2.6 - Expressivism

In about 1964, with the beginning of the Vietnam War, writing instructors had grown tired of reading essays on generalized subjects – essays that usually had little interesting to say.

Plato had said that all truth is within us. Several writing professors therefore decided that students should write about themselves. That is, they would write personal-experience papers. They called their method Expressivism (x – press – iv – ism).

There were several problems with having students engage in personal experience writing:


Most writing is not meant for ourselves, our teacher, our classmates, our friends, or our family. Talking or texting those people is much more effective. Writing is meant for strangers.

A picture containing engineering drawing Description automatically generated Strangers do not care about us. Maybe they would if they met us, but writing is usually meant for people we don’t know. Unless we did something extraordinary, then strangers don’t care what we did.

Another huge problem with personal-experience writing is that students tend to write about subjects they find interesting, such as winning a basketball game. Those kinds of subjects bore most readers.

Subjects and the Audience

We should be training young people to write for adults – not for other kids. After all, they will write for adults when they’re older, so it’s wise to start as young as possible.

Almost all adults have one thing in common: They are busy. So why would an adult want to read about what they already know about or what they don’t care about? It’s a waste of valuable time.

Personal Subjects

Some students write about very personal subjects, such as personal problems. English instructors are not psychologists or psychiatrists. The subjects would make the instructors uncomfortable, and the students would feel strange if they were asked to rewrite about something personal. It was like an invasion of privacy.[1]

Writing for College and the Workplace

Personal-experience writing does not prepare people for college or the workplace. That’s because it is intrapersonal (intra means “within”), such as a diary. However, writing we use as adults is almost always interpersonal (inter means “between”) – writing meant for others.

It is true that we use a lot of personal experiences in writing; we use our experiences as examples. However, personal experiences are almost never the subject of the document.

Any Writing Is Good Writing

A lot of teachers argue that any writing is good writing. They say, “As long as students are writing, then they are learning to write.”

There is a problem with such thinking, and it’s an enormous one. The sentence should be rewritten as, “As long as students are writing, then they are learning to write … wrong.”

We would not give our sixteen-year-old the car keys and say, “Take the car for the day. Any driving is good driving.” We wouldn’t give our five-year-old a gallon of paint and a paintbrush, and say, “Go ahead and paint here in the living room. Any painting is good painting.”

We train children to drive and paint carefully. The same should be true of writing. There are lots of ways to write poorly and only a few ways to write well.

A picture containing clipart Description automatically generated Some instructors and writing theorists believe that writing is natural. They believe in Plato’s theory that communications is a talent. There is a problem with such thinking: Writing is no more natural than is fixing a car, cooking well, sewing well, or playing hockey well.

About five percent of any large group, picked randomly, will be talented at any common activity. Five percent will be naturals at auto mechanics, five percent at cooking, five percent at sewing, and so on. The same is true for writing. About five percent are talented.

That means that about ninety-five percent of any group are not talented writers.

Expressivism and Journal Writing

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Most teachers trained in Expressivism are told to have students keep journals. That is a very bad idea. It helps students learn to do something poorly. Many then struggle with writing when they are older.

Can students keep journals? Of course! But there is a right way and a wrong way to teach it. One of the programs under “Nonfiction Writing” will show the correct, effective way for students to keep journals. But please do not simply go to the program. GWS is a step-by-step program. Students need to learn the fundamentals of organization before they start keeping journals.

Expressivism and the Classroom

Most college instructors used to include personal-experience assignments. For many, that was all they taught. However, Expressivism has fallen out of favor over the past couple of decades, since many theorists have spoken against it.

Still, personal-experience writing is extremely popular among elementary school teachers. That creates a problem:

Let’s say that Suzie and Johnny are in the same second-grade class. The teacher has been told that writing is a natural process – that anyone can do it. Suzie and Johnny both write good personal-experience papers. Johnny can see that Suzie’s is much better, and he is fine with that.

However, by the fourth grade, Johnny sees that, no matter how hard he tries, his papers are not very good. Suzie’s, meanwhile, become better and better.

Johnny might have been enthusiastic about writing in second grade, but by the seventh grade he dislikes writing. By the tenth grade he hates it. He does the minimum to get by.[2]

Personal-experience writing remains popular for a number of reasons:

  • Teachers don’t have to teach. During the 1960s, several theorists convinced teachers that writing does not have to be taught. They implied that we only have to start students writing and everything would turn out fine because writing is a natural process. However, as we have discussed, it is not a natural process.
  • It is extremely difficult to grade a personal-experience paper. If the paper show the students’ personal-experiences, then who are we to say that the paper isn’t very good? Many teachers using Expressivism therefore only grade whether a student did the assignment or not.
  • The 1964 Dartmouth Writing Conference. Professors met to determine what is the best way to teach writing. Every professor agreed that writing about personal-experience is best. Teachers looked to the Dartmouth Conference as proof that Expressivism is effective. Top professors had said so! What the people who held the conference did not tell others was that only Expressivists were invited. It was an invitation-only event.
  1. In 1972, I started my full-time writing career. I was an Expressivist. A friend in graduate school had convinced me I should be. I met with every one of my 118 students every week. Because I had so many students, I had to read their essays “cold.” One student brought in an essay about life with his mother when he was growing up in Japan. His first page discussed their relationship (he had an American father). So far, so good. At the end of page 1, he said that one Saturday she gave him some money and told him to go the movies.I turned the page, expecting him to talk about the movie. Instead (I am paraphrasing here), the first sentence of page 2 read, “When I got home, I found her lying on the floor, surrounded by blood. She had blown off her face with a shotgun.”I referred him to the college’s psychologist, and that day I stopped teaching personal-experience writing. The more I researched Expressivism, the more I realized the method does not work. About ten percent of students write well using the philosophy. About ten percent write about very personal subjects that should not be a discussed in writing classes. The remaining eighty percent write papers that are mediocre at best.
  2. A teacher asked to speak to me at an inservice I did in Georgia. He was a big guy, so it sort of shocked me when he came close to crying. He said, “I was told to teach personal-experience writing. I thought I was a bad teacher. But it’s the system that’s the problem, isn’t it.” Yes, I told him. It is.