotions in depression writing. In I. Jandl, S. Knaller, S. Schönfellner, & G. Tockner (Eds.), Writing emotions: theoretical concepts and selected case studies in literature (pp. 363–378). Transcript Verlag. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1wxt3t.23


Pennebaker, J. W. (2018). Expressive writing in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 226–229. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617707315 Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1745691617707315


prose. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prose


Selfe, C. L., & Rodi, S. (1980). An invention heuristic for expressive writing. College Composition and Communication, 31(2), 169–174. https://doi.org/10.2307/356371


Sherry L. Beaumont (2018) The art of words: expressive writing as reflective practice in art therapy (L’art des mots : l’écriture expressive comme pratique réflexive en art-thérapie), Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 31:2, 55-60, DOI: 10.1080/08322473.2018.1527610 Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08322473.2018.1527610?needAccess=true


Slatcher, R. B., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). How do I love thee? Let me count the words: the social effects of expressive writing. Psychological Science, 17(8), 660–664. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40064431


Spigelman, C. (1996). Teaching expressive writing as a narrative fiction. JAC, 16(1), 119–140. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20866065


Tonarelli, A., Cosentino, C., Artioli, D., Borciani, S., Camurri, E., Colombo, B., D'Errico, A., Lelli, L., Lodini, L., & Artioli, G. (2017). Expressive writing. A tool to help health workers. Research project on the benefits of expressive writing. Acta bio-medica : Atenei Parmensis, 88(5S), 13–21. https://doi.org/10.23750/abm.v88i5-S.6877




Visual Sources

Figure 1: Wierzy, J. (2021). The reader [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/16187483-The-reader/attachments/8046170?mode=media


Figure 2: Oddis. (2016). Yeditto [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.behance.net/gallery/42137821/Yeditto?tracking_source=search_projects%7Cwriter


Figure 3: Hanke, J. (2022). Creative Space [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/18341088-Creative-Space


Figure 4: Hurca!TM. (2021). Fill It With Colors [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/15815627-Fill-It-With-Colors


Figure 5: Naomi, R. (2021). After Picasso’s The Dream [Painting]. Retrieved from http://heritageetal.blogspot.com/2021/01/rachael-naomis-visual-poetry-exhibition.html


Figure 6: Tania, T. (2021). Book Day [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/15528887-Book-Day/attachments/7308600?mode=media


Figure 7: Tkach, V. (2022). Illustration for Guardian Weekly [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/17945809-Illustration-for-Guardian-Weekly/attachments/13126041?mode=media


Figure 8: Hurca!TM. (2021). Floating Imagination [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/15775167-Floating-Imagination

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Leah Dietle

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