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Effective Writing Text: Reflective Writing

By Alice L. Trupe

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Reflection means thoughtfully considering or meditating on a topic. The root meaning of reflect is "to bend back," and one meaning appropriate for our purposes is "to think quietly and calmly." When "reflective writing" is assigned, what is suggested is a combination of calm, quiet thinking with a retrospective focus--looking back over a period of time and considering its meaning and significance in connection with your experience. Reflective writing is a route to self-knowledge, as well as a genre in which writers share personal insights with others.

Many people engage in reflective writing for personal reasons, keeping personal diaries and journals, drafting letters they don't send, writing personal reminiscences and autobiography, working their way through personal crisis by setting words on paper. The therapeutic value of writing has drawn much interest recently. Some publicity was generated when a comparative study found that individuals who wrote 15 minutes a day about personal traumas they'd experienced also experienced improvement in their physical health. This suggests that reflective writing may have more general positive effects on personal well-being.

It is often useful to reflect upon your personal experience and your beliefs and values as a part of your goal-setting, including making career choices. You may have been asked to write about your goals and values as part of your college application process, and if you apply to a graduate program, you will almost certainly be asked to write reflectively on this topic.

In college, you may sometimes be asked to think back over some portion of your personal experience in a class and comment upon it. We frequently see a strong element of reflection required in writing that introduces a portfolio. Such reflection focuses on areas of growth and change, of what the writer believes to be significant about the portfolio, what he wants his reader to pay attention to when reading the portfolio. Reflective writing is sometimes assigned at the outset of a course or a unit, and in this case, the student is encouraged to think about his personal knowledge or skills in a particular area in order to establish a baseline from which he can gauge his learning.

Reflective writing is often at the heart of the personal essay or literary essay, published in periodicals with a literary focus, sometimes collected in books, often reprinted in anthologies for college writers or students of literature. Such essays exist within the "belletristic" tradition of highly literary writing. You may have been asked to write this kind of essay in the past, and you may be asked to write an occasional literary essay in college. Topics for such essays may include descriptions of personally meaningful places or personal insights into abstractions (for example, love, friendship, team spirit, honor) or personal narratives.

Reflective writing, then, may be undertaken for purely personal reasons or to communicate personal insight with others. It may serve academic or purely personal purposes. Ultimately, the purposes and occasions for reflective writing can be as varied as are individual lives and experiences.

  Dr. Alice L. Trupe, posted August 29, 2001