Writing as a Reflective Force

From a personal perspective, diary keeping, or reflective journals are a well known approach to reflective practice. There is a major growth of interest in keeping journals or diaries for personal reflection and growth; and also as a teaching tool. One of the most powerful ways to learn, reflect and make sense of our lives is through journal keeping. Journals are particularly effective for fostering insight, and some would argue, for decreasing stress.

Both writing and rereading journal entries allow the journal keeper to document thinking; to track changes and review observations; and to examine assumptions and gain fresh perspectives and insights over past events. When I did my Coaching and Mentoring course , one of the end of course assignments was to keep a reflective learning diary about how I was progressing as a Coach, and what did and didn’t work with my early clients (whom I should probably apologise to as I was green!). For me, it was the most powerful piece of writing I did in the whole course.

Leonardo Da Vinci jotted down all his ideas in journals which now make up his all famous manuscripts. In these pages he put his ideas and theories into drawings with annotation so that he could come back to them and study them more later on. He was an avid painter but also an inspiring scholar and inventor, studying various scientific subjects and designing dozens of devices for various purposes: an interesting combination of the written word and pictures. Sometimes described as the most diversely talented man ever to have lived, if it’s good enough for him….!


What is it about the power of the written word or creating visual pictures?

In a similar way to the power of talking to a trusted friend, or indeed in a Coaching/Mentoring/therapeutic context, writing something down, and/or drawing it crystallises the “jumble” of our thoughts, and clears the mind of at least some of the weeds of extraneous information.

The brain’s two sides, left and right, have two different functions. On the right we have the creative, playful side and on the left there is the organised, analytical side of our personalities. In all that we do, we need to know how and when to use both sides in order to enhance and expand upon ideas and themes.

There is established research that the power of taking thoughts and reactions out of the mind onto paper, both helps the ability to reflect on options and next steps, but also increases the chances of follow through to action. It’s well established in the business world through meeting notes, appraisal paperwork, business plans etc. They do however sometimes lack the creativity that individuals can bring to their own personal practice of writing as a reflective tool. You also have the advantage of being able to read things back through and reflect on what has and hasn’t changed over time.

A personal perspective

I tend to update my journal about once a week; would like to do it more regularly, but never seem to find the time! (work in progress). I bought a beautiful writing book from a local bookshop with a cover called “Sun and Moonlight” by Leonardo Da Vinci, based on his scientific observations on the light of the moon relative to the radiance of the sun. It gives me pleasure just to look at the cover even if I don’t end up writing anything!

Another approach I have started using as well as writing a journal is writing poetry. I am not great shakes at it, but love the economy of words that poetry offers; the opportunity to spell out in a few well chosen lines something unutterably authentic about the human experience. The poems I wrote about my Dads death in 2010 came deep from the soul, and were all written when I work up in the morning; straight down to the computer and out they came. The particular aspect of them is the rawness of the feeling, but also the dynamic of change in the feelings over time.

The first one I wrote was a couple of weeks after my Dads death, and tells the story of him as a person through the journey of his life and development, called “Images through the ages”, the second “Mist on North Barrule” written shortly after the funeral capturing the numbness that sets in the early days as a coping mechanism along with the human pageant of saying goodbye, and a “A Far away Shore” written about a month after my Dad went, looking at how we deal with going back into the reality of our respective worlds. There are more to come, but I’m waiting for those wake up moments to happen, when I know it will be “right to write”.

Putting it into practice

A few thoughts about the practicalities of writing as a means of reflection:

  • Aim to write in your journal regularly, even if individual entries are sometimes short; allow yourself the luxury of time out to do this; maybe the maxim “little and often”
  • It might be worth focussing on a specific event or issue for an individual entry – think about how you could address or resolve the issue, or what you’d like to improve
  • Use questions or prompts to help you focus on the task
  • Use techniques along with writing if it works for you such as mind mapping, diagrams, sketches or cartoons. Use colour to make these more engaging and memorable
  • Review the entries that you’ve written to see if you can find key themes and recognise what longer-term action you might need to take